The European Union: What Went Wrong

The migrant crisis is thought to be the chief precipitating event behind the shocking UK Brexit vote outcome, along with the general sense that the European Union and its ever expanding bureaucracy and high-handed intrusiveness is becoming intolerable. But remember that the decision to hold a referendum in Britain was made three years ago, after several years of agitation by EU critics, who are not limited to just the UK.

The original idea behind the three-level European integration—free trade, collective security, and freer movements of people—was and remains sound, but even EU sympathizers are grudgingly admitting that the EU lost its way and was tending toward a Leviathan super-state. But does immigration and burgeoning bureaucracy alone explain the heart of what’s wrong with the EU enterprise, or is there something deeper at work?

As it happens, I’m reading a lot of French thinkers old and new at the moment for one of my typical idiosyncratic projects that may or may not see the light of day. One of them is Pierre Manent, who is a protégé of the late and great Raymond Aron (whose fascinating memoirs I also recently just finished). Manent deserves to be much better known in the U.S. In his 2006 book Democracy Without Nations: The Fate of Self-Government in Europe, Manent points out that beyond the ambiguity of the nation-state in the evolving EU, the entire project of European integration rested upon the vague sense that politics itself could be abolished or superseded (very much the same point that the liberal writer Damon Linker was making in the column of his I linked to on Monday). In such a post-political world, the Nation State will certainly not wither away, but will be replaced by the SuperState, (or what Alexandre Kojeves called the “universal homogeneous state”). Between a European political class that wants to abolish politics (and culture along with it), and a wave of migrants with very determined political and cultural ideas and willing to trade on Europe’s “tolerance,” it is no wonder that more Europeans are having second thoughts.

Here’s one of Manent’s observations on the problem early in the book:

For a long time our nations and Europe developed together. But at some point, not easy to indicate exactly, but which is plausible to designate as the “Maastricht moment,” the European enterprise underwent a decisive change. At this point the European contrivance detached itself from the national political bodies. The artifice took on a life of its own. “Europe” crystalized as an Idea endowed with a legitimacy surpassing all others, and it was equipped and fortified with institutional mechanisms capable of reconstructing all aspects of European life. Europeans found themselves caught in an “endeavor without end,” one that no longer had any political meaning. Its sole prospect was an indefinite extension that no one knew where nor how to stop. That is where we are now.

Manent’s basic point is that you can’t have politics without nations and distinctive cultures, and that democracy requires both. Later in the book he returns to the theme of the EU’s creeping nihilistic cosmopolitanism in a more direct way:

After the Second World War the European idea and its accompanying institutions facilitated the reconstruction on solid foundations of the European nation-state, whole also making plausible, imaginable, and even desirable the withering away of this supposedly antiquated political form. But does “Europe” mean today the depoliticization of the life of peoples—that is, the increasingly methodical reduction of their collective existence to the activities of “civil society” and the mechanisms of “civilization”? Or does it instead entail the construction of a new political body, a great, enormous European nation? The construction of Europe, from the Common Market established in 1957 to the European Union today, has made progress only because of this ambiguity, and as a result of combining these two contradictory projects it has taken on its character as an imperious, indefinite, and opaque movement. Thus, this initially happy ambiguity has become paralyzing, and threatens soon to become fatal. The sleepwalker’s assurance with which “Europe” pursues its indefinite extension is the result of its obstinate refusal to think about itself comprehensively—that is, to define itself politically.

Manent, for what it’s worth, believes that restoring European vitality requires embracing its Christian heritage.

UPDATE: I emailed a friend who is close to Manent to see whether he know of Manent’s specific thoughts on Brexit. He sent back this:

He was for the Brexit and was quite delighted by the results of the referendum. He believes the vote breaks the claims of historical inexorability that allegedly made national loyalty and self-government outmoded in Europe.