Regardless of what happens, nationalist feeling has been revealed to be far stronger than pan-European feeling, which is, at most, a very pale ghost.
Former Prime Ministers of the Duchy of Luxembourg did not usually bestride the world like colossi, at least not until the advent of the European Union. This, indeed, is one of the great advantages of that Union, at least to members of its political class: that it provides them with the means and opportunity to become more important in retirement than ever they were when they held directly-elected political office. It is a kind of insurance policy against electoral defeat or other political disaster.
Jean-Claude Juncker is a former Prime Minister of Luxembourg who is now President of the European Commission, a powerful position whose precise (or imprecise) function not one in a hundred Europeans could begin to describe. This, one might suspect, is another of the great advantages of the European Union.
Recently, while at the airport, I noticed a headline in the Financial Times to the effect that Mr Juncker had issued a ringing call for further and far-reaching European integration.
Now Mr Juncker, whose most endearing characteristic by far is his tendency to appear drunk at official occasions, is not normally a man of Churchillian eloquence. I take at random a passage from one of his speeches, that appears on the European Commission’s website:
We discussed how to achieve a more efficient way of working together at the informal seminar of the incoming Commission on 11/12 September, on the basis of the Mission Letters I had sent to each of you. In addition, at my request, our Heads of Cabinets dedicated a seminar on 7 November to discuss our working methods and your practical questions. There appears to be a broad consensus that our work as a College requires rules to be efficient and to avoid duplication of efforts, in particular in view of the changes brought about by the new structure of the Commission. This is why I have decided to issue rules on our working methods on the basis of Article 17(6) of the Treaty on European Union. These rules complement the Mission Letters, which, together with the Political Guidelines, are an integral part of our working methods.
You could patent this, I should imagine, as a cure for insomnia. Alternatively, it is an incitement to violence through sheer boredom. Indeed, the capacity to bore and endure boredom is a much-underestimated capacity in the path to power, both political and organizational.
Ringing calls, then, are not generally associated with the name of Jean-Claude Juncker.
His speech was nevertheless the subject of much commentary. It was widely regarded almost as wild, visionary or romantic. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mr Rutte, said that when political figures started to have visions, such as Mr Juncker’s, it was time for them to consult psychiatrists.
However, this was grossly unfair to Mr Juncker, who was being far more realistic (and honest) than Mr Rutte. It was Helmut Kohl who said that being in the European Community was like riding a bicycle: you had either to keep going forward on it or fall off. And from the very first, the object of the European Project (as it is often called, without ever any open specification or avowal of what that project actually is) was the creation of a super-state, a goal that was to be achieved irrespective of the wishes of the people, and even in direct opposition to them. Mr Juncker was only re-iterating this goal; if he were to be criticised justly, it would be only for the timing of his speech. In politics, there is such an error as speaking the truth before it is politic to speak the truth.
There was no word in Mr Juncker’s speech of the wishes of the various peoples of Europe, for the politics of Europe (that is to say of the European Union) is a politics not only without the people, but designed specifically to absent the people: for, as many referenda in Europe have by now demonstrated, and as the founding fathers of the Union knew, they – the people – do not possess the requisite wisdom to know what is best for them.
One would not have to be a complete democrat à la suisse to see the dangers in this, but there are other difficulties too, namely the inevitably procrustean nature of any possible political unification of Europe. The debts of some countries in the so-called union are the credits of others, and while the former would like either to mutualise the debts, so that much of the burden of repaying them fell on those to whom the money was owed, or alternatively to inflate the debts away, the creditors would like no such thing. They do not want to pay twice, first as lender, then as debtor; nor would they like to see their hard-earned money melt into the worthless paper of hyper-inflated banknotes of value only to collectors a hundred years hence. These are differences difficult to reconcile; and in a democratic state, the debtors, being more numerous, would easily outvote the creditors. In present circumstances, then, the creditors could not tolerate a democratic state: Europe for them must remain an unrepresentative administrative entity, with no connection whatever to the will of the people.
As to the Union as the keeper of the peace, the notion is preposterous even disregarding the tensions building up because of very different national interests. No one would suggest that, without the Union, Portugal would immediately attack Denmark, or Belgium Croatia. What is meant by upholding the peace is keeping Germany in check; but it is difficult to see how Europe as an entity could defend itself – common defence being another manifestation of ever-closer union – without a strong German military. But since the interests of France and Germany are so directly opposed, a strong German military would make the French (and not only the French) nervous, to say the least. Under the present dispensation of only a partial union, France has the military upper hand over Germany; a closer union, such as is the goal, would upset this delicate equilibrium. But closer union – or rather attempts at closer union – is now the raison d’être of any union at all.
The de facto leader of the French opposition is a man called Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He is a left-wing nationalist well-placed to take advantage of disillusionment with the present president, should he fail to revive French fortunes (which, in my opinion, are less bad than frequently assumed). Mélenchon is a witty and powerful orator, who knows how to pander to resentment, and resentment is never directly proportional to the causes that excite it. He is Marine Le Pen and Bernie Sanders rolled into one.
In 2015, he published a book, Bismarck’s Herring – the German Poison, that, in its undisguised hatred of Germany and the Germans, could have been published a century before, in 1915, in the middle of the Great War.
As wisdom is never learned once and for all, so peace is never permanent: least of all on the European continent.