Warring states

by Terence MacNamee

Once upon a time, there was a great civilization. It was divided up into warring states. Eventually an energetic emperor came along and united them. A long line of emperors continued the work. Finally, the emperors were no longer an option. But a powerful Party took the lead and kept the whole thing together. It still seems to work.

Meanwhile, in another part of the world, there was another great civilization. At the beginning, most of it was united by a powerful empire. But the empire fell apart, and the nations went their own way as warring states mistrustful of each other. There followed a millennium and a half of rivalry and occasional mayhem. They still haven’t got it together.

These thoughts were prompted by seeing Canadian history professor Gérard Bouchard’s just-out report to the Institut Jacques Delors on identity and myth in Europe. He laments the lack of any real emotional or mythic unity in the European Union. Meanwhile, the nation-states are still going strong. They are even boosted by recent manifestations of populism.

Bouchard believes that the EU is the creation of élites who have always mistrusted the ordinary people as being the source of nationalism and every kind of reaction and bigotry. As long as the peoples of Europe were prepared to let the élites run the show, things went more or less smoothly. But now the populist reaction is getting louder and stronger. What is to be done?

Bouchard is of the view that a European mythology should be consciously developed, like the mythology that presides over the patriotism of nation-states: stuff like glorious achievements, battles, revolutions, values enshrined in constitutions, that kind of thing.

He is probably right. No-one gets worked up emotionally about the EU; the bureaucrats tending the Commission and the Euro just serve as convenient whipping-boys. Jacques Delors, one of the architects of the EU, himself confessed: “People don’t fall in love with a currency”.

However, it was Jacques Delors and people like him who always opposed the development of a European patriotism, because it was likely to turn into something like nationalism and thus conjure up old demons and “ancestral voices prophesying war”. This was quite right too, really. The only thing Europeans ever stood for together was exploiting the rest of the world in the age of colonialism, though they did it as rivals. Before that, the only European project worthy of the name was the Crusades. It was an attempt to defeat the expansion of the Islamic world, but it achieved little in the end, and under Turkish leadership the Islamic world started gobbling up Eastern Europe as far as the gates of Vienna.

It has always been “sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”, but who would want to die for the EU? People don’t even want to live for it. Yet a united Europe could play a very beneficial role in the world today if it could get its act together. How could Europeans be persuaded to rally round a European flag, for peaceful purposes? Gérard Bouchard in his report makes no real proposals. Yet it does get one thinking. More on this next week.