Interesting Article On Europe’s Past

The shadow of empires: What really unites Europe are faded imperial memories.
Europe has a fascinating history, as anyone who’s taken Western Civilization knows. Much of it involved bloodshed and it intrigues me that many European countries — with France and Britain as exceptions — see membership in the EU as a way to avoid future bloodshed. I don’t suppose it has occurred to them to focus on commerce instead, but if it were that easy they would have done it already.

France, of course, has its own reasons for wanting the EU: to act as a balance against the United States on the world stage. I’m afraid, given the way they are going about it — the 148 page constitution is not a good start — they will only end up disappointed. Europe has produced some of the finest minds in history and France can lay claim to Victor Hugo and Frederic Bastiat, yet they don’t seem to have absorbed their teachings. Well, at least not Bastiat’s, anyway.

Britain, as the article points out, joined the EU at a time of decline and saw it as hope for the future. Then Thatcher came along and brought them back to greatness in spite of the EU. I wonder what the rationale for Britain remaining in the EU is now? To me they would appear to regress rather than grow by fully joining the EU.

The relationship between awareness of national decline and a desire to be in the European Union is complicated and varies from country to country. Germany’s bid for world power ended in disaster and disgrace; for modern Germans Europe represents an effort to transcend traditional realpolitik, so the EU is associated more with peace and prosperity than with power projection. The French sometimes complain that “the Germans just want Europe to be a big Switzerland.” They, by contrast, want the European Union to be a big France. As the Iraq war has shown, the French are a long way from abandoning the idea that their country can still play a glorious role on the world stage. But since modern France cannot aspire to be a superpower alone, the French elite has sought to build up the EU as a surrogate. Much of the panic now discernible in Paris about the future of Europe stems from a growing realisation that an enlarged Union of 25 countries can no longer be so easily moulded to serve the interests of France.

The dilemma of the French is sharpened by the fact that they have no Plan B: no alternative to the Union as an instrument of national greatness. By contrast, Britain’s problem with the EU has stemmed from an acute awareness of an alternative way of compensating for national decline, using the network of cultural and linguistic ties left by empire. When Britain joined the EU in 1973 (just before an acute economic crisis at home, which accentuated feelings of national decline), many felt that the British had finally plumped for “Europe” over the old imperial connections.

But subsequent experience suggests that no definitive decision was ever made. In moments of crisis, Margaret Thatcher and—perhaps more surprisingly—Tony Blair have instinctively sided with the United States and other anglophone nations. Interestingly, Spain is now evolving from a French to a British view of the role of the EU in promoting national interests. José Maria Aznar, the Spanish prime minister, has ambitions that go far beyond Europe. He recently contrasted France’s cultural protectionism with Spain’s vision of reaching out to millions of Spanish-speakers in Latin America and the United States.

And yet, although nationalism and pride in past greatness certainly exists across the European Union, it is usually tempered by an acute awareness of its potential costs. Many Europeans seem to have concluded that competition for national greatness leads ultimately to bloodshed and chaos. Nadezhda Mihailova, a former Bulgarian foreign minister, once remarked that “the problem with our region is that it has too many great countries in it: greater Bulgaria, greater Serbia, greater Albania. But the consequences have been not so great.” The eagerness of so many countries to join the EU is, in part, a recognition that the period of lone national greatness is now in the past.

National greatness needn’t be in the past, it’s just a matter of adopting the right policies. Easier said than done, though.

No comments yet.

Leave a Comment