Dreaming dreams is one thing. Living in them is another. Visions of our future do not have a great history. A much better pathway to the future is along the trajectory on which our history has already put us. The Irishman’s advice to the straying traveler who is looking for directions, “If I was you Sir, I wouldn’t start from here at all,” is about as practical as most visionary Geo-political pursuits are. Martin Luther King had a dream. It was a noble vision, and while it brought African Americans some way along the freedom road, it has left in its wake more disappointment than achievement. The quality of life he dreamed of for his people is still just that, a dream.
The European Union is built on a dream. It is a dream which was also generated by an admirable ideal – peace among men and an end to war. But with each decade that passes, as the project stumbles from crisis to crisis, the warning signs are more and more evident that the visionary foundations of its structure are illusory and woefully inadequate for the gigantic and cumbersome edifice it dreams of becoming.
The cultural differences between the peoples of Britain and continental Europe are at the heart of Brexit. Rooted as they are in “the Anglo-Saxon way” and pragmatic as they have always been, the British majority have called time on the European dream. They are pursuing their democraticly and constitutionally exercised decision with characteristic doggedness – despite the scorn of their neighbours across the Irish Sea and the English Channel.
And yet, in spite the sinister rumblings of regional nationalism in Spain, the signals of discontent coming from Poland and Hungary, the sizable minorities in France, Netherlands and Austria, all unhappy with a perceived overreach by the patronizing bureaucracy of this visionary Union, its leadership persists in proclaiming its ideology of the Communion of all Europe’s people. Just now it is Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission, and Emmanuel Marcon, France’s new President, are the latest victims of European myopia.
Back in 2013 it was José Manuel Barroso, then the President of the Commission, when he gave a speech calling for a “new narrative” for Europe. But it wasn’t really a new narrative, it was really a call for the great and the good of the Union to step up to the plate and proclaim the ideal again for the generation of the new millennium. He just wanted to use the old wineskin of the Union into which he would put some newly fermented wine. We have been warned about what that can lead to.
Anne Applebaum, in a survey of a recent batch of books on the predicament of Europe in the New York Review of Books, recalls this speech.
Barroso, she writes—like many, many others—saw which way the wind was blowing even then. Europe’s leaders seemed technocratic and remote—and they knew it. Europe’s political institutions were unpopular. The euro crisis had left numerous people angry and resentful. Worse, younger Europeans seemed not to get the point of the union at all. Barroso made a proposal:
I think we need, in the beginning of the XXI century, namely for the new generation that is not so much identified with this narrative of Europe, to continue to tell the story of Europe. Like a book: it cannot only stay in the first pages, even if the first pages were extremely beautiful. We have to continue our narrative, continue to write the book of the present and of the future. This is why we need a new narrative for Europe.
Barosso’s initiative recruited artists, writers, and scientists from across the continent who signed a declaration: “In light of the current global trends, the values of human dignity and democracy must be reaffirmed.” A book was published, The Mind and Body of Europe: A New Narrative. Debates and dialogues were held throughout the continent and the objective was to create a strong sense of European federal identity.
But this is precisely how dreamers – we call them idealists when we think we like them – work and get political life wrong. Real practical politics grows out of real life, not out of dreamed up grandiose schemes.
Applebaum writes that while it’s easy for Anglo-Saxons to laugh, many modern European states were created by precisely this kind of top-down campaign—”think of the unification of Italy or Germany in the nineteenth century, or the resurrection of Poland after World War I.”
They were, and they were not. In all those cases there was a bottom up force at work as well as a top down design. This has never really been true for Europe. Even the United States of America, which might be the closest model on which the European Union could base itself, would be a very false template to use. The United States was forged out of living political realities – an over-reaching and uncomprehending imperial authority – and a subsequent immigrant colonisation with which the new Republic had great trouble controlling. It was unable to hold itself together without creating rivers of blood among the indigenous people and the sacrifice of 750,000 lives in a civil war which is still reverberating under the surface.
And as Barosso found out, dreamt-up intellectual projects without roots in the native soil did not work for his “new narrative”. While Barroso’s project had some of the elements, Applebaum observes, of a popular national movement: intellectual and artistic support, a consistent idea, an inspiring concept, it was not popular and it died the death of most dreams.
In her reading of the books she reviews Applebaum detects no more agreement between them than was evident among the great and good that Barosso vainly tried to enlist to the cause of Europe.
With a little glimmer of the light which Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, aka, Joseph Ratzinger, shed on this subject she notes that the problem isn’t one of national differences. The issues that separate the authors she reviews “are temperamental, ideological, and even, one might say, eschatological.” And there’s the rub. The heart has gone out of Europe. The only coherent identity which Europe ever had as an entity has been abandoned.
In Values in a Time of Upheaval: Meeting the Challenges of the Future, Ratzinger noted how
At the beginning of the 1960s it was still possible for Arnold Toynbee to express his optimism about the victory of European culture. He wrote that of the twenty-eight cultures that had been identified (around the planet), eighteen were already dead; and of the ten that still existed, nine had already visibly collapsed, so that only one—ours, the European—remained. Who would dare to say that today? And what is “our” culture, which allegedly still remains? Is the civilization of technology and commerce that has spread victoriously throughout the world our “European culture”?
Now, he says, in the very hour of its most extreme “success”, Europe seems to have become empty from within. Its life seems threatened by a crisis of circulation, and it almost seems to need a transfusion of blood—but that would destroy its own identity. In keeping with this dying of the elemental forces that expressed the soul, the reduced number of births makes one suspect that Europe is also dying out in ethnic terms.
Even in the 1960s Toynbee conceded that the “Western world” was in a crisis. He identified roots of that crisis in the falling away from religion to embrace a cult of technology, of the nation, and of militarism. Ultimately, Ratzinger reminds us, Toynbee identified the crisis as secularism. “But if we can name the cause of the crisis, we can also indicate the path to healing: the religious element must be reintroduced. Toynbee holds that this element includes the religious patrimony of all cultures, but especially what remains of Western Christianity.”
Ratzinger talks of the collapse of Communism and implies that this brought with it a kind of false dawn of a new age. For him the real catastrophe that the Communist regimes left behind was not economic, it was the devastation of souls, the destruction of moral consciousness. He holds that the fundamental contemporary problem for Europe and for the world is the almost total silence about the moral and religious problems that were the real heart of the Communist aberration.
Christian ideals are real ideals, not dreams. They are the very stuff of life and death, of human conception, birth, living with our feet on the ground but with our heads, through the medium of body and soul, in Heaven. This was part of the original inspiration of the practical political men who set the European Union on its path. This has been wilfully abandoned.
As Ratzinger puts it: The initial enthusiasm for a return to the great constant elements of the Christian heritage soon evaporated, and European unification proceeded almost exclusively from the economic perspective. Scant attention was paid to the question of the intellectual foundations of such a community.
Applebaum concludes her assessment of our prospects recalling an observation by a
European diplomat of her acquaintance who likes to compare Europe and the US to the Western and Eastern halves of the old Roman Empire. The West imploded, with drama, violence and crazy Caesars; the Byzantine East lingered on, bureaucratic, stodgy, and predictable, for many centuries. It’s not exactly an optimistic precedent for Europeans, but it’s a comforting one.
It might be comforting until we remember the ultimate fate of that stodgy old empire. It was overrun by Islam. The book which Applebaum does not include in her review is Douglas Murray’s best-selling The Strange Death of Europe, published in May. She might have done and had she it might have shattered any comfort her diplomat friend was seeking to convey to us.
Our European masters may not be just dreaming. They may be sleepwalking and leading us over a precipice.