European chauvinism as the antidote to nationalism

Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post is probably the leading American defender of “the Europe of Brussels,” the antithesis of “the Europe of Nations.” She’s also one of President Trump’s harshest critics.

That makes sense. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks the truth when he says that “President Trump has helped put the world back on track to a nation-first trajectory.”

In her latest column, Applebaum describes a lunch meeting that she and a small group of “European writers, historians and philosophers” had with French president Emmanuel Macron. The gathering was organized by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, precisely the person you would have tabbed for the role if you were writing a satirical story about such a lunch.

But Applebaum isn’t writing satire, and Macron’s remarks, as she sets them forth, are revealing. She recounts:

[Macron] pointed out. . .that those who fear the return of nationalism and nativism across the continent still don’t have a common political language. They are the majority — in most countries, the vast majority. But they are also center-right conservatives, center-left social democrats and liberals from many countries, and they don’t necessarily use the same political vocabulary. They lack a common set of heroes, a common set of themes — in other words, to use the now- unavoidable phrase, they lack a common narrative.

Say what you will about nationalism, it delivers a common set of heroes and themes.

What’s an anti-nationalist to do? Deliver his own common set of heroes and themes.

But where are they to be found? Jacques Delors and the Common Market won’t do.

Here, according to Applebaum, is Macron’s answer:

Macron has talked of creating networks of European universities, schools and cultural institutions to ensure that “every European recognizes their destiny in the figures adorning a Greek temple or in Mona Lisa’s smile,” as well as similar networks of European police forces and militaries to keep Europeans safe in an era of radical Islamist terrorism, Russian espionage and U.S. disinterest.

In other words, counter nationalism with a kind of super-nationalism and throw in a dose of anti-Islamist rhetoric. Mimic the caricature you have developed of your opponents, and beat them at their own game.

It’s a clever response. However, there are problems with it. First, staffing a network of universities that preaches a European destiny and extols Greek temples and Mona Lisa’s smile won’t be easy.

The modern academic left isn’t into European chauvinism. Many of its leading members don’t even accept the concept of a common Western (or European) civilization with roots in ancient Greece. They view the notion as a 19th century invention to justify imperialism and colonialism — or something.

Second, don’t expect the left to rally behind European police and military forces countering Islamist terrorism. This sort of appeal might be a coalition buster.

Third, no amount of indoctrination by a network of universities will persuade Hungarian and Poles (or any other national group, really) that their heroes should be Greek or, more broadly, that their destiny should be European. They know all too well what that sort of destiny has looked like in the past.

For the foreseeable future, Kossuth and Kościuszko will resonate more with Hungarians and Poles (respectively) than any “European” heroes Macron might offer up. Indeed, historical figures who stood for more European unity are mostly regarded as villains in the areas they tried to consolidate, and rightly so.

Finally, and relatedly, the kind of pitch Macron apparently wants to make might well play into the hands of nationalists. Talking about the threat of Islamist terrorism almost certainly will. What’s a better solution to that problem, restricting Muslim immigration or European policing? The answer seems clear and it doesn’t favor Macron’s side.

I’m not saying that the nationalists will successfully thwart the Europe of Brussels or even that they will turn public opinion decisively against that Europe (Brussels has fixed it so that the two things are not the same). I’m also not saying that those who are pushing for the Europe of Brussels are devoid of moderately appealing lines of argument.

But I do question whether the European chauvinism Macron seems to be pitching is one of these arguments. The case for the Europe of Brussels is inherently drab, like that Europe itself, and I don’t think there’s any way of getting around this.

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