No Vacation from History

My annual vacation in the Frisian Caribbean usually falls into what the German media call the Sommerloch (“summer hole”): nothing to report. Not so this year.

Between Brexit, the rise of populist parties, Nice, Munich, Italy’s collapsing banks, negative interest rates, millions of immigrants wandering about, terrorists on welfare moving and wreaking havoc hither and yon, and the attempted coup in Turkey, there was lots to report and think about—none of it inspiring or uplifting; all of it concerning the fate of Europe, or at least the EU. OMG, politicos and the punditocracy fretted: why are all these terrible things happening to our fine union, all at once?

As I’ve suggested in a previous post, our pre-Constitution union confronted the same question for precisely the same reason. That union, like the EU, was a “government over governments.” And that fundamental design flaw (The Federalist explains) practically guarantees that a lot of bad stuff will happen, all at once. You can have alliances among states, and good luck. Or, you can have a sovereign country that can control its borders, keep wayward states in line, pay its debts, and effectively manage common affairs. You can not have this in-between thing—a government over governments. Call that the Hamiltonian proposition.

From modest beginnings the EU grew into that hybrid, for good and bad reasons. Over time, though, it mushroomed into a far more ambitious project. The Hamiltonian proposition, it says, is like so 18th century. We are now in an age of shared sovereignty, networked governance, intergovernmentalism, postmodern politics, etc. (There are lots of monikers like that and each has launched a quadrillion books and articles, because that’s how scholars earn a living and bureaucracies thrive.) That’s the way to promote peace and prosperity; stability and sexual equality; decency and democracy; brotherhood and good beer. And this project was conceived and peddled as a constitutional model.

Great. How’s that worked out for you?

What struck me as new on my latest European excursion: under the confluence of adverse events, the thought that there might be something wrong with the EU’s project as a constitutional matter is now seeping into elite debate. For as long as I can remember you had two choices: sign on to a brutally enforced political consensus on an “ever-closer-union,” or side with proto-Nazi or fringe-Left whack jobs. This summer’s events have generated the question what alienated those people from an “ever-closer union” in the first place—and a suggestion, here and there, that for all their derangements they might actually have a point. Even if (and though) they don’t quite know what that point is.

My next post will sketch that debate and expound on the constitutional theme—with some diffidence. In my few days in Hamburg, in the course of a lunch conversation with a very smart and vehemently pro-American lawyer, I suggested the Hamiltonian theme. He took the point and had two rejoinders.

One: the U.S. Consulate in Hamburg, heretofore housed in a gorgeous waterfront villa, will be moved. My heart sank. The old location signaled confidence and respectability, a lot like the White House. And it signaled commitment: we’re in this together. In contrast, the new location—a few floors in a nondescript office building that houses accountants and shysters who fix DUI violations—signals that America doesn’t give a rip. My lunch partner didn’t have to ask: Do you?

Two: Tell me about your November elections.

Points taken, counselor. May I suggest, though, that Europe’s and America’s discontents point to a single question: just what has gone wrong with liberalism?