Wolf Lepenies is one of the great theorists on the relations between European countries. Professor, sociologist and writer, Lepenies has spent his career between France, Germany and the United States. Emeritus professor at the Free University of Berlin, he was in Catalonia recently to give a talk at the European School of Humanities in Barcelona.
What is the current situation between north and south?
What we find today is the difference in interests between states. There are those who want a united Europe, and others who want nation states with more power. On the one hand, there is France, and on the other Italy.
And what role do eastern countries play? You are critical of their policies.
What worries me most are countries in eastern Europe like Hungary, Slovakia... I understand that people want their countries to have more decision-making power. But maybe there is something we did not see in 1989. We thought eastern nations would want to join Europe and the liberal democracies. And that is true, but only to a point. What we forgot was that most of these countries have never historically had the chance to be sovereign nations. They were always part of an empire. And in joining the EU they have had a genuine chance to be sovereign nations.
But now they do not follow the EU’s policies?
While I understand that these countries want more sovereignty, what is not acceptable is there not being any difference between executive and legislative power. They are like authoritarian regimes. It is understandable to a point, but what cannot be allowed is the endangering of the values that the EU has represented until now and that made it great. And it is not only the EU, but Europe in general. There should be sanctions placed on these countries. Perhaps losing their vote and then losing EU membership. We need a system of sanctions that works.
Those countries also have harsh policies against refugees and immigrants...
The main issue is what happens with the migrants. It is completely understandable that they look for work and so on. We do not have the right to reject people seeking political asylum, but we do have the right not to accept those people who come to Europe just for economic reasons.
Spain has not respected the EU’s migrant quotas.
Immigration is now a European problem and it is very expensive. The countries that do not want to take in refugees and migrants cannot be forced to do so, but they have to pay in some way. You cannot refuse to take in migrants and then give nothing in return.
Countries in the south have also received large numbers of migrants without any help from the EU.
For its size, Sweden has taken in more migrants than any other country. And obviously it has now abandoned those policies. It’s normal that countries like Greece, Italy and Spain should get more migrants because they are in the Mediterranean, which is where the migratory influx comes from.
Should there be a specific policy for this problem?
The quota system has not worked, but a paying strategy could work. These Mediterranean countries, which get the most migrants, should be paid to cover the costs.
Does the rise of populist movements in Europe worry you?
In the next European elections [May 2019] they perhaps won’t get enough votes for a majority. However, we could find that many seats in the European Parliament are occupied by populist parties.
Has the EU got a future after Brexit?
If there are countries that want to leave the EU so only Germany and France are left, then I’d say, “Go ahead!” Why not. The EU can be reinvented!
Do you think there will be more countries that follow the British example?
I don’t think there is a real danger of countries abandoning the EU. There are many advantages to being in the EU. I don’t see any other country wanting to leave. Yet the problem of Brexit remains.
Even for the British themselves?
Brexit will be a problem because the UK is part of Europe... It is difficult. When Brexit became likely my feeling was that France and Germany would get more power. But the problem right now is that Germany is weak because chancellor Angela Merkel is losing support. And French president Macron also has problems. His reforms haven’t worked and France has lost influence abroad. France and Germany are weaker, and these two countries are Europe’s engine.
Should the EU intervene in the conflict between Catalonia and Spain?
I can’t say. I have friends in Barcelona in favour of independence and others who aren’t. I think they all have good arguments... But who am I to decide? I must also say that I am not a big fan of a Europe of regions. I don’t think that system would work; the national model we have now should be preserved. Perhaps regions can have more autonomy, but it is the centre that has the power. I would like to see Spain developing a type of state that gives enough autonomy to the regions, not only Catalonia, so that people will want to stay. And I’m not sure that the EU needs to be part of those negotiations.
Despite Brexit, there are countries who want to join the EU. Who’s next?
It should be the Balkan states. I frankly have mixed feelings on this issue, as I sometimes think there are already too many countries. I think that was a mistake from the start. It should have been made up of a small group of states, because now you can’t tell the Balkan states that they can’t join the EU.
And relations between the EU and Russia are not at their best right now.
I find it hard to accept Vladimir Putin’s policies. The annexation of Crimea [in 2014, at the expense of Ukraine], for example, is clearly illegal.
Another country that has a tense relationship with the EU is Turkey. A decade ago it looked like Turkey was ready to join, something that seems impossible now. What happened?
There was a time when Turkey should have joined the EU in my opinion. When Turkey was under liberal Islam. I was in Istanbul a number of times and you could see women dressed in the chador, others in skirts and dressed like in Europe. They had both options and both were accepted.
But that was still under president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
There was a time when Erdogan was liberal, at the beginning. The doors should have been opened then. Behind the scenes, everyone knew that Turkey would not get into the EU. And then came the moment when Turkey realised it was being deceived. Today it is impossible for Turkey to get into the EU as it is. Not letting it in back then was a mistake because from a strategic point of view having a liberal Islamic country in Europe would have been a great advantage.