Discover more from Trying to Understand the World
Ukraine and the end of "Europe."
Nation-states were the problem: supranationality was not the answer.
Fear of the enemy to the East has been a consistent motif of European politics for centuries. It would be deeply ironic, therefore, if one result of Europe’s attempt to dictate to the East for a change turned out to be the end of “Europe” as a political and economic construct.
Decades ago, just after the end of the Cold War, I found myself briefly at Verdun, in North-East France. The town itself is small and unremarkable, but the battle that was fought there in 1916 remains one of the most terrible and destructive in human history. From February to December 1916, as the Germans attacked, were halted and eventually pushed back, around three quarters of a million French and German soldiers were killed or wounded, in an area only a few kilometres square. It remains probably the greatest single concentration of death and suffering anywhere, in human history. Entire villages were wiped out to the last stone, and only old maps show where they once were.
Photographs today try to put the best face on things, and it is true that Nature has slowly and grimly managed to repair some of the damage in the last century. But the place is still a mausoleum: literally with the unending rows of crosses, and the enormous Ossuary, where skulls stare at you from piles of random collections of bones. But also figuratively, in the lunar landscape scarcely disguised by the agonised growth of new vegetation, and the pervasive sense of being in a cursed and abandoned environment, where you might run into the Angel of Death around any corner, out for a walk.
The modern narrative of Verdun was at first a symbol of French resilience and heroism: the battle above all others which exemplified the unbending tenacity that the French thought had brought them victory. Yet after another war, this became a less persuasive argument: at most, the terrible sacrifice had gained twenty years’ respite. And it’s not surprising that it rapidly metamorphosed, to become a symbol not of Franco-German rivalry, but of reconciliation, notably in the form of a Memorial constructed in 1967. The joint visit of François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl in 1984, culminating in the famous handshake, represents the authorised interpretation of Verdun today.
Yet the symbolism is more complicated and various than that. The first and easiest way to view the place and the battle is as an example of the futility of war. The vocabulary and the concepts are pre-fabricated and ready to hand: pointless, futile, butchery, meaningless slaughter etc. etc. It’s true that, by the end of the battle, the front line was more or less where it had been before the attack started. Yet in fact the battle had real consequences. Around Verdun was one of a series of fortifications designed by the great military architect Vauban to protect France’s frontiers. For the Germans to capture the town and its fortifications would have been an immense advantage, and Falkenhayn, the German Commander believed that to prevent this, the French High Command would throw reinforcements into the battle, ultimately weakening their Army and paving the way to victory. In fact, things worked roughly the other way round, and it was the German Army that was, in Falkenhayn’s alleged gruesome phrase, “bled white.” German losses at Verdun, combined with those on the Somme the same year, effectively broke the back of the German Army, and prepared the way for its ultimate defeat. So if nothing else, the battle was not senseless: it had purpose, significance and consequences.
But Verdun had long been a symbol of something else. A Free City until its annexation by France in 1552, it was always a city on the Border: not in the sense of a place of trade and the mixing of communities and cultures but rather a defence against the enemy not far away. (Even with France’s current frontiers, Verdun is still very close to the German and Belgian borders.) Its very existence was a reminder that Europe was an extremely violent place, and that its political entities with their borders had been founded, and were perpetuated, by force.
It’s often argued that Europe was as violent as it was because of its high population density and its relative ease of communications. Large areas of reasonably flat terrain, easily navigable rivers leading to the Sea and suitable areas for building towns made the creation of political units easy. Unlike parts of Africa, for example, groups at odds with the local power structure couldn’t simply move off somewhere else. Compare a map of Europe in 1200 with one in 1400, and you see the continued growth in the size of political units, and the consequent centralisation and strengthening of power. Conflict was pretty much inevitable, then, as different spheres of interest bumped into each other.
With the coming of nation-states, came the consequent problem that nations did not necessarily equal states. History is untidy, and human beings were scattered all over the place, without regard for language, culture or religion. It was one thing to try to construct a nation around principles, as the French did, but quite another to try to construct it around a belief in a common cultural, religious and “ethnic” heritage, when there was none. The region of Alsace and Lorraine, traded between France and Germany, and one reason why Verdun was fortified, is a good example of a territory that has no real fixed identity. (Even today, Strasbourg really looks like a German city.) It can be argued that the inability to make “nation” equal “state” was the essential motor of conflict in Europe for nearly two hundred years. (Come to that, it can be argued that for much of that time the fundamental problem was the inability to agree on the frontiers of Germany.)
But Verdun was also a symbol of other divisions. Europe was always too big to have a dominant military power with the technologies and government capabilities of the day. For a thousand years, there was competition between the Pope and the Emperor, the French King and the Emperor, the Bourbons and the Hapsburgs, the Protestant and Catholic powers, ultimately the French and the Germans. Yet even these complexities were never simple. The French, for example, both allied with the Protestant powers during the Thirty Years War, and remained neutral during the war against the Ottomans, because they hoped thereby to weaken the Emperor. Any attempt to follow the intricacies of such politicking among dozens of actors great and small gives you a headache, and trying to show the twists and turns of alliances and betrayals diagrammatically or cartographically produces a result that looks like an explosion in a paint factory.
So it’s hardly surprising that all kinds of people, and for a very long time now, have been urging a return to some kind, at least, of a United Europe: a modern Holy Roman Empire, perhaps still with internal tensions, but essentially a unified cultural and political whole. The first timid proposals started to be made around the time of the completion of the Ossuary at Verdun in 1926, but were swept away by the rise of Fascism and the fear of Communism.
The very ubiquity of the idea (or ideas) of a United Europe has actually led to a lot of confusion: after all Adolf Hitler was a supporter, albeit of a Europe under German leadership. And there’s a lot of Conspiracy Theory writing out there about neoliberal power grabs. But the real story is more interesting: if you read the early speeches of Schuman and Monet carefully, for example, you will find that they are soaked in religious imagery, and ache to reconstruct a pre-Reformation Europe which, if it couldn’t be entirely purged of national rivalries, could at least be shielded from ideological conflict. But it was a top-down, supranational vision, which saw avoiding future conflicts as possible only if power were progressively taken away from nation-states and given to independent bodies. And in the end, that’s what we largely have: an attempt to deal with national and ideological conflicts by setting up structures to avoid and get round them, and by promoting an official discourse which, effectively ignores them. (There’s much fun to be had with equivalences: Brussels is Rome, the Head of the Commission is the Pope etc, but we won’t go into that here) But the essence of the approach, to repeat, is a top-down, elite-driven attempt to create a Europe where, as Schuman put it, war was “practically impossible.”
There are two things to say about this before we get on to the consequences of the Ukraine crisis. One is that the proponents of this approach sincerely believed that it was not only the best, but probably the only, way to secure peace in Europe. Given where they were starting from, in the chaos and despair of post-World War II Europe, this was an understandable point of view, and indeed may well have been quite correct. To put it another way, there was a general will to avoid a repetition of 1939-45 at any cost, and the nascent European institutions were a broadly acceptable way of putting this into practice. But the second thing is that the policy contained the seeds of its destruction within itself, and we may be approaching the point now where it starts to fall apart.
There are several seeds. One, inherent in any supranational system is our old friend the lack of identity between states and nations. Because states sign treaties, contribute money to budgets and jockey for position, there is an assumption that they speak for all of their people equally. Yet everybody knows this is not true. In the early days of a six-nation EEC, this weakness could be politely assumed away. Whilst there were plenty of problems with the frontiers of, say, Germany, they were with Poland, not France. The space of the EEC was small enough and heterogeneous enough, that in a time of economic expansion and prosperity, the distinction between states and nations (or peoples) didn’t seem that important. It has become steadily more important, as the ever-increasing size of Europe has thrown up more and more baroque variations of political, economic and security disagreements that often cross frontiers. The fishing industry, for example, is of no interest to a banker in Madrid, or a Manager relations clients in Paris, although both will be concerned about tourism and urbanisation. The result is that in European fora, states find themselves often defending not national, but special local and regional interests, sometimes for electoral reasons, and finding the most bizarre allies and enemies.
At this point, I want to introduce a simple—but in my view crucial—distinction, between the continent of Europe, as a geographical, historical and cultural entity, and “Europe”, which is a political construction of treaties, laws and structures and which lives, as far as it has any geographical expression, mostly in Brussels. (This is why “Europe”, in the language of Maastricht, needs to be “constructed.” It has no inherent existence.) As with “state” and “nation”, the belief that Europe is the same as “Europe” confuses things, and does a lot of harm. It is, however, the dominant narrative today.
The conflation of the two ideas (and let’s leave the UK out of this for a moment) is just about tenable when the issues are essentially domestic, like fishing, indeed, or financial regulation. After some exhausting struggles, some sort of a collective solution can usually be found. The problem arises when “Europe” has to reach a common position with the outside world on a matter of substance. There, to talk of a “European solution” or even a “European position” is generally a waste of time. The best that can be hoped for is a compromise among European states that all governments can live with, at least in the short term.
It’s impossible, for example, to have a “European” approach to immigration: too many factors of geography, culture, economy, society, religion, population and so forth are involved, and this would be true even if immigration (or “migration” or whatever we choose to call it) were a simple thing, instead of a whole series of complex and context-dependent ones. Likewise, most external security questions, and many internal ones, have different resonances not only between states but even within them. I’ll come back to these two points in a moment.
The second seed is that the method that was long ago chosen for the construction of “Europe” was necessarily coercive and top-down. It could not have been otherwise. The basic ingredients were the promotion of a normative discourse, creation of new institutions, and transfer of powers away from elected governments. The enabling factor was the creation of a trans-European political elite, increasingly educated in each others’ countries, communicating with each other in mediocre English, and identifying with norms rather than with people.
The normative discourse was based on a particular interpretation of European history, and especially the Wars of the twentieth century, which I have described elsewhere. In common with much elite opinion of the time, it thought conflicts and wars were produced by ordinary people driven by ignorance, hatred and intolerance, who were manipulated by unscrupulous leaders abusing and exploiting alleged “grievances.” As a result, you and I might foolishly elect governments that promoted conflict, human rights abuses and even war. This discourse, always present, became considerably more powerful with the creation of the European Union under the 1991 Maastricht Treaty, and effectively dominates today. It describes a “Europe” in which we do not actually live; or if you prefer, the “Europe”which the discourse implies has necessarily to be an imaginary construct, rather than any realistically feasible geographical and cultural entity.
There were two ways in which this discourse could have been constructed. One would have been to draw on the immense cultural, intellectual and linguistic heritage of Europe, its complex history and its Christian and Classical roots, to construct a collective European sensibility and mentality. This route was not taken, for fear of controversy, of reigniting historical quarrels, of appearing to encourage “nationalist” or “reactionary” forces then starting to make themselves felt, of appearing to excuse, or tolerate, or just not overtly condemn, various debatable episodes from the past. It was also felt that it would be impolite and potentially discriminatory to force Europe’s increasing immigrant population to learn about these things. European iconography therefore (inasmuch as it can be said to exist) cultivates anonymity and non-specificity, from its meaningless banknotes, the most boring and anonymous in the world, to its characterless institutional architecture in Brussels and Strasbourg, to its meaningless flag. Its common language is a kind of strangled English, heavily influenced by bureaucratic French, which bears the same relationship to correct English as medieval church Latin did to the writings of Cicero.
So the practical result is a discourse which is essentially empty of meaning and significance, because it has no historical or cultural context. Rather, it is a discourse entirely derived from abstract norms, mostly clustered around the contested concept of human rights, which, as I have pointed out, is a slippery and dangerous basis on which to construct anything. Because religious and ethical teachings over nearly three thousand years are of necessity excluded from contributing to the discourse, it has to be created ab initio, from abstract and ill-defined Liberal concepts that are simply asserted to be true without argument, but nonetheless have very concrete effects on the lives of ordinary people. The effect of this is to move practical questions of the management of society into the realm of metaphysical debate about the meaning of words.
Someone has to codify and enforce this discourse, and so “Europe” has progressively developed institutions. Some, like the Commission, began as purely administrative, and have partly retained that function, doing important work. But parts of the Commission—which has its own financing—have now moved into the normative area. It funds large numbers of “civil society” organisations within the EU, theoretically to make the “voices of the people” heard, although there have been persistent complaints that it is hard to know who has been funded and by how much, and on what basis the decisions were taken. It also funds such groups massively abroad, and has what amounts to its own foreign policy. (Although a separate body, the European External Action Service is notionally responsible for an actual EU foreign policy.) The EU itself lists 76 subordinate agencies covering a huge range of areas, from coordination of aircraft safety measures to the European Institute for Gender Equality. There is a directly-elected European Parliament, in the news again after a serious corruption scandal linked to Qatar, although its powers are limited. (It almost passes belief that two organisations headed by people recently arrested for corruption in this scandal are called respectively Fight Impunity and No Peace Without Justice.)
There is also a European Court of Human Rights (not, confusingly, the same as the Court of Justice of the European Union) which has long existed as the guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights, which entered into force in 1953. Its ability and its increasing inclination to overrule laws passed by national parliaments on what it argues are human rights grounds, is one of the principal irritants for those who find European power becoming increasingly intrusive, although to be fair it is a legal entity distinct from the EU itself.
The third point, the transfer of powers away from elected governments, follows from the above. Power cannot really be “pooled”: it always has to be exerted by somebody, and tends to be very much a zero-sum game. The result, paradoxically, has not been a concentration of power “in Brussels”, so much as a dispersion of power, which creates arguments about who is responsible for what, and holds up decision-making. And as you multiply organisations, you multiply conflicts, as we see in the attempts by the Commission to muscle its way into the Covid response and now into policy on Ukraine.
Now, it’s obviously important to avoid falling into ritual Brussels-bashing The institutions of “Europe” are no worse than those anywhere else: many of the EU’s subordinate institutions do useful work, and are staffed, in my limited experience, by people as competent and motivated as you would find in national governments. The casual corruption of the European Parliament is no worse than in parliaments of some member-states, from which, of course, the parliamentarians are themselves frequently drawn. And newly-minted unelected bodies able to overrule parliaments exist at the national level as well.
But it remains true that all of these institutions, together with the manufacture and maintenance of the discourse, take place at several removes from anything the citizen can directly influence. (Strikingly, it was the Belgian Federal Police who arrested various figures in the Brussels scandal: the EU would apparently not have been able to.) This is not an error, but a design objective. “Europe” is constructed explicitly on the thesis that for the good of all, power must be exercised and decisions taken by technocratic elites, so that the passions of ordinary people, inflamed by demagogues, cannot once more threaten stability and even peace.
We are the enemy, in other words, and “Europe” must be protected against against its citizens. Now as I have pointed out before, the idea that conflicts begin through individuals hating each other is utterly ludicrous as an explanation of how real conflicts happen. And if the diagnosis is wrong, then any course of action deduced from it (what we might call the Verdun Axioms) must be wrong as well. This has not stopped “Europe” from trying to apply this frame of reference to its interventions overseas, with predictably poor results. But that’s overseas: I want to finally look at the dangers this approach poses for Europe (the place not the concept) in the context of the Ukrainian crisis. It seems at least possible that that crisis will be the death of “Europe” as we have known it, and there may be some risk the actual Europe as well. I’ll take two cases, and start with the lesser-known example.
First, Freedom of Movement. In principle this sounds fine, and has obvious advantages if you want to go from, say, Paris to Amsterdam without needing to show a passport. After all, Freedom is inherently a good idea, isn’t it? Well, politicians and lobbyists of every political persuasion have always thought so. It is by definition hard to argue against: who doesn’t want to be free? On the other hand, if we were to talk about “uncontrolled movement” as we might talk about “uncontrolled gun ownership.” we’d probably get a different response.
Apart from oddities like the old Soviet Union, free movement within a country was the norm. But nations had always regarded the control of their own borders, and knowing who was within them, as important. This was not just a question of sovereignty, it was also a very practical problem. After World War II, and until quite recently, Australian governments freely accepted immigrants who, it turned out, had committed crimes and atrocities around the world. The resulting scandals forced them to set up a special organisation to investigate and prosecute them. More recently, Canada has had a similar experience.
“Europe” attempted to handle this problem by establishing external controls on entry, through the organisation known as FRONTEX, to work with member states who had external frontiers. But this was in the context of (and partly in reaction to) the 1995 Schengen agreement, which abolished passport checks and visa requirements for what is now almost the whole of the EU and several other states besides. The problem, not fully understood at the time, was that if migrants or refugees entered one Schengen country, they could in principle pass into any other. This would be less of a problem if they were evenly distributed, but in practice migrants tend to congregate in the poorer suburbs of major cities, in countries with effective social systems, and where their fellows already live. The wars in the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa (and now of course Ukraine) created a problem that was simply not appreciated in 1995. As you might expect, the reaction of “Europe” has been to deal with the question normatively, by ignoring it, in the hope that it will go away. But we may be reaching the point where it can no longer be ignored. We do not know how many million people will finally flee Ukraine, nor what the potential effects on other countries in the region will be, but it is hard to see how a policy that has created a single space of free movement can survive.
The problems are essentially practical. Not all countries, and not all cities, are equally attractive as destinations. New arrivals go where they have contacts and hope to be treated best. France (to take an example I am familiar with) has an extremely generous social security system. Moreover, under pressure from “Europe” and domestic NGOs, the French government has moved away from the concept of “asylum” to that of “protection”, notably against the risk of suffering harm in a state where there is conflict. Not all applications are accepted, but in the meantime applicants nonetheless benefit from a whole range of financial support and special treatment for housing and finding a job. Few French people would oppose this as a matter of principle: the country has a proud tradition of welcoming the persecuted. The problem is the scale.
For example, children (even of illegal immigrants) have a right to free education. But increasingly French schools in poor areas, with services already under stress, are receiving adolescents who do not know a word of French. There are arrangements for language teaching, but the posts are underfunded, too few, and not very attractive, so many schools in poor areas now have classes where a significant proportion of the children cannot understand French properly. Moreover, many come from areas in conflict, may have suffered trauma and lost their families: they cannot help but be disruptive. The answer, of course, is a massive investment in language training and social and psychiatric support. But that is a practical answer: the normative one is to treat parents who complain as “racist”, and tell teachers to shut up. So parents who can afford it put their children into private schools, the best teachers leave, and the problem is solved. In effect, the normative, “European” answer is that Free Movement is a good thing, and so its consequences are therefore irrelevant. I doubt that will survive much longer, though: the thought of the Commission trying to negotiate quotas for settlement of Ukrainian refugees, for example, or solve the problem “at the European level”, is quite surreal. (Berlin, which has received 400,000 refugees from Ukraine, has already declared a state of emergency.) But the effective end of Free Movement would also effectively also be the end of a whole range of social and economic policies which have helped to define “Europe” itself.
And the security of frontiers is, in turn, only part of a much larger problem which “Europe” has never succeeded in solving, or even properly addressing. What are Europe (the continent)’s security interests? In truth, it has never been possible to define them successfully. For the theoreticians of “Europe”, security issues only exist because not every part of the world is as blessed as we are, and, outside the European “garden”, much of the world is a “jungle,” as the unhappy Mr Borrell recently put it. So we should go there and help to stabilise them, if only to prevent their problems becoming ours one day. But that’s really it. Organised crime just needs better police cooperation, human trafficking just needs new laws, Islamic fundamentalism is only a problem for racists. None of these things is really serious.
This was the case from the beginning. After the Cold War, when the Threat curled up and died, there were wildly different opinions about what security was, and what security forces were even for. At one extreme were the French who, with some others, argued that the European Union was analogous to a nation state, and so would not be fully sovereign without armed forces under its control, nor be able to play its part in security issues around the world. So European armed forces just had to exist; to be. At the other extreme, nations like Britain and Germany were always asking what these forces were actually doing to do. After which, Bosnia happened, and “Europe” has spent thirty years stumbling from one unsatisfactory position to another, culminating in the present Ukraine mess.
The reason for this is very simple. There never was, and isn’t now, a common security interest for “Europe.” Each member state has its own interests, some are complementary, many are different, some are diametrically opposed. These interests are geographical, historical and economic in origin, and they change very slowly, if they change at all. All that the Ukraine crisis has done is to remind us that this is so. This emphatically does not mean that there is the risk of another Verdun, but it does mean that tensions, stresses and political and economic conflict between European states will always be with us, and will be exacerbated by the Ukrainian crisis. “Europe” can do nothing to improve the situation, and indeed its involvement, through the questionable activities of von der Leyen, may well make things worse.
After the end of the Ukrainian crisis, when the debris has stopped bouncing, European states will have to learn to live with Russia, individually and collectively. They will have to deal with an angry, energy-rich military power which does not believe it owes them any favours, as well as the husk of the former Ukraine and the further consequences that we can’t yet see. Some things will be reasonably common (energy and raw materials), whilst other things will be specific to certain areas. Europe, even collectively, will be no match for Russia militarily (and is making itself weaker every day) but then it will have no cause to fight Russia anyway. Countries close to Russia, or even with a common border, will have a different view from countries thousands of kilometres away, whose security preoccupations might be quite different. In the circumstances, it is hard to see how “Europe” can in any sense find a common policy for the most significant security problem Europe (in the geographical sense) has faced since 1945. And if “Europe” cannot do that, people will begin, no doubt, to ask what “Europe” is actually for. In addition, the wider results of “Europe”s slavish support for Ukraine have yet to be seen: not just the alienation of countries like India and China, but also the wider loss of support and influence in many parts of the Global South.
I suggested a few weeks ago, that for “Europe” (which is to say the pro-Brussels elites of its member states) Ukraine is an ideological and religious crusade that they cannot afford to lose.But things don’t look so good at then moment, and in the end, one of the major casualties of this sorry episode might well be “Europe” itself.