Now for a Really Destructive Innovation: A Europe-wide State

European flags in a row

The best hope for the European Union would be for it to eventually evolve into an enormous Belgium. More likely, it will evolve into an enormous Yugoslavia circa 1990, which will not be quite so good.

Belgium, it seems to me, is a success and a failure. It is prosperous even as the conflict continues between Wallonia and Flanders, nearly two centuries after they were cobbled together—like harnessing hippos to a stagecoach—in a state that no one seriously expects ever to degenerate into violence. For myself, I have a sneaking respect for a country that can go 500 days without a central government; it must have been doing something right. Belgium is in a perpetual and insoluble political crisis, in which, however, politics are not in the least important.

The 19th century Russian poet, Tyutchev, said that you cannot understand Russia with your mind and I think the same is true of Belgium. You cannot understand Belgium with your mind (I don’t advise the attempt), though I take leave of Tyutchev when he adds with regard to Russia that you can only believe in it.

I don’t really want to live in a giant Belgium, let alone in a giant Yugoslavia, the more likely of the European dénouements. But the European political class and its intellectual cheerleaders appear determined to produce one or the other. Whenever I listen to the defenders of the European Union I am astonished at the thinness of their argumentation and the ruthlessness of their determination. This is not a good combination.

On the way back to England from Paris recently, I stopped at the bookstore to buy something to read. It is no doubt a sign of the times that what used to be an excellent bookstore is now reduced to a few shelves, the rest of the space being taken up by teddy bears, chocolates, glossy magazines and bottled water, but nonetheless I found a little book of sufficient interest that I could finish during my short flight. It was by the well-known French philosophical popularizer, Luc Ferry, and it was called L’Innovation destructrice  (“Destructive Innovation”). Ferry is a conservative among French intellectuals, conservative at least by comparison with most of the others.

In the modern world, says Ferry, innovation is constant, not only in material products, but in morals and ways of life. Nothing with us is ever settled or can be taken for granted, and it is a condition of our prosperity that we should be in perpetual motion. It is no good complaining of a deterioration in the manners and levels of social civility of children when we distract them with elaborate electronics that replace conversation as the main means of human communication.

Ferry is no Luddite. He does not believe that all is for the worst in this the worst of all possible worlds, or that we should seek stagnation in order to prevent further deterioration of what we cherish. Gain has always been accompanied by loss, and he thinks that, all in all, more people live better, healthier, happier lives than ever before. I am not quite as sanguine as he, perhaps, but where I differ from him most is in his last chapter which, rather oddly, is a plea for European federalism. It is argued with the characteristic looseness of European federalists.

The first reason he gives for his federalism is that European civilization is superior to all the others, for it is the only one that has ever accorded adult status to individuals. As an example, he quotes a United Nations report to the effect that from now until 2020, 130 million children in the world will enter forced marriages. Quite why this should lead to European federalism he does not say, except that “without the indispensable infrastructure that is the European Union,” Europe will be swept away by “the ill winds that blow from all directions nowadays”—which will presumably make forced marriage the general rule in Europe.

This is preposterous as well cowardly. European civilization predated the European Union by some years. The malign trend of which he speaks does not reach Europe from all directions—not from North or South America, for example, or Russia. His words are directed against Muslims, but he does not dare say so. There is no danger or prospect of forced marriage becoming general in Europe, nor is there any reason to suppose that a Europe-wide state would be better at preventing or prohibiting it among Muslim minorities than the present nation states are.

Although Ferry is a Germanophile, having studied in Germany, his next argument is profoundly anti-German. The only way of combatting the kind of nationalism that led to catastrophic European wars, he says, is European federalism, but this is again absurd. There is no reason to believe that, but for the European Union, Portugal would attack Estonia, Ireland Luxembourg, or Greece Denmark. The only plausible candidates for a serious military conflict on the continent are France and Germany. What Ferry is really saying is that the European Union is necessary to contain Germany. This is to subscribe to the view of the Germans as eternal militarists, the inevitable enemy of France. I do not believe, however, that but for the European Union, Germany would attack France.

The third of his reasons is that the countries of Europe must unite politically in order to compete in the world. Large countries such as China, India, and the United States have clout;  there is no place for small countries. In order to be of any account in the world, then, European nations must forgo their sovereignty and become part of a heftier entity.

Apart from ignoring altogether the political difficulties of union, the impossibility of making a functioning democracy of so many different nations, and the inevitable clashes of national interest that federalization would entail, Ferry ignores the evidence that many of the most successful countries in the world are small. There is no reason why countries cannot cooperate, including militarily, without pooling their sovereignty; such pooling as has already occurred in Europe has held its prosperity back rather than enhanced it. The currency union without any kind of fiscal union has already proved disastrous for several countries, and is economically deleterious for all. But the further step of fiscal union could only be imposed by an unelected, authoritarian bureaucracy upon countries unwilling to comply, and whose interests might not be served by compliance. Sooner or later, a federation would lead to war, or at least to revolution.

Feeble and sketchy as Ferry’s arguments are, no European federalist ever provides any better. They are trotted out with monotonous regularity, like the stories of someone with Alzheimer’s, and anyone who raises objections, however obvious and unanswerable, is immediately compared to a rabid nationalist, as if to be attached to a national identity were itself a symptom of hating everyone else. There are such rabid nationalists, to be sure. Forced federation is the best way of ensuring their increase in numbers and influence.

As the history of the world amply demonstrates, the mere badness of an idea does nothing to halt its progress. Europe is sleepwalking (yet again) to cataclysm.

Reader Discussion

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on September 10, 2014 at 11:30:53 am

It seems there's a natural tendency in government to accumulate power as there is a natural urge for all the wrong people to lust for it. Unfortunately what follows is the usual rise of a self serving, self identified "elite" to whom government is regarded as their own, to manage, to profit by, to interpret , and see as their own. It would appear that the only defense is decentralization, but is that a lost lesson in today's world of mega-government?

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john trainor
on September 10, 2014 at 12:04:57 pm

While it is nice to theorize about the values of a "small republic" (and they may be considerable) let us be realistic and acknowledge that they survive only at the sufferance of their larger neighbors. Consider what happened to the Low countries during the World Wars. Ahh, you say, Switzerland! Had the Swiss not been willing to serve as a convenient bank and "contact point" between the warring powers, does anyone think that her own sovereignty would have been honored. Very few can be Switzerland, perhaps not even Switzerland in today's world.
No, it is not the size of the republic; rather, it is the size of the ambitions of the political players that is at root the problem.

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on September 11, 2014 at 07:48:00 am

"...anyone who raises objections, however obvious and unanswerable, is immediately compared to a rabid nationalist..."

This is true. The European diplomatic class has argued for decades that the notion of individual nations is the primary cause of conflict in the modern world, and that dissolution of nationhood is the only path to peace and prosperity.

Most people, even most European citizens, do not know how passionate their political class is about nationalism-- anti-nationalism, that is.

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Bob Ellison
on September 11, 2014 at 11:16:12 am

"dissolution of nationhood is the only path to peace and prosperity."

that's hilarious, given that almost all war is driven not by the people at large but by the political classes and their business interests. the present case is the same - "union" is driven not by the people at large but again by the political classes and their business interests - which, note, have NEVER been part of any nation but rather float above them and play with them like bored children with expensive toys. how much longer will the english, french, and german people tolerate this?

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on September 11, 2014 at 12:22:34 pm

The people, bless their ignorant souls, will continue to tolerate the situation you described right up until the moment they quit tolerating it. You will be able to tell that the moment has arrived by the widespread revolutions among the developed nations of the world. I am not expecting it to happen soon. Comfortable people do not revolt.

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John Dunn
on September 11, 2014 at 13:01:05 pm

your point is both interesting and accurate; my interpretation of the historical reasons for the disappearance of smaller states is that, in an aggressive military environment, eastern European or German mini-states or whatever, need to ban together to survive.

So, take away the aggressive military environment.

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on September 12, 2014 at 00:30:10 am

[…] Now for a Really Destructive Innovation: A Europe-wide State Theodore Dalrymple, Library of Law and Liberty […]

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.