People will die for their country but not for a supranational federation, despite President Macron’s hubristic vision of a united Europe
I love Europe in spite of the European Union. I love Europe because, as Charles de Gaulle declared, it is a Europe of nations. I love Europe because it comprises some 50 countries, just over half of them members of the EU, each one a unique, irreplaceable microcosm of mankind. I love Europe because it abhors the uniformity of tyranny and the tyranny of uniformity. I love Europe because no region on Earth is more resistant to rule from above. I love Europe because I despise those who wish to abolish its distinctive diversity and turn it into a feeble imitation of the United States.
(Cover illustration by Michael Daley)
Europe’s architectural simulacrum is the Arc de Triomphe: magnificent in conception, monumental in scale — and monstrous in practice. It was built to celebrate Napoleon’s victories; it was the high point of Hitler’s triumphal tour of Paris. Our continent has witnessed the cruelest spectacles in human history, from religious persecution to world war and genocide. Now its most ambitious political organisation so far, the European Union, claims to set an example to the world, undertaking the greatest political experiment of all time by banishing not merely violence itself but the intellectual causes of violence, above all nationalism. In practice, though, these pacific claims are belied by the quasi-imperial tendency to centralisation that is in constant tension with the centrifugal forces of national, religious or cultural identity.
All these conflicting emotions swirled around last month’s centenary of Armistice Day, the end of the Great War. In London, the annual ceremony took place at the Cenotaph, with the Queen (now 92 and the only head of state to have actively participated in one of the world wars) watching from a balcony and the Prince of Wales laying a wreath on her behalf, and the German President also present — an unprecedented gesture that yet aroused no controversy. The Prime Minister of course attended too, giving her a good excuse to be the only absentee among the Allies from the commemoration in Paris.
This was a much grander affair, with 60 leaders including the presidents of Russia and the United States. It took place in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, surely the world’s most ostentatiously martial monument, even though the tomb of the unknown soldier lies beneath it. The highlight was neither prayers of reconciliation nor wreath-laying nor the two-minute silence, but a speech by Emmanuel Macron. It was a rare opportunity for the Président de la République quite literally to look down on the global elite, and he delivered an oration intended to remind the world that in France, at least, presidents still know the value of eloquence.
For Macron is, indeed, a fine orator in the florid, allusive, declamatory manner to which French statesmen, alone among those of the great powers, still adhere. It is a long speech, delivered in bad weather, and Donald Trump, to whom some of his most pointed remarks seem to be directed, looks as if he would probably rather be enduring the torments of Tartarus — which is after all the destination to which he believes Europe is headed. Macron, for his part, sees those who summon up Europe’s nationalist past as diabolical: “The old demons are resurgent, ready to accomplish their work of chaos and death.” The Great War, fought largely on French soil and from which France has never fully recovered, is deployed to maximum effect in support of Macron’s argument that the grand project of European Union must be protected at all costs against the demonic forces now ranged against it. For Macron, there is no contradiction between the destiny of France and that of Europe: “For patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: nationalism is a betrayal of it.” Here he echoes his hero de Gaulle, who famously distinguished patriotism (“when love of your own people comes first”) from nationalism (“when hatred for people other than your own comes first”).
Our predecessors a century ago, Macron insists with only slight exaggeration, “already dreamed of a political Europe . . . the European Union, a union of free consent, never seen before in history, delivering us from our civil wars.” Alluding to Julien Benda’s 1927 polemic against the anti-Semitic and ultranationalist intellectuals of the Action Francaise, Macron declares war on “the new ‘trahison des clercs’ [treason of the intellectuals] which is at work”, accusing these latter-day traitors of feeding lies, injustice and obscurantism. His target here may include the American “alt-Right”, but perhaps also conservative French intellectuals such as Michel Houellebecq, Pascal Bruckner and Alain Finkielkraut, who have been less than enthusiastic about the European Union and indeed Macron himself. Invoking the prospect of a “new epoch”, he denounces those who “ruin this hope by their fascination with withdrawal (“le repli”), violence and domination”. This is his only allusion to Brexit, but the implicit hostility towards an ally to whom the French perhaps owe more than to any other is quite shocking. The president concludes his speech in the traditional way: “Vive la France!” For him there is no contradiction between a revival of French patriotism, expressed in a new form of conscription, and his vision of a new European civilisation that will exorcise the “demons” of nationalism once and for all.
Yet what are the chances of Macron’s vision coming to pass? Let us turn to Simon Jenkins, one of our most distinguished public intellectuals, who reiterates his rejection of a hard Brexit at every opportunity. For the launch of his excellent new book, A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin (Viking, £25), Sir Simon chose the Locarno Room of the Foreign Office, a grandiose hall so named after the 1925 treaties that marked the high water mark of European reconciliation after the Great War. By his count, Sir Simon observed, Britain had “left” Europe nine times over the last 2,000 years; but it had rejoined the Continent eight times. So the chances of this ninth Brexit being permanent were small.
Yet in his book, Jenkins delivers a devastating verdict on the leadership of the European Union and, by implication, on President Macron.
The EU’s political structure, fashioned by the Cold War, has become cumbersome and retrospective, gripped by a democratic deficit which no one has been able to bridge. It lacks a constitution to which its multitudinous subjects can give wholehearted assent. Europe’s leaders have been unable to achieve the balance so vital to regional stability, between state and superstate, locality and centre, the citizenship of a nation and the citizenship of Europe. Fifty years of centripetalism have given way to centrifugalism.
After surveying more than four millennia of European history, Jenkins concludes that
. . . since the fall of Rome, no power has come close to ruling this continent. Charlemagne did not do so, nor did the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors, nor France’s Napoleon, nor Germany’s Hitler, nor yet the commissioners of the European Union. If history teaches anything, it is that all attempts to straighten Kant’s “crooked timber of humanity” will fail. Europe’s peoples will not be put on bondage to a superior state, however liberal its intentions.
That last clause should resonate in the Élysée Palace. Macron may see himself as liberal in the classical sense of the word, which is neither the American meaning of “centre-Left”, nor the French one of “centre-Right”, but rather a wider commitment to economic, social and cultural freedom. Nobody doubts Macron’s intelligence, least of all Macron himself. But his mind is not open or broad or subtle enough to grasp the point that Jenkins presses home:
The EU has sought ever more power without consent. It can now only decay if it does not repatriate that power to its members. This currently includes control of borders and immigration, and thus a role, as members see it, in the evolving character of their societies.
The postwar European order aspired to emulate the United States. Unlike the American model, however, the European partners were unable to agree on a grand constitutional settlement that could be adjusted to suit new circumstances. Instead, like the United Nations they began with the end on which they did agree — Kant’s dream of perpetual peace. Unlike either the US or the UN, they fixed on a means to achieve their end: “ever closer union”. This process has become the raison d’être of the EU. For the opinion-formers of the Continent — who came close to committing civilisational suicide during the first half of the 20th century — in this case the end justifies the means. That is, the pursuit of peace justifies the inevitable sacrifice of sovereignty, liberty and democracy required by a process that concentrates power in the central institutions of the union. It is a pursuit that lacks any extrinsic validation: its legitimacy is intrinsic to the process. But as the threat of war receded, the pursuit of peace was superseded by that of power and prosperity. The EU became the bureaucracy we know today: the self-perpetuating machinery of a means unaware that it is no longer advancing the end for which it was created.
There is no doubt that Macron’s conception of Europe has been profoundly influenced by Charles de Gaulle. But in the 1950s and ’60s, de Gaulle could still claim, with some plausibility, that there was no contradiction between French patriotism and European idealism — as long as it was a confederal, not a federal, Europe. Not that the serious European federalists were having any of it. Altiero Spinelli, in his 1972 tract The European Alternative, praised the Brussels Commission for having enabled the European Community (as it then was) to survive “the long winter of de Gaulle”. “No other statesman, apart from him, believed in the effective possibility of European unification under the hegemony of the French state” — not the Commission and other European institutions. After de Gaulle fell in 1969, the path to a federal Europe was clear.
Today, however, President Macron has returned to the Gaullist theme of a Europe united under French leadership, but without the General’s caveat. His latest initiative is to revive the project of a European army, an old idea given new significance by the fact that he has won over Angela Merkel, who enthused about it in her recent address to the European Parliament. But Macron went further in justifying “a true European army”. In a speech delivered in Verdun, the Great War battlefield most laden with tragic significance for the French, the president justified his call to arms with a stark warning: “We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America.” Donald Trump was outraged. “Very insulting,” he tweeted, “but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of Nato, which the US subsidises greatly!” The French were quick to clarify that Macron had not meant to suggest that he saw the US as an enemy, but his remarks, on the eve of a visit to France by the US president, were deliberately provocative: “When I see President Trump announcing that he’s quitting a major disarmament treaty which was formed after the 1980s euro-missile crisis that hit Europe, who is the main victim? Europe and its security.” Macron had a point here, but his protest fell on deaf ears in Washington because Europe had ignored Russia’s treaty violations.
After these opening shots, the relationship between the two presidents plunged still further into bitterness after Macron’s speech at the Arc de Triomphe. Trump tweeted: “It was Germany in World Wars One & Two — How did that work out for France? They were starting to learn German in Paris before the US came along. Pay for Nato or not!” He then hit back at Macron’s contrast between patriotism and nationalism. “By the way, there is no country more Nationalist than France,” adding just for good measure: “MAKE FRANCE GREAT AGAIN!” Macron responded in a television interview: “Allies owe one another respect.” Stung by Trump’s “inelegant” reference to the defeat and occupation of France in 1940-44, Macron pointed out that the French had been the first to aid the United States, “our historic ally”, during its revolutionary war with Britain. “But being an ally doesn’t mean being a vassal.” No, but it does mean showing loyalty and solidarity. In 1966, at the height of the Cold War, de Gaulle abandoned Nato’s military command structures; France only rejoined under Sarkozy in 2009. Less than a decade later, Macron is emulating the General: evidently impatient with an unpredictable American administration, he has decided to replace an Atlanticist with a European structure. He seems more afraid of “demons” within the West than of any external threats.
Macron has described nationalism as the “leprosy” of Europe. The French president believes that we are recapitulating the errors of the post-World War l era, ignoring the lessons that were learned after World War II. The more that opponents of the European Union voice their opposition to its authority in the traditional idiom of national identity, the more angrily its defenders dismiss these objections as a mere smokescreen for regression to the evils of a barbaric past: populism, fascism, Nazism. Demagogues on both sides resort to biological metaphors to express their revulsion: immigrants are compared to vermin, elites to parasites, nationalists to diseases.
Am I a nationalist? I never even knew that I was a patriot until Britain found itself at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982. But the anguish of seeing young men (nowadays it would be women too) sacrificing their lives for their country was both shattering and sobering for me. Dying for a cause is not invariably noble: witness the jihadis who delude themselves that they are dying for Islam. The British servicemen who laid down their lives in that and subsequent wars, however, were under no illusions. They were my contemporaries; they could have been me. They died, like countless others before and after them, for Queen and country.
So why is it inconceivable that they would die for Europe? Not because the cause is ignoble: many of my nearest and dearest feel passionately about the European cause. I wish I could share their passion. But human beings do not give up their lives lightly. Ideas, even good ideas, are not worth dying for. The European Union, to be sure, is far more than an idea: it is a vast political structure, so vast indeed that escaping from its gravitational attraction is proving to be as difficult for the UK as it would be for Earth to leave her orbit round the Sun. Yet what the European Union does not and will never provide is something we could call home. A homeland, a motherland, a fatherland: these are more than ideas. People will die for the country in which they have grown up, or which has given them home, in much the same way that they would sacrifice everything for their family. Yet they will not die for Europe. For this reason alone, Macron’s talk of a European army is destined to remain just that — talk. Russia and its allies aside, Nato, and Nato alone, has a monopoly of force on our continent. Nato is a multinational alliance, not a supranational federation that claims to be more than the sum of its parts. Nato soldiers serve alongside their allies, but they fight for their homelands, not for a latter-day Grande Armée. Indeed, for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, the Grande Armée counted 20 different nationalities in its ranks, more than half its total complement. This formidable host was perhaps the only precursor of Macron’s European army.
Yet Napoleon’s was an imperial army, united only by loyalty to the Emperor. Hence, at a subliminal level, the French alone still like to think of Europe as an empire. This emerged in remarks made by Macron’s finance minister, Bruno Le Maire. In an interview last month, he explained why a European army and other manifestations of a federal government were necessary: “It’s about Europe having to become a kind of empire, as China is. And how the US is.” He added: “Do not get me wrong. I’m talking about a peaceful empire that’s a constitutional state. I use the term to raise awareness that the world of tomorrow will be about power.”
Le Maire’s imperial designs are a reminder of the long-term goal of the European Union, which has never changed. Back in 1972, Spinelli was frank that “a true [European] government in the fullest sense of the word will not exist until the day when the Community [now EU] also possesses the power of coercion over anybody who does not wish to obey its laws.” If that day dawns, it will be the realisation of the vision of Macron and his movement, with its martial name En Marche (“Forwards”). They see the future of the EU as a new, enlightened, Macronian France writ large. After the 19th-century empires of Napoleon I and Napoleon III we may live to see the 21st-century Third Empire of Emmanuel Macron. It is true that Troisième Empire sounds better than Third Reich, which means exactly the same.
Nationalism in de Gaulle’s sense, of hatred for other peoples, is clearly wrong, but it is not wrong to love one’s country — which means loving other countries less. This seems to apply to the French too, especially where the British are concerned. I love Europe, but I love England more, and I do hate those who would set us against each other. Macron’s close ally Le Maire asks: “What does Brexit demonstrate? It shows that leaving the common European market has an exorbitant economic cost.” Brexit means “economic disaster” and those who advocate Brexit are “lying and irresponsible politicians”. This seems to be a new kind of European triumphalism. What kind of triumph is it, though, for the EU to lose one of its most important members? Isn’t Europe wracked with one crisis after another — France included?
Macron may demonise nationalists as lepers, but Jesus taught us to embrace the leper; according to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, indeed, we human beings are all lepers. Humility is not a characteristic we associate with the Jupiter of the Élysée. Better a latter-day leper than a born-again Bonaparte.