Lo Spiegone interview: Timothy Garton Ash

Timothy Garton Ash
Immagine generata con supporto AI © Lo Spiegone CC BY-NC

During the festival of Internazionale, from September 29 to October 1 in Ferrara, we met Timothy Garton Ash, english essayist and journalist, professor at the universities of Oxford and Stanford. He is an author of eleven books, in which he  traced the transformation of Europe in the latest fifty years, with a focus on the geopolitics of Eastern European countries towards the European Union. He writes regularly on the New York Review of Books and the Guardian. He has received several awards, including the Somerset Maugham Award, the George Orwell Prize and the International Charlemagne Prize. In September 2023, his latest work “Patrie: a personal history of Europe ” was published in Italy by Garzanti.

We would like to ask you something related to the current conditions and challenges that  law and human rights have to face in the European continent. Firstly, what do you think about the erosion of the Rule of law in Poland and Hungary? In this case, can the limitations to an independent judiciary coexist with the fundamental values of the European Union?

We have something really shocking in the heart of the European Union, which is a country, named Hungary, that is no longer a democracy where Rule of law no longer exists. herefore, human rights no longer are being guaranteed  but it remains a full member state of the European Union. So, we have a huge challenge for the EU, particularly if it is going to further enlarge southeastern European countries, like  Ukraine,  Georgia, and Moldova. So, we need to make an effective linkage between what I call Europe of values and the Europe of money, right?

Indeed, at the moment, Oman goes on demolishing democracy, destroying the Rule of law and he’s still getting billions of EU funds. And that’s something we have to deal with. Another thing I would like to draw the attention to is what we are doing at our borders: basically in the Mediterranean, either we are letting people drown or we are paying neighboring dictators to capture these people who want to come to us, and take them back and keep them in inhumane conditions in Libyan detention camps. So, I personally think there is a challenge inside Europe, but there is also a really big challenge at the borders of Europe.

In this regard, according to the EU treaties, It is not possible to expel a member state, so what can the European Union do to “get back on the right path” Poland, Hungary and other states that do not respect human rights?

Law. We waited far too long. We waited ten years before taking the situation seriously: only in 2019 and in 2021. We were just beginning to face the situation. We were actually starting to make this, because the only thing Orban cares about is money and we were actually beginning to withhold that money. But then Putin launches a full scale invasion of Ukraine, so we need Victor Orban and Kaczynski and everybody else to make every single decision to support Ukraine for sanctioning Russia. So we say, <<we are going to give 18 billion Euro to Ukraine for supporting its economy>> Orban replies: <<Fine, just give me 6 billion!>> And this is what we did. I suggest thinking about it: Ukraine, a country at war, 40 million people, gets 18 billion; Hungary, a country of less than 10 million people, not at war, gets 6 billion. So, it is really difficult. The war has made it even more difficult. But once this bloody war is over, the only effective way of pushing Poland and Hungary in the right direction is putting money together with values.

Last question for you: do you believe that in Europe there is a discrepancy between how the European Union is described by the media and how the population perceives it?

You know, I’ve just been leading a big project on how people see Europe and they see it as consisting of different countries, different cities, different regions, different movements, different people. People consider themselves individuals. They relate to people that they personally know, they do not see Europe as the EU. Therefore, for someone like me, who believes in the project of the EU, the key factor is to connect the EU to the real Europe through the sharing of personal stories. I am talking about it in my book. We are all talking about that, and that is the key. And what we need is not only historians, writers, and journalists: we need politicians that deal with human rights. And we do not have so many politicians like these in Brussels, right now.