Interview with Michael Hindley – Part 2

Interview conducted by Guilherme Becker

This is the second part of the interview with Michael Hindley. You can read the first part here. In this part, the interview focuses on the border issue between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland following Brexit, but also on Trump, Ukraine, Germany…
We would like to thank Michael Hindley for his time and his insightful answers.
You can also follow him on Twitter and watch his video about Brexit.

B: Moving a bit to the left on the map, let’s talk about Northern Ireland, which also has a feeling of sometimes not being part of the UK at all. But because of the Brexit, is there any chance of another “trouble times” happening again?
H: This often comes up in the present debate on Brexit. I think sometimes it is inaccurate or somewhat hysterical. People on both sides of the border agree that being in the EU certainly helped the Irish/Irish dialogue. Both “Irelands” in the EU helped. There is no question about that. Also, to some degree the EU has guaranteed the peace process. The fact that there was no border helped. If it becomes a “harder border”, I think it is false to assume that it would simply go back to hostilities. Sinn Féin long ago bravely disbanded its link with the IRA [Irish Republican Army]. It is a constitutional left-centre party enjoying shared government in Northern Ireland and has members in the Republic [of Ireland]. So the Party of freeing Ireland by the “ballot and the bullet” has become constitutional. Martin McGuinness (1950-2017) was an active member of the IRA and subsequently shared power with Ian Paisley the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Very difficult if not impossible to go back to the dark days of the “Troubles”.

B: Yes, it is not possible to ignore these facts.
H: The momentum of the peace process is not going to be reversed. What is an important factor is that everyone born on the island of Ireland, including Northern Ireland, has the right to be Irish citizen, according to Irish law. And that gives access to EU citizenship to Northern Irish. We may see sooner than anticipated the unification of Ireland, ironically when the UK leaves the EU.

B: In a lecture, you emphasized the friendship and cultural similarities between Britain and United States. I remember that right after the Brexit referendum, Trump said that “they (the British) took their country back.” What do you think of it?
H: Well, that was a populist line. And Trump is a populist. He has, shall we say, shallow understanding of his own history and certainly about history in Europe. But “independence” was a successful slogan for the Brexiteers: “taking back control”. When I used to do meetings in the referendum campaign, I used to say: “well, look, frankly, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] has more influence on what Britain does than Brussels. How much further are we going to dissociate ourselves from the international community?” Based on the notion that there is a “special relationship”  between the UK and USA is both seductive and misleading. Theresa May pushed Britain to the front to the queue when Trump was sworn in. She tried to illustrate that there was life for Britain beyond the EU, that Britain didn’t depend on the EU for dealing with the rest of the world, that our nearest and dearest friends are the USA.

B: Well, the relationship between the USA and the EU also changed a lot lately.
H: Trump is erratic. The USA has always had this strange relationship with the EU. To cut it short, America has gone from being a supporter of the EU, seeing it as a counter to the Soviets, to seeing Europe as a rival, in terms of economic power. Also the USA began to fear that Europe might gain diplomatic power in the world.

B: Maybe strongly since the 1990s.
H: Since Clinton, and since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War when it was felt that there was no need for the American presence anymore. The USA has shifted to the Pacific. The USA is reorientating its international perspective, and Trump is taking one logical further step. He seems to regard the EU as a rival. There is now this curious alliance (Russia and USA). Europe used to have an enemy, Russia on one side, and one ally, which was the USA on the other. Now it seems that both Trump and Putin see the EU as a threat to their interests.

B: Two weeks ago, the Ukrainian government brought up a martial law because of the attacks on their ships by Russia on the Black Sea. Is it clear that the EU is not playing a big role in this case of Ukraine and Russia, which can be quite dangerous, mainly because the USA is not the partner that used to be in the past?
H: Oh, yes. There are two things that come to mind immediately. One is a joke by Henry Kissinger [former Secretary of State of the USA from 1968 until 1976] who said “if I want to know what Europe thinks who do I phone?”. And the other one is about Stalin being asked whether his plans in the East would come into conflict with the Vatican, and Stalin said “how many tanks does the Vatican have?”. I think that Putin points the EU and thinks “how many tanks does the EU have?”. Now both anecdotes rankle with Europeans and could be used to argue for an “EU Military”. I was an observer in the Ukrainian elections, and the EU talks about the concept of soft power…

B: Is it possible?
H: No. You can offer incentives to countries becoming democratic and rewarding them by liberalising trade. But that’s a risk. In Ukraine, there is no question that the EU overreached. Countries in the former Soviet sphere were joining NATO and wanted to join the EU. The EU mistakenly thought that after the Second Orange Revolution [in 2014] it could draw Ukraine into its orbit, overlooking the fact that there is a real legitimate problem of identity in the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine. It is not a settled border. But the EU overlooked the fact that Russia would certainly not contemplate the whole of Ukraine in the western sphere. The EU misread the situation.

B: The EU certainly thought it would be an easier task, but it was definitely not.
H: Yes, exactly. They thought the Ukrainians would prefer to be in the EU rather than isolated close to Russia. I have been in Donetsk before the troubles and people there were sons, grandsons or granddaughters of Russians, not Ukrainians, who moved to steel and coal mines to work. So there is a real link there. It doesn’t excuse what Putin has done and does, but it was something that was neglected or ignored by the EU.

B: In one lecture you said that nowadays it is easier to be Europeans rather than Germans for the youngest generations. But if you take East Germany as an example we still may see problems around democratic values, for instance, especially when you see strong right-wing demonstrations against Muslims, refugees, immigrants. So which Germans are these ones?
H: That’s a very good question. I have been coming to Germany for sixty years and I knew the old East Germany to some extent. The first thing that struck me when I saw East Germany was that it was the Germany from my school books. Western Germany integrated into Western Europe quite successfully. The post-war generation westerners saw Europe as an opportunity, a way of having an identity. Being European for many Germans was easier than being German. The East Germans were Germans in a sea of Slavs in the Soviet Block. The Germans have always had, shall we say politely, their difficulties with Slavic culture, aspirations often looking down on their Slavic neighbours and so on.

B: With the Slavs in the middle of the continent, mostly in the middle of some conflicts.
H: The Slavs suffered not only from Nazis but also before that. In the Soviet period, there was a little East Germany and the rest were Slavs. And it never matched. Culturally and politically is never going to work. East Germans continued looking west and they saw somewhere in the west that was also Germany and was doing well, and they were not doing that well. When the Wall came down, there was no question that that was a “take over” and not a “coming together”.

B: From night to day.
H: I will give you an example of a cultural sphere, your sphere, the newspapers. There was state control, political control of newspapers in East Germany. Journalism was not journalism as we know it. When the “Wende” came, some of those papers showed encouraging developments. The journalists tried to take them over and run them as journalist cooperatives. But West German vested interests were not keen on such radical ideas. So copies of West German papers were handed out free in the East. In a couple of months, those small attempts to form different kinds of newspapers in East Germany were swamped.

B: Simply gone?
H: Yes, gone. I went to Frankfurt University, the other Frankfurt, on the Polish border, for the European Parliament, where they had an Eastern European studies. There was some expertise in Eastern affairs in East Germany and I asked what happened to that. There was an embarrassing silence. I asked “what’s the staff of the international department?” There were 49. All of them brought from Western Germany. It was as if nobody had anything to offer in the East. A few people made it through. Angela Merkel is a wonderful example.

B: Probably because the Western part was actually years ahead.
H: Yes, they had better contacts, a wider range. And, yes, they have been allowed the wider uncensored access and probably made better academics. Many such examples lead to the feeling that many in East Germany, who wanted unity, were overwhelmed. And that it is still working its way through. On the top of that, you get migration. Eastern Europe didn’t have migration. Many people in East Germany, certainly those born after 1945, scarcely have seen a foreigner or a person of different colour. And then suddenly there are Africans and Arabs coming to their town, as migrants, refugees. In the East, they never had to deal really with racism. What are people to think? Socialism has failed, there is some resentment to the West by being taken over. Who’s fault is this? The foreigners.

B: Even after almost 60 years of two dictatorships.
H: Oh, yes! It was all of a sudden. It was bigger than a revolution. (Laughing) People wanted unification, people wanted to join the West. They felt that they would have a dialogue about unification, but there was no dialogue, the Easterners were told their country system had failed.

B: Still talking about East Germany, as already mentioned this is a region where we can see some lack of democracy values in some points. Not overall, but in some places and events. The growth of Pegida and AfD, which is a right-wing populist party, are good examples. But there is also similar right-wing movements in other countries, even more representative or already elected, as in Hungary, Austria, Poland and Italy. But when you see the news it does seem to me stronger in these countries than any line dropped by AfD, for example. Does it happen because Germany still carries a weight of the World War 2?
H: Well, in the rest of Europe there has always been a horror of the idea of a return to a right-wing Germany, a nationalistic Germany. It has persevered even among generations who didn’t suffer. So the idea of neo-Nazis and the rise and nationalism in Germany still strikes fear in people more than the rise of the right-wing in Poland or Italy. That’s sadly true. It concerns me also how many on the left are quite hysterical and irrational in their view of right-wing nationalism. This is not the Nazis coming back. As I said in the lecture, democracy has taken roots in Germany and in Western Europe. And it won’t be shifted. There is no question about that. The anti-immigration, anti-foreigner will have a negative effect on the immigration policies of democratic governments. There is less tolerance. That’s quite clear. But we are not turning into a fascist Germany or a fascist Europe. I am not complacent. But people are worried.

B: Probably because they connect it straight away with the most or one of the most popular right-wing parties, which may be AfD.
H: Yes. I know an American professor of Jewish origin who won a Nobel prize, and I remember him asking me quite seriously if it was safe for him to go to Germany. And this is a Nobel prize winner! You know, it’s terrible to see in football games in Italy and elsewhere people making the Nazi salute, but it doesn’t mean to say that the fascists will take over. It’s a shock. It is not something healthy, it’s not good, I fight against it, but it is important not to be over-anxious and exaggerate, that’s counter-productive.

B: Thank you for this interview!

Featured picture: Demonstration in Hamburg, 2016.


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