Europe’s destiny

“There was nothing unavoidable about the predicament in which the United Kingdom now finds itself”

Manchester Square
Europe's triumph? (Cover illustration by Michael Daley)

Emerging from the summit that set the EU seal on Theresa May’s deal, Angela Merkel described Brexit as “tragic”. Normally a tragedy implies some kind of necessity or inevitability. Yet there was nothing unavoidable about the predicament in which the United Kingdom now finds itself. The EU leaders insist that it was the British people, manipulated by lying populists, who chose Brexit and must now face up to the “exorbitant” cost of their decision. But in reality the British were left with little choice, after the EU ignored their concerns and set a course that can only make the “democratic deficit” burgeon into bureaucratic bankruptcy.

The European project was always a perpetual motion machine for the insatiable accumulation of powers, whose engineers jealously watch over the acquis communautaire like dragons guarding their hoard. In the absence of British influence, the stage is set for a display of full-scale Euro-triumphalism in the Valhalla of Brussels — followed in due course by Götterdämmerung, as the euro goes up in flames and they are overwhelmed by a flood of migration.

Lest such Wagnerian metaphors seem extravagant, consider the case of Angela Merkel. Not only are the German Chancellor and her husband votaries of the Master, but she has lately begun making repeated references to Schicksal (“Fate” or “Destiny”) in her speeches about Europe. Most recently, in her address to the European Parliament, she implicitly warned against dependence on the United States in defence and security: “The times when we could rely on others without reservation are over.” She went on, in more mystical vein: “That means we Europeans have to take our destiny in our own hands if we want to survive as a community.”

What exactly “destiny” signifies here is still obscure, but Mrs Merkel has reiterated this sentiment so many times that it clearly means a great deal to her. Europe, for those who love its history and culture, really does have a cosmic importance that goes far beyond politics.

In some profound sense, the cityscapes and landscapes of this continent belong to all of us who adhere to the civilisation of the West. A cultural memory is embodied in the stones of Venice, the ruins of Athens, the boulevards of Paris that is not exclusively the property of those who happen to live here and now, but rather connects past and future generations too. It has become more fashionable to denounce the legacy that we may bequeath than to reflect at what cost our forebears fought to preserve our civilisation. When we ponder the plight of posterity, we ignore at our peril the ordeals of our ancestry.

Respect, then, is due to the keepers of the European flame, in so far as they are the authentic heirs of the Classics so eloquently evoked by David Butterfield. And yet there are grave doubts about the basis on which they are proceeding, having refused to address our concerns — the concerns that have driven the British to become the first country ever to leave their institutions. We have no certainty that, once we have left the formal structures of the European Union, the leaders of the latter will adhere to the values that underpin our common civilisation. The same applies, of course, to us and to our cousins in the Anglosphere. But the history of the last century suggests that the English-speaking peoples are more firmly rooted in the soil of Western civilisation than our Continental partners. That is why it is perplexing that the custodians of the EU rebuffed the British. Their ingratitude towards their former liberators leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

The future of Western civilisation is bright nevertheless. A great reward awaits those who seize the day in order to unleash the energies of nation states that languished for too long under the tutelage of others. We have seen how the former satellites of the Soviet Union have flourished, even if their governments, like others, are fallible. We do not endorse any government, but the Orban regime in Hungary deserves a fair hearing rather than the vilification that is usually its lot. Hence we have given space to George Schöpflin, an Anglo-Hungarian conservative intellectual and Fidesz MEP, to explain why the move of the Central European University from Budapest to Vienna does not necessarily imply that Hungary is turning its back on the West.

One of the greatest interpreters of Western civilisation was the late René Girard, whose key concept of mimetic desire is outlined in his radio dialogue with Robert Pogue Harrison, published for the first time, with an introduction by Cynthia Haven. It is indeed by mimesis that, as Erich Auerbach demonstrated in his eponymous work more than 60 years ago, that civilisation progresses. But as numerous other articles and reviews in this double issue imply, in the process of imitating our predecessors we frequently transform their ideas into new ones. For that mimetic miracle to take place, however, our cultural palimpsest must be freely interpreted. The modern Marcuseans who seek to impose a new form of censorship or, worse, self-censorship on universities and ultimately all institutions must be resisted, as we discuss in the context of Jonathan Haidt’s new book.

I make no apology for reverting to October’s cover theme of the Left’s anti-Semitism
. Never before in British history has a figure such as Jeremy Corbyn come close to accomplishing his utopian ambitions, adumbrated by Laszlo Solymar. Brexit may yet make the realisation of such a nightmare easier to imagine.

This is not the hour of Europe’s triumph. The advocates of an ever more grandiose Europe and of the nation state must ultimately be reconciled. The only plausible context in which that can happen is a Western civilisation that embraces both. To defend that civilisation is and always has been the proud mission of this magazine.