Geert Mak takes stock of the last 20 years of European history

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The dream of Europe. By Geert Mak. Translated by Liz Waters. Harvill Secker; 592 pages; £ 25

“WHAT A has it happened “, wonders Geert Mak,” in these 20 glorious years of globalization and free market? You can tell by the way he puts the question that the answer won’t be pretty. Indeed, even the most hardened wretch will find a lot in this latest European survey conducted by Mr. Mak, a Dutch journalist and historian, to deepen his sadness. Things that went well (Mr. Mak admits there are) would have made a much lower volume.

It all started so well. “The Dream of Europe” opens where the author’s previous mega-volume, “In Europe”, left off at the end of the last century. Mr. Mak flies from city to city, recounting what New Years Eve was like in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Kirkenes in northern Norway, Vasarosbec in southern Hungary. It was a time of great optimism after a century of unimaginable upheaval. The 1990s had been a golden decade and, in retrospect, misleading. The Soviet empire had evaporated without bloodshed; the enslaved countries of Eastern Europe were moving towards the European Union; even Russia thought of joining NATO. America reigned supreme and only the Sinologists cared much about China.

Yet how quickly everything changed. Mr. Mak unfolds the debacle in a series of meditations, each linked to a theme and a date but discursively wandering in time and space, presenting a group of characters to whom he frequently returns (a Hungarian mayor, an Iranian refugee, a pair of Greek stores – owners, a Catalan journalist) over its rough timeline.

The progression of disasters is familiar: the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the terrorist reactions they unleashed in Europe; the global financial crisis, followed by the eurozone’s own crisis in Europe; the 2014-15 migration crisis; the Brexit crisis; the covid-19 crisis; right-wing and left-wing populism; American isolationism. Digressive, itinerant and philosophical, Mr. Mak’s style may not be for everyone and it is certainly a doorstop, but most of all it is compelling and readable. Anecdotal nuggets sparkle on every page.

The nature of the European Union is the central mystery that runs through the whole book. Is the EU a dilapidated, secretive and undemocratic outfit that is destined to melt like the Hapsburg Empire? Or will it fit into a sustainable state-like regime, as Mr Mak’s Netherlands did? Perhaps reasonably, he does not attempt a definitive answer, throwing the question to a mythical reader in 2069. But the glimmers of hope that the author discovers point, improbably, to success. The EU floundering in the face of a “polycrisis”, but she is getting out of it. He invents new instruments, which endure, and over time, he also improves in terms of invention. The economic response to the coronavirus pandemic has been much faster than to the eurozone crisis.

The other common thread that runs through the book is sympathy. Not just for the desperate migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, or the legions of unemployed people in southern Europe. Mr Mak shows a real understanding of people one might expect him to dislike: those who voted for Brexit, for example, or the Russians mourning their lost glory. He understands what makes people distrust strangers, or take refuge in a past that can only be recovered in the false dreams of demagogues.

There are irritations. During his chapter on Brexit, Mr Mak recounts how the people of Wigan hate George Orwell, who went there in 1936 with a preformed agenda and duly saw the horror everywhere. Yet he seems unable to see how much he is suffering from the same affliction. He writes about the “devastation” of Wigan (although he earlier describes a city where everything is “clean, impressive, beautifully restored”). Globalization is always a curse, never producing a profit. The fantastic increase in living standards in much of Eastern Europe receives far less attention than the concerns that have emerged. But if you want a sweeping panorama of the past 20 years on a confusing and teeming continent, you can get it here.

This article appeared in the Books & Arts section of the print edition under the title “Crisis Management”


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