As Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, lurches from one acrimonious negotiation to another to steady her government and the European Union (EU), one thing should be borne in mind: The great lie of the Remain camp is that “Europe” in some way means those sanctimonious freeloaders gathered in Brussels. More and more, what we are seeing is Europe itself fighting back against the EU — and the control, homogeneity, and finger-wagging it thrives on.
Long before it was fashionable, I was a big fan of Europe. Like many things, Europe seems to have been invented by the ancient Greeks, although they saw Europe as principally Greece, just as sometimes the French and Germans see Europe as France or Germany.
Europe has been a cultural, scientific and economic entity for at least a thousand years. Scholars moved from Bologna to Paris to Oxford, bantering in Latin. Artists sought patrons in all the courts of Europe. Van Gogh was miserable in Brixton. Haydn coined it in Austria, Paris and London. Beethoven’s greatest symphony, the Ninth, was commissioned by Brits. Engels ran a factory in Manchester. For Nietzsche there was no culture outside of Paris. Hungary’s great footballers were coached by Scots and Lancastrians. All without the help of bureaucrats in Brussels. And the famously insular British? Shakespeare wrote about Athens, Rome, Venice, Verona and Elsinore, and I find it hard to think of a major English writer who hasn’t had one work set in either France, Italy or Germany.
Of course there were disagreements, some awkward military encounters and some people who had to be burnt at the stake because they didn’t understand the Bible properly, but the continental intercourse has always been lively and free-ranging.
It was Victor Hugo who, at an international Peace Congress in Paris in 1849, used the term the “United States of Europe”. He died in 1885 with an inscription in his room: “I represent a party which does not yet exist, the party of revolution, civilisation. This party will make the Twentieth Century. There will issue from it first the United States of Europe, then the United States of the World.” This is what happens when you get involved with poetry.
Though this party still doesn’t exist — and nor does the United States of Europe — the federalist impulse is alive in the EU, until recently chiefly backed by most Germans and Merkel. But Europe is intervening. It was the new kids who cut up rough first. Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Then Poland. Then Austria. Now Italy, and even in Germany the issue of the migrants has engendered an atmosphere of “every nation for itself”.
There is a problem with politicians. They’re not usually troubled by crisis. Sun Tzu’s great observation, that the best general never fights a battle, may be true but how can you prove you’re the best general and not just a lazy, lucky or cowardly one? Politicians prefer crises, so they can be seen to save the day, to snatch the infant from the burning building, rather than getting down on their knees in the dirt to check the wiring, so the building doesn’t burn in the first place. Some sensible measures 10 years ago could have erased, or at least curbed, the problem of illegal migrants.
It didn’t happen, so, whether Merkel hangs on or not, the EU is facing an existential crisis. A basic problem is the membership: Whether it’s 28, 25 or 30, it’s probably impossible for that many states to agree on anything but the most anodyne, vague measures. Anyone who’s tried to organise a family holiday will know that satisfying just four or five parties is exhausting.
Perhaps it’s hindsight, but I don’t recall bitter disputes with the original European Economic Community. Instead of seeking greater control, the EU and its acolytes in the member states, who are hooked on “European” solutions to every problem, should listen to Europe, and back off. The flowers and the fruit should move freely, but — to steal from Voltaire — everyone should be left to cultivate their garden, and their garden gate, as they see fit.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2018
Tibor Fischer is the author of How to Rule The World.