The Fragility of Federalism in Europe

05/04/2015 10:14 am ET | Updated May 04, 2016

The European Union is currently facing several existential challenges. The recent parliamentary election in Greece resulted in the victory of a political party that rejects the austerity measures the EU and the IMF have insisted on as a condition for bailing out the Greek economy. The debt-ridden country is now on the verge of a possible withdrawal from the euro zone. Meanwhile, euro-skeptic parties elsewhere in EU -- the National Front in France, the UK Independence Party, the People's Party in Denmark -- have been gaining ground in the polls. And the EU as a whole has witnessed minimal economic growth, leading to overall disenchantment with the project of political and economic integration.

As a result, the European Union is experiencing strong centrifugal forces. The richer countries like Germany remain strongly anchored in the quasi-federal structure, and Germany is only getting richer. Countries like Greece and Spain, on the other hand, have been getting poorer, and they are beginning to resent the control that the EU and German banks exert over their political and economic decision making.

It all sounds eerily familiar for some EU members. After all, the counties of former Yugoslavia experienced the political and economic tensions of their federal structures for a couple of decades before Yugoslavia fragmented in the early 1990s and descended into war. Slovenia and Croatia, the richer republics, resented the political control exerted by Serbia as well as the redistribution of funds to the poorer republics.

"It is nationalism that tore Yugoslavia apart, and it will be nationalism, albeit masked in economic terms, that may rip apart the euro zone and the enlarged EU," the Slovenian poet and cultural critic Aleš Debeljak told me in an interview in August 2013 in Vienna, where he was on a Bosch fellowship at the Institute for Human Sciences. "This is a striking parallel, maybe superficial but nonetheless telling, and which many Slovenians are not willing to stomach: the situation in the 1980s in Yugoslavia on the one hand and the situation of the EU of today on the other. I'm talking here about the difference between the debtors and the creditors. Slovenia occupied the position of creditor within the former Yugoslavia."

As creditors, Slovenians came "to see themselves as the best part of the former Yugoslavia," Debeljak continued, "and they have been seen as such by many Yugoslavs -- all of us conveniently forgetting that the economic nationalism and the ethnic homogeneity of the community helped pave the way for the unrest that occurred after independence. They've also forgotten that there's a very thin line between defensive and militant nationalisms. Slovenians were saying, 'We won't pay for the debts accrued by the Kosovars' -- in other words by the less developed, by those 'subhumans,' by that ultimate 'other' in the land of southern Slavs."

What goes around comes around. "Slovenians were creditors in Yugoslavia, and now in European times they are the debtors," Debeljak concluded. "Before, Slovenians were loath to adopt the attitude of solidarity and agree with the redistribution of wealth that would have perhaps deprived them of what they thought was rightfully theirs. And this sense of entitlement derived simply from sharing the border with Austria and Italy, seeing over the border at how consumer capitalism can boost appearances and blind their eyes with spectacle. That was what we wanted. That was our standard, nothing less. We were egotists. But now we say, 'Wait a moment. What about European solidarity? What about renegotiating the debt? What about the tremendous profits that creditors get from debtor countries? Shouldn't we rethink solidarity?'"

We had a wide-ranging conversation that touched on some of the same themes from our discussion in Ljubljana in 2008 (excerpts reproduced at the bottom): the reasons for Yugoslavia's unraveling, the literary landscape after the wars of the 1990s, the challenge of constructing a pan-European history, the brittleness of social and political institutions.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

That fall, I had just returned from classes at the Maxwell School of Citizenship at Syracuse University in the wasteland of upstate New York. I was staying at a dilapidated, student-rented villa that I shared with two fellow graduate students from India, both Marxists from Delhi, which was always interesting, and a young German scholar of law, Wolfgang, who broke the news to me. Then we went to watch TV. Being on a different continent yet keenly following the events, I was myself taken by surprise because I believed in endless reform, not in revolution. These "velvet revolutions" turned out to be "refolutions," a combination of reform and revolution. While we were busy explaining to the interested observers from the West that Western democracy did not emerge without bloodshed and without huge societal conflict either, it turned out that Adam Michnik was right on the mark when he said that nationalism is the last stage of communism -- and that has been proved with a vengeance, not least of all in the country of my birth, Yugoslavia.

In 1989, what did you think was going to happen in Yugoslavia? Did you have any inkling that Michnik's prediction would apply to Yugoslavia, or did you think that the future would be endless reform?

As far as I can recall, my analytical capacities were hampered because I was caught up in the popular movement that clamored for an independent nation-state for Slovenia. I must say, however, that I'm fully aware that the choice to go it alone was the least evil of all the choices available. One must not forget that it was way into the second half of the 1980s that the Slovenian Communist leadership attempted to seek and secure compromise in an ongoing process of reform only to see all those efforts scuppered. From asymmetrical federation to Swiss-style confederation, a variety of modes of convivencia were tabled and ended up in the dustbin under the desk of Slobodan Milošević. With the rise of Milošević, it became clear that the Serbian leadership, and indeed it seemed a great deal of the population at large as well, was committed to transforming the federal state from a common project into a continuation of Serbia by other means. When the Serbian authorities broke into the Yugoslav bank reserves and appropriated the commonly held funds, it became clear that the gloves were off.

As I said, I was taken by surprise, but that was quickly replaced by horror. The summer of 1991 certainly changed my world. I had just returned from the United States for a summer-long vacation in Slovenia. I'd kept abreast of developments and expected a lot of name calling in the newspapers and an increased rhetorical frenzy. But I was taken aback by the clear and recognizable physical threat.

I came back the day before Slovenia's proclamation of independence on June 25, 1991. The night of independence we were all joyous and vivacious. We sat outside in the sidewalk cafés of old Ljubljana quarter under the Castle Hill. I saw Dimitrij Rupel, the foreign minister, who was, it later turned out, foreign minister forever. That shows you the popular, not populist, attitude at the time that the people had toward the government. Rupel and other newly minted politicians were strolling in the old town and participating in that post-announcement celebration. It was the wee hours of the morning, about 4:30 of the next day, that the new country's first democratically elected president, Milan Kučan, the leader of the transformed Communist party, so ominously predicted would be different, that I returned home. As I was returning in the early morning to my parents' apartment to finally go to sleep, I glanced at the unusual sight of the "Spanish riders," the anti-tank barriers on Celovška Street, the main northwest entry to Ljubljana, but it seemed so out of place that it didn't even register.

It wasn't long after I hit the sack that my father woke me up and said that it was war. It sounded like something from the movies. I simply couldn't believe it. I got up, jumped on my bicycle, and pedaled back to downtown, where the editorial offices of the magazine Nova revija was quickly turning into a mass communications switchboard. The CNN crew was already in Ljubljana. "Aha!" I thought, "The vultures are in town smelling blood." The first field interpreter for the crew had quit after the first day. So they popped into the Nova revija office and asked if anyone would like to join. Without much ado, I said I would. And I did.

I remember witnessing the battle in Gornja Radgona. I was standing next to Jim Clancy, interpreting into his ear what the subject in front the camera was saying. But it was barely discernible because of the gunfire on the square a hundred meters away. We were shielded by the church wall, though, behind which we were conducting the interview. I couldn't believe it. One hundred meters away was serious gunfire that I'd only heard before in partisan movies. I couldn't rationally or emotionally stomach the fact that this was real. I thought, "No, this can't be happening." Mercifully it lasted only 10 days in Slovenia. But the rest of the country? Now they dedicate books, special issues, collections of testimonies to this big subject of the past, a past so bloody that nothing in my life prepared me for.

All of these attempts to explain the war in former Yugoslavia -- in terms of rural vs. urban elements, nationalist vs. Communist, secular vs. religious, Serbs vs. Croats -- carry some validity as far as they go. But I have not come across a single convincing argument or series of arguments that maintain that it was bound to happen. If it wasn't bound to happen, then why did it happen? Why did we allow it to happen?

As someone who has attempted to wrest nationalism from the hands of right-wing politics, not willing to cede an important, albeit contradictory, source of one's personal makeup in this titanic war of narratives between cosmopolitanism, communism, and nationalism in the 20th century, I believe that it was nationalism that nevertheless carried the day. Nationalism is simple and gut-felt. It neatly divides the world into "us" and "them." And it has succeeded in naturalizing history. No other competing narrative has managed to do that. After Tito's death, the ideology of socialist brotherhood and unity was slowly shredded to pieces. In the absence of an integrative ideology after Tito's death, the top echelons of power could only come up with the slogan "After Tito, Tito." They couldn't think of anything else! The discrediting of political imagination became painfully visible. Never mind the debt the country accrued in the 1980s in particular. In the absence of an integrative narrative -- if ideology is too much of an abused word -- the elites in the respective republics of former Yugoslavia had little recourse to anything else. They reached for what turned out to be the only game in town: the tools and methods of national homogenization. We had a lot of wishful thinking about the defensive nature of Slovenian nationalism and the collective natural right of self-determination. But we sobered up when the question of the Erased came up and made a fundamental stain in the makeup of the Slovenian nation-state.

The Erased had permanent residency in Slovenia. They were mainly, but not exclusively, citizens of Yugoslavia and at the same time citizens of one of the Yugoslav republics. After Slovenia became an independent nation-state on the 25th of June, 1991, citizens of the former Socialist Republic of Slovenia automatically became citizens of the newly declared independent Republic of Slovenia. Citizens of other Yugoslav republics that have had also permanent residency in Socialist Republic of Slovenia had the opportunity to apply for the citizenship of the newly declared independent Republic of Slovenia. They had six months to apply. After the 27th of February, 1992, and in the days that followed, those who had not applied for the citizenship of Slovenia also lost their permanent residency and all the social rights that were connected to that specific legal status. The Constitutional Court of Slovenia established already in 1999 that the erasure was illegal.

Even though it is hard to come to terms with that, it's the difference between critical patriotism and chauvinism.

It is nationalism that tore Yugoslavia apart, and it will be nationalism, albeit masked in economic terms, that may rip apart the euro zone and the enlarged EU. This is a striking parallel, maybe superficial but nonetheless telling, and which many Slovenians are not willing to stomach: the situation in the 1980s in Yugoslavia on the one hand and the situation of the EU of today on the other. I'm talking here about the difference between the debtors and the creditors. Slovenia occupied the position of creditor within the former Yugoslavia. Economic nationalism played a considerable role as early as 1964 when Stane Kavčič, the liberal-minded leader of Slovenian Communists, had to swallow a big defeat by not being able to build a highway across Slovenia, with the money earmarked instead for the construction of the Crvena Zvezda (nickname: Marakana) stadium in Belgrade. That was the way the redistribution of income or GDP was carried out, with an authoritarian hand.

Slovenians have gradually come to see themselves as the best part of the former Yugoslavia, and they have been seen as such by many Yugoslavs -- all of us conveniently forgetting that the economic nationalism and the ethnic homogeneity of the community helped pave the way for the unrest that occurred after independence. They've also forgotten that there's a very thin line between defensive and militant nationalisms. Slovenians were saying, "We won't pay for the debts accrued by the Kosovars" -- in other words by the less developed, by those "subhumans," by that ultimate "other" in the land of southern Slavs. The Albanians, of course, were not by any means the only minority. Yugoslavia could boast of the legal protection of 10 minorities in the last constitution, which again makes it similar to the EU. The last constitution of SFRY was adopted in 1974, but national minorities were not mentioned specifically. However, nationalities that were recognized and were also listed in 1981 in census were Albanians, Bulgarians, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, Ruthenians, Slovaks, Italians, Roma, and Turks. It was this ability to balance centripetal and centrifugal forces that Tito excelled at, but at a price. I'm not suggesting that the EU should adopt his particular recipe. But we should look into what went wrong in the multinational, multilinguistic, multiconfessional political organism that was Yugoslavia and that is today the EU (even though of course I know that there are many differences).

Slovenians were creditors in Yugoslavia, and now in European times they are the debtors. Before, Slovenians were loath to adopt the attitude of solidarity and agree with the redistribution of wealth that would have perhaps deprived them of what they thought was rightfully theirs. And this sense of entitlement derived simply from sharing the border with Austria and Italy, seeing over the border at how consumer capitalism can boost appearances and blind their eyes with spectacle. That was what we wanted. That was our standard, nothing less. We were egotists. But now we say, "Wait a moment. What about European solidarity? What about renegotiating the debt? What about the tremendous profits that creditors get from debtor countries? Shouldn't we rethink solidarity?"

Solidarity, for me, is a fundamental concept in the understanding of European identity. When I was a grad student in the late 1980s, including the annus mirabilis of 1989, we would sit around with graduate students from around the world, including Americans, and no matter the topic, we'd ultimately come down on different sides of the fence. All Europeans, whether from the east or west, took the varieties of welfare state for granted, as embedded in who they were as Europeans. That was contrary to most Americans, for whom it was OK, for example, for the highways to have potholes and trains to be poorly developed and health care to be exorbitant. This was interesting. At the time I was wondering about the cultural makeup of Europe and how the bewildering variety coalesces into a story, an image, or an anecdote that evokes an emotional response. In the end, it's not the cultural variety, which exists everywhere -- in India, in Latin America -- that binds together Europe. It is the internalized idea of the welfare state, articulated or not. The fear of losing that drives many a protest across southern Europe. It is a political idea that has succeeded in permeating the societal tissue. It will be hard to curtail it without severe consequences.

That's very true. Even at the moments of the greatest laissez-faire enthusiasm in Eastern Europe, there was a belief deep down that the welfare state should continue. We see that even more palpably today when laissez-faire principles have come up hard against the brick wall of austerity. I want to come back to something you said earlier, that you haven't heard a convincing argument about why Yugoslavia fell apart. Let me throw two arguments at you. One is that it was Milošević and a few people around him. If Ivan Stambolić had become the leader of Serbia, we would have seen much different reactions in the other republics. The other argument is the insistence by the international community, and actors on the ground here, on democratic elections in the absence of real political parties and a democratic culture. Only nationalists could profit in the short period of time allotted to the creation of a democratic process.

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To read the rest of the interview, click here.