The current concept of the EU is intended to relativise national sovereignties by subsuming them within a larger continental and allegedly civilisational entity.
A few years ago I found myself in the ornate drawing room of one of France’s exclusive clubs, housed in a 17th century hotel particulier as the dinner guest of a childhood friend, who is an avid hunter and nature lover (oddly the two terms usually go together) as well as a diehard but pragmatic conservative.
He had invited me to meet a small group of Germans of diverse backgrounds who had recently started a new party, Alternativ fur Deutschland (Alternative for Germany). Also present were a few common French friends more or less active in politics.
Surrounded as we were by venerable oils and prints illustrating various kinds of La Chasse (the hunt) and sundry breeds of horses, hounds and game the talk about the new political families of the continent sounded at once futuristic and nostalgic. The overhanging cynegetic trophies brooding on the high tapestried walls reminded me of ancestor portraits. Over the aperitifs, the conversation ranged across a broad swath of concerns: the decline of the West, seemingly a recurrent worry in Teutonic minds, the ever faster economic and strategic Chinese build-up, the gradual implosion of the US (Trump was not on the international scene yet, except as a society figure), which does not prevent the American government, allied with Wall Street from scheming, through economic and judicial warfare, to penetrate and gain control of the crown jewels of European finance, industry and technology.
Other topics covered were the renascent sway of Russia, the internal contradictions of the European Union and even the constitutional fragility of the German Federal Republic depicted by our visitors as an arbitrary creation of the treaties which had ended the last World War, an international compromise that had only been partly amended by reunification.
My observation on that score was that all states in their contemporary forms are not so different from post-War Germany, which is precisely why they claim to be born out of the unanimous will of their respective peoples in order to silence dissenting opinions about their legitimacy. The current concept of the European Union, it was agreed, is intended to relativise national sovereignties by subsuming them within a larger continental and allegedly civilisational (values-based) entity, although in practice it is all mostly about creating a single market for the liberal economic system.
Although the AfD was still small at the time and seemed unrealistic in its ambition to take on the twin Christian Democrat and Social Democrat Goliaths, it was striking to see Germans strike a controversial, unapologetically nationalist pose after decades of guilt-induced diffidence and conformism. Their ideas could not in any way be called “national socialistic”, except by those perennial left wingers who smell fascism in any opinion that does not support the self-styled “progressive forces”. They were sceptical about the euro as a common currency and about the project of a federal Europe, supposedly made out of equal states, but in fact led by Germany and France, which compete, bicker and uneasily cooperate.
Although their programme did not and still does not amount to an ideology, there are a few tenets shared by much of the so-called “populist”, anti-establishment parties in Europe. The return to national self-determination and the reclaiming of cultural and religious identity are two of them, even though many of the supporters of those movements are neither religious practitioners nor rabid nationalists. They mostly wish to secure the future of their respective communities in line with their specific histories. With regard to the economy they aim to regain the freedom to manage their own currencies and also the ability to nationalise or privatise major assets, according to local needs and circumstances, without the permission of an outside entity. Such agency entails the ability to try innovative measures like the institution of a universal “citizen’s salary” promised by the ruling Italian coalition, for example.
Another trend is the rejection of transatlantic imperialism symbolised by NATO. Even before Trump’s election resentment of American policies and intentions was rife among Europeans. After receiving a boost during the Yugoslav conflicts, it had much increased following the two wars against Iraq and reached full bloom amidst the disastrous Euro-American military interventions in Libya and Syria, spurring the waves of conflict and economic refugees that washed ashore in Greece, Italy and Spain and carried with them the seeds of Islamist terrorism.
The current EU structure is widely perceived as a surrogate, not a rival of the American empire, which bullies and blackmails it with impunity. The natural balancing factor was sought in the East. The AfD pioneers made it clear that they wanted to have a dialogue with Russia and it struck me that, contrary to the “official” story, they were not brainchildren of the Kremlin, but rather voice bearers of a nativist trend who looked for allies outside the liberal-globalist consensus within which mainstream parties have only minor differences of opinion. By then the opportunity to receive Chinese investments was turning many states and private sectors towards Beijing and now we can see the fast growing Chinese infrastructural participation, especially in the poorer and more fragile European nations which often have no other or better recourse and in which the United States in contrast are only interested insofar as they can sell weapons, set up military bases, push hegemonic American brands and demand “structural reforms”, political conformity, financial contributions and compliance with arbitrary decisions made in Washington.
Compared with the American scarecrow China may look like Santa Klaus.
In essence, as our French host pointed out that evening during dinner, the new German political force, like its nationalist equivalents in other countries, harks back to the ideal of “Europe of nation-states” heralded by General De Gaulle, German Chancellor Adenauer and Italian Premier De Gasperi among others in the 1950s: a flexible, multidimensional alliance which could extend to what was then the Soviet Union, but not a federal super-state regimented by NATO and required to contribute blood and treasure to the US’ planetary designs.
Would that alternative international structure not have been more agreeable to the peoples of the continent than the bureaucratic edifice erected in Brussels to homogenise Europe? The elected dispensations in Italy, Hungary, Poland, Austria, the Czech and Slovak Republics and Denmark reflect the fact that many think so, not to mention those like-minded parties which are at the gates of power in France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Greece or share it as in Belgium. In Germany the AfD has come a long way since the day of that Parisian dinner as it now leads the Opposition in the Bundestag. In France the recently renamed Rassemblement National remains a potent facto, snapping at the heels of a weakened and fumbling President Emmanuel Macron whose Euro-federalist pledges find little traction.
In Britain, although the majority of Brexiteers is in doubt at present, the Labour Opposition, more popular than the Conservative-led government, wishes to reform the EU to make it more social and less intrusive and hegemonic. From any angle, including the vexing issue of mass immigration, the future of the EU is highly uncertain and it will be even more fraught if and when the widely expected global expected financial crisis hits.
The usual objection to the new thinking about continental organisation—which is only the latest phase in a three centuries, if not ten centuries old debate—is that in an age of huge civilisational states such as the US, China, India, Russia and Brazil, not to forget Africa tomorrow perhaps, European countries cannot hope to remain viable and survive by themselves in their comparatively modest sizes. However, there have always been small and large nations and the fear of bigger neighbours has usually not led lesser countries to merge with them or relinquish their sovereignty voluntarily to some other power. Napoleon and Hitler sought to forge a single Europe to face the Russian and British empires, but their ventures were short-lived. History teaches that economic relations and rules alone don’t unify states since commerce and war are in some way related. International economic agreements have been less successful than military conquests in creating larger geo-political units.
The hope of many liberals and left-leaning intellectuals lies in the possible formation of a coalition between the ailing centrist parties and the more or less socialist Greens in order to block the rise of the popular nationalists. That prospect is far from certain and any consensus for the preservation of European social peace, cultural identity and prosperity will have to address the reasonable concerns and include the participation of those who can legitimately be called patriots of their respective nations.