New York hedge fund billionaire George Soros recently shared his concerns about the future of the European Union during an interview with Gregor Peter Schmitz of the German magazine WirtschaftsWoche, an exchange that was featured in the Feb. 11, 2016, edition of The New York Review of Books. In Soros’ view, Europe’s current predicament has roots in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative response to the financial crisis in 2008. In the interest of retaining the support of the German people, as reported by the Financial Times, she did not back early attempts by leaders of other EU countries to devise a coordinated plan to provide funds for struggling banks. By resisting a European-wide solution, Soros suggests, Merkel did not provide the leadership that the continent needed to prevent the ties that bind the region from being undone by the forces of nationalism. By taking a hard line with Greece in the years after the financial crisis, Merkel helped to change the EU from an organization of equals united in their determination to create an open society into an association of debtor and creditor nations. In 2012, Soros went so far as to tell Chrystia Freeland of Reuters that if Germany did not lead by providing better terms for debtor countries, the rest of Europe should ask Germany to leave the EU.
George Soros is distressed about the fact that some countries now hold an inferior position in the European Union, because he sees this as creating the conditions that allow nationalist politicians to thrive and to work against the type of society that, since 1979, Soros has spent billions to promote through the Open Society Foundations. After living through the Nazi occupation of Hungary and escaping the country just as communism was established there, Soros explained to New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer in 2004, he came to value societies where there is freedom to express and debate ideas. By insisting on conditions that have made it difficult for the Greek economy to recover, Germany may have made it less likely for the country to support staying the EU. Soros sees similar dynamics in the Ukraine but hopes that generous terms can increase the chances of reformers winning there.
Given this backdrop, the influx of millions of Syrian refugees has the potential to break apart the EU. In many EU countries, leaders have focused on their parochial interests, rather than on the good of the refugees or the survival of the 28-member union. In Poland and Hungary, the heads of state have used the specter of refugees to promote their nationalist views and maintain power. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has even proposed himself as an alternative to Merkel for leadership of Europe. Despite his criticism of Merkel’s handling of the financial crisis and its aftermath, Soros fully supports Merkel’s decision to call for a comprehensive plan to take in refugees in a systematic manner. He shares Merkel’s view that if each country handles refugees in its own way, the European Union may not last for long.