The Magazine

Playing the Verdun Card

Fearmongering in Brussels.

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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In the curious pantomime that is the EU parliament, the French politician Joseph Daul is a star. He’s the president of the European People’s party (the principal center-right bloc in the parliament), an apparatchik with impeccable EU establishment credentials. He has euro-federalist beliefs, a funding scandal in his past, and a willingness to warn that Brussels is all that stands between the continent and a reversion to its warring ways. He’s also a little twitchy about the elections to the EU parliament later this month.

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“I am convinced,” he announced recently, “that if Europe succumbs to the siren voices of populists and Euroskeptics, there will be a turning back towards chaos and war.” 

This is an all too familiar eurocratic refrain, but it is heard even more frequently on those rare occasions when Europe’s voters are given a chance to slow down the march to a superstate. Trying to cajole his compatriots into choosing the euro in a 2003 referendum, Swedish prime minister Göran Persson recalled how Germany’s “weeping” Chancellor Kohl had told him that he did not want his sons to die in a third world war, an understandable sentiment, but an unpersuasive argument. Swedish voters stuck with the krona.

Two years later, another Swede, Margot Wallström, then the EU commissioner charged with selling the proposed EU constitution to a somewhat doubtful continent, took the opportunity presented by a visit to the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt (Terezin) to observe that “there are those today who want to scrap the supranational idea. They want the European Union to go back to the old purely intergovernmental way of doing things. .  .  . Those people should come to Terezin and see where that old road leads.”

With this month’s election falling within a few weeks of the hundredth anniversary of a certain shooting in Sarajevo, the dire warnings now tend to refer to a different dark chapter in Europe’s tumultuous 20th century. Last year, José Manuel Barroso, the EU’s top bureaucrat, implied that those “who want to roll back our integration” were risking a regression to “the war [and] the trenches” of the past, a ludicrous variation on an already ludicrous theme.

If all this scaremongering were a matter of cynical calculation it might be possible to treat it with a degree of admiration. As a political tool, it has, after all, proved very effective: Fear works. And so does the manipulation of historical memory, another integral element in Brussels dezinformatsiya. If Europeans could be persuaded to blame the nation-state for their wars, they could be talked into distrusting their own patriotism and buying into the bogus made-in-Brussels “European” identity.

And, indeed, this is what we have seen over recent decades. As it came to be widely accepted that a united Europe was the key to peace, those who persisted in dissenting from the principle of a broader federalist agenda, except, perhaps, in reliably stubborn Britain, were pushed into uncomfortable and ultimately self-segregating corners far from
the electoral mainstream. Outside the skeptic isle, almost the only political parties prepared, until lately, to reject “ever closer union” were those drawn from the rougher ends of the political spectrum, an uninviting destination for centrist voters. That, in turn, made it easier to claim that Euroskepticism was, by definition, evidence of extremism and, maybe, a screw loose too.

The mantra that the EU was staving off a return to the hecatombs also operated as an unsubtle reminder to the Germans that they had a moral obligation to confine their role in the new Europe to keeping quiet and footing a large chunk of the bill. Meanwhile the rest of the continent—and, such is the power of guilt, much of Germany too—was led to believe that only Brussels could keep the Hun on the leash, a notion that rested on the absurd premise that panzers still prowled through Teutonic dreams. Such is the power of history.

The passing of time and the reemergence of German economic power have eroded some of the Bundesrepublik’s willingness to follow the demeaning postwar script, but by less than might be expected. Introducing the euro over the objections of most Germans made a mockery of their democracy. Preserving the single currency has stretched the country’s much-prized constitutional order and now threatens to become a permanent drain on its coffers, but the conservative, gently Euroskeptic (anti-euro, but pro-EU) Alternative für Deutschland is only likely to score 6-7 percent in the upcoming election, and no small portion of that support will owe more to the AfD’s mildly restrictive immigration policy than to its opposition to the single currency. Most of the rest of Germany’s political class remains in thrall to the tired myth that to retreat from ever closer union would be to advance into danger and, quite possibly, war.

But a myth it is. What kept the peace in Europe was, yes, in part, memories of Auschwitz and Verdun, but it was also, much more so, the product of the savage ethnic cleansing of Eastern Europe’s awkward German minorities, and, above all, the discipline imposed by the Cold War—by Soviet hegemony over half of the continent and American leadership of the other. The evolution of the EU was the consequence of this new, rather chilly peace, not the creator of it. Brussels subsequently performed an invaluable role in shepherding Moscow’s former European colonies back to the West after the Soviet collapse, but on foundations built by the Atlantic alliance.

Those who used and abused this myth to drive the EU forward were in many cases not so much Machiavellis as priests who had faith in a tale they themselves spun. And it proved to be a highly convenient myth. The insistence that nationalism is inherently dangerous is an extrapolation from a totally defeated, especially toxic, and specifically German form of nationalism. But it gave those in charge of the European project an ever-expanding license to remove more and more of anything that marked out the distinctiveness of a nation from the regular democratic process: The voters, poor creatures, so susceptible to “populists,” you see, could not be trusted to do the right thing.

Slice by slice, sovereignty has been transferred from democratic nation-states to a largely unaccountable supranational technocratic elite which in turn has become dangerously disconnected from the reality that encounters with the electorate might have brought, and dangerously emboldened as a result. And so the euro was put together with little regard for its own rule book, common sense, or anything resembling informed popular consent. Once launched, the currency union was run in a way that was, if anything, worse. After hubris, nemesis, and with it, old demons began to stir.

The long economic crisis has shattered the never completely convincing illusion of a continent that was leaving nationality behind. Northern Europeans resent being compelled to bail out nations of a eurozone periphery for which they feel little affinity and less respect. The eurozone’s laggards detest what they see as harsh rule by foreign diktat. Vintage stereotypes are dusted off. Greeks are thieves. Chancellor Merkel is a Nazi. Trapped in the jaws of a dysfunctional currency union, and lacking the democratic legitimacy to fix it and either the imagination or the courage to try something else, the establishment parties have little to offer but more of the same. And so the hard times grind on.

And as hard times tend to do, they are persuading increasing numbers of voters to turn to alternatives they once would never have considered. While the effect may be magnified by low turnout (which fell—the sixth consecutive drop—to 43 percent in 2009), this month’s European election is likely to see something that looks a lot like a Euroskeptic wave. Some 25 percent
of the vote could go to Euroskeptics  of one description or another, up from 15 percent or so (it’s difficult to be precise) in the current parliament. As waves go it will be choppy: This is a ragtag group, drawing from left and right and ranging from the benign (such as Britain’s UKIP) to the sinister (Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, given its big break by the failures of an EU that once claimed it had consigned black shirts to history). It will be neither numerous nor cohesive enough to change very much in the short term. But what these parties do have in common is a determination to wrest back control of their countries’ destinies from what is rightly seen as remote, micromanaging, and alien bureaucratic control.

This month’s vote will be followed by noisy, angry, and overwrought polemics, but not by dramatic transformation or the guns of August. That said, as the Barrosos and the Dauls push on—and they will—with the trudge towards ever closer European integration, doubtless claiming that the rise of “dangerous” Euroskepticism makes it even more imperative than before, they will be ignoring a nastily inconvenient truth from Europe’s past: Imposed multinational federations don’t end well.

Sarajevo learned that a century ago. And then it learned it again. 

Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.

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