The Skeptics

If the European Union Is the Titanic, Bet on the Iceberg

It wasn’t long ago that Germany’s Angela Merkel was anointed as the last defender of liberal Western values. She was even expected to hold America’s Donald Trump to account. But that vision died with her announcement that she supported prohibiting Muslim women from wearing a “full veil” face covering.

Far from being the West’s guardian, Merkel turned out to be a Western politician. And even she cannot ignore illiberal currents buffeting Germany as well as the rest of Europe. The postmodern European Union, which was supposed to push the retrograde peasantry into the progressive new age, has run aground and is taking on water. And it might not be possible to bail fast enough to keep Europe from sinking.

The EU’s beginnings were valuable, even essential: economic cooperation among Belgium, France and Germany. The expanded Common Market promoted growth and prosperity, offering an example of freer trade that even Donald Trump might have supported. The early version of the European Union appeared determined to eliminate more economic barriers than it created.

But the Eurocrats, the bureaucratic, political, business, academic and journalistic elites centered in Brussels, now filled with sterile office buildings of the sort that dot Washington, DC, wanted more. Europe needed to become a Weltmacht, but a special postmodern variant. The EU would become a consolidated government that eschewed the usual concerns of nation, community and tradition. And the EU would take little, if any, note of what European peoples desired.

For a while, the Eurocrats got their way. Crush historic national differences through harmonization. Add ever more complex regulations that channel more aid than economic development. Turn a commercial union into a redistributionist union. Socialize debt and risk, encouraging the improvident to spend at everyone else’s expense—all in the name of “solidarity.”

Treat the free movement of people as the same as the free movement of capital, despite their dramatically different impacts. Dismiss any objections as coming from unenlightened bigots. Propose continued EU expansion even to lands with very different political, religious and social traditions and values. Insist on Brussels’ right to mandate acceptance of outsiders, overwhelming national borders, communities and governments—contra the wishes of residents.

Push for ever greater powers in an organization with three presidents, none of them popularly elected, and an elected parliament that cannot write the budget or initiate legislation. If the people vote down the proposed constitution, switch to a treaty. If people in the one country to vote on treaties say no, make them vote again. If the common currency totters because there is no common fiscal policy, use the predictable crisis to push further political consolidation. Shout down opponents with the mantra, “More Europe, more Europe.”

The point is not that the EU’s objectives and values are necessarily unattractive. I rather like the organization’s resistance to warmongering and support for cosmopolitanism. But the attempt to create the first postmodern empire against the will of its own people is an affront to the principles of self-government. People are right, and have the right, to be concerned about what their society is and is to become.

Moreover, the European Postmodern Project is turning out to be politically unsustainable. If the moderates and centrists who for so long dominated European politics—in practice, there never was much difference between, say, modern Germany’s nominally right-wing CDU and nominally left-wing SPD, and there is virtually none today—prove unwilling to represent their peoples, those peoples will find other, less respectable politicians, to do so. Which is happening all over Europe today.

There was a great sigh of relief across the continent last weekend because Norbert Hofer, the presidential candidate of Austria’s Far Right Freedom Party, received “only” 46.7 percent of the vote. However, candidates for the traditional governing parties in the middle didn’t even make the runoff. And the presidency is largely ceremonial. In Austria’s fractured parliament, the FP won’t need a majority to influence Austrian policy: in the latest poll, the FP leads the Social Democrats 35 to 27 percent, with the other parties behind.

The same weekend, Italian Matteo Renzi lost his reform referendum by a crushing margin and has resigned. Italy’s heavily indebted economy is one of Europe’s largest, and Italy’s banking sector is one of Europe’s weakest. Since joining the Eurozone, Italy’s productivity actually has fallen 5 percent. The major governing parties are considering revising election law before a possible early vote, lest the populist Five Star Movement triumph. Although the Italian people are not noticeably anti-EU, they, like the Greeks, may have erred in tying themselves monetarily to their more efficient and productive northern neighbors. And all three opposition parties, including Forza Italia and Lega Nord, support leaving the Euro.