The Light That Failed seeks to explain the ongoing turmoil within the European Union that many see as evidence of a new East–West European divide. Much contemporary analysis of this type follows a common blueprint. It goes like this: The United Kingdom has done something bad in voting for Brexit, while Poland and Hungary have done similarly bad things in embracing illiberal, populist, and Christian political parties. The argument continues that the rise of populism, East and West, threatens the health and future of the EU, to say nothing of democracy and liberalism itself. (When the analysis extends to events beyond Europe, the election of Donald Trump is viewed as an additional menace.)
This approach requires a view of competing countries as either nice or not-nice actors doing things in keeping with their disposition. It relies on emotional readings and psychological impressions more than on-the-ground facts regarding the countries and policies in question. And it takes little account of the actions or policies of either the EU itself or its most influential members, France and Germany. With The Light That Failed, Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes have largely written yet another version of this psycho-morality tale.
Krastev, a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna, and Holmes, a professor at New York University School of Law, postulate that soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting euphoria of its liberated nations, things took a dark psychological turn. The effort of Central and Eastern European countries (“the imitators”) to emulate the countries of the West (“the imitated”) required the East to acknowledge the moral superiority of the West. What’s more, it meant the imitators had to accept a Western political model that did not allow for adaptations to local cultures and traditions, and to accept that the West “could legitimately claim a right to monitor and evaluate the progress of imitating countries on an ongoing basis.” The authors say that for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, “the project of adopting a Western model under Western supervision feels like a confession of having failed to escape Central Europe’s historical vassalage to foreign instructors and inquisitors.” This, then, explains the fresh appeal of nationalism in former Soviet states.
This thesis doesn’t help explain why voters in France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom are expressing populist and nationalist views similar to those of the Hungarians and Poles. Who, after all, are the imitators imitating? Clearly, something else is going on across the Continent.
Take the European Union. Its larger members make sweeping decisions unilaterally. Might this have something to do with the union’s instability? There is no more flagrant unilateralist than German Chancellor Angela Merkel. While Brussels loves to invoke the “rule of law” and “democracy” whenever it points an accusatory finger eastward, there was nothing democratic, or necessarily lawful, about Merkel’s unilateral decision to allow more than 1 million migrants into Europe in 2015. A Bundestag report concluded that there had been no legal basis for Merkel’s decision, and she never put the issue to a vote either at the Bundestag or in the EU. She merely discussed it with a few ministers and aides and then proceeded.
According to a detailed report in Der Spiegel, Merkel also ignored pleas by her interior minister and the head of the German Federal Police to implement border controls. Merkel’s decision violated Germany’s asylum laws, and those laws were aligned with the EU “Dublin rule,” which states that all migrants must be returned to the EU country-of-entry. With the Dublin rule effectively erased by Merkel’s actions, migrants were left to move around the Continent far and wide, into democratic countries whose citizens had no say in the matter.
Merkel has made other mistakes in the same vein. But Krastev and Holmes see none of this. Rather, they lay the blame for the EU’s crisis on European hysterics who supposedly exaggerated the degree of the problem. “Central Europe’s fear-mongering populists interpreted the refugee crisis as conclusive evidence that liberalism has weakened the capacity of nations to defend themselves in a hostile world,” they write. But if there was nothing to “fear,” to what “crisis” are the authors referring? They don’t say so, but the crisis arose directly from open borders, which do, in fact, weaken a country’s capacity for self-defense.
In a similar contradictory passage, the authors condemn Central and Eastern European leaders for anti-refugee “fear-mongering” even as they acknowledge that “Central and East Europeans are constantly exposed, through sensationalized television reporting, to the immigration problems plaguing Western Europe.” And while Krastev and Holmes condemn those leaders for resisting our “post-national” age, they write that “democracy presupposes the existence of a bounded political community and is therefore inherently national. Nationalism cannot disappear.” What exactly does this mean for a republic in the EU, whose leaders invoke democracy as a totem and condemn nationalism as a crime? The authors don’t say.
Another problem with The Light That Failed is that it relies on important terms such as “liberal” or “populist” without defining them. In international affairs, this can make things quite confusing. In Western Europe, for example, a “liberal” is what we Americans would call a conservative or libertarian. And while the authors would never call French President Emmanuel Macron a “populist,” there is an argument to be made that he fits the definition. He had less than two years’ experience in government when he created his own political party (En Marche!) issued a manifesto entitled “Révolution,” ran for president, and won a triple-digit majority in parliament to become the youngest leader of France since Napoleon.
The Light That Failed offers simplistic conclusions and ignores the facts and scenarios that tell a more nuanced story or a different story. Unlike Krastev’s 2017 book, After Europe, it’s a disappointing piece of work.