Eating Vichyssoise in Athens

Eating Vichyssoise in Athens

Mini Teaser: Beyond the latest rows, institutional paralysis and financial incompetence, the scars of war have plainly not all been healed. Is there a deeper collapse of European self-confidence?

by Author(s): Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Pascal Bruckner, The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 256 pp., $26.95.

Theodore Dalrymple, The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism (New York: Encounter Books, 2010), 160 pp., $23.95.

 

"WHERE DID Europe Go?" shouted the cover of Time's continental edition earlier this year, not even bothering to add the word "Wrong." Every kind of woe is said to be afflicting the European Union, and the great scheme of unification has shuddered to a halt. A concatenation of crises over the past few months, of which the near bankruptcy of the Greek state is only the most lurid, has heightened an urgent question of which direction, if any, the Continent is now taking.

In terms of the great implosion of the global economy which began on Wall Street in late 2008, the Greek financial collapse is a storm in a retsina glass. The sums concerned are trivial by the standards of modern multitrillion-dollar high finance, or indeed by the standards of the Bundesbank. But the rights and wrongs are not the immediate point (even if no one can claim that successive Greek governments have managed public finances with any excess of scrupulosity: at one point they turned to the experts, in the form of Goldman Sachs, for lessons in creative accounting) so much as what the crisis has said about Europe.

 

A "DEEPENING" of the European Union is a long-standing project which has been visibly stalled for years now. In May 2004, the latest great expansion of the EU had seen the accession of ten new member states, of whom the eight that mattered were in Eastern Europe. Even those of us in some ways skeptical about the project-in the proper sense of the word "skepticism," before it was purloined by the frankly xenophobic "Euroskeptics" of the Tory Party and London right-wing press-could not but be moved as Poles, Hungarians and Czechs, who had for so long been sundered from the West and suffered under the yokes of National and then Soviet Socialism, rejoined "our common European home." Sad to say, after the celebration came the hangover. Europe woke up to realize that these new members now comprised a quarter of the enlarged EU's population, while providing about one-twentieth of its gross product; and you don't need an economics doctorate to see what a problem that meant.

By what in hindsight may seem hubristic timing, the following October a new European constitution was signed by all the member states-which is to say, by their political representatives. The rules require (to the regret of many Eurocrats, one cannot doubt) that such agreements should be ratified in each country, either by parliament or by popular referendum. This has meant that over and again grandiose schemes for taking the EU closer toward political federation have been elaborately worked out by officials in Brussels and subscribed to by heads of government, only to be rejected by the voters in one country or another, who are then told, in the best spirit of modern European democracy, to go back and vote again until they get it right.

In the spring of 2005, the Dutch and, more importantly, the French electorates rejected the constitution. It was no coincidence at all that these votes came within a year of that Eastern enlargement: on behalf of so many Europeans, the French were expressing disquiet about their new neighbors, personified by the proverbial Polish plumber taking their jobs. And they were saying even more emphatically that they did not want any further expansion; above all not to Turkey.

Behind this turmoil lay a malaise, a sense that all was not well, despite an unprecedented six decades of peace and prosperity. Since the fifteenth century, the world has been dominated by Europe and taught by Europe and exploited by Europe and made by Europe. After the calamitous experiences of the first half of the twentieth century, Europe had had enough, not least of itself and its own recent history.

But now the project, which began with the 1951 Treaty of Paris establishing the European Coal and Steel Community and proceeded through the 1957 Treaty of Rome, has come to an indefinite pause. The 2007 Treaty of Lisbon, designed to stick together all the pieces of the rejected constitution and renew the eu's goal of healing the wounds of war, totalitarianism, mass murder and ethnic cleansing, has done little in practice to enhance the likelihood of a federalist European state.

 

IN SHORT, there has been a quite-remarkable lack of solidarity among the nations composing the EU. We have seen this no more clearly than in the bitter animosity that has erupted between Greece and Germany-the one country rich enough to bail out its feckless continental cousins. Although such bailing out is forbidden under sundry EU treaties and regulations, Europe has in practice always shown considerable ingenuity when rules needed to be bent, and something could have been arranged to effect a comparatively painless resolution.

There has instead been a spasm of mutual loathing. "Betrüger in der Euro-Familie" screeches the cover of the German magazine Focus above a drooping statue of Venus, intending that Greece is this swindler in the European family, while in return a Greek paper, in defiance of all polite Euro-convention, uses as an illustration the likewise-statuesque figure atop the Reichstag building, holding in her right hand a swastika. Vulgar as this might seem, the truth is that the zealous exponents of European integration all along overlooked mere public opinion. From the founding fathers on, the leaders who created this project have always moved much faster and farther in promoting unified institutions (or merely in proclaiming a communautaire spirit of togetherness) than their electorates.

Bringing together the various European nations was surely a noble enterprise, and the European Union has obviously done huge good for most Europeans. So why don't they like it-and each other-more? Behind these latest rows, institutional paralysis, and financial incompetence (not to say, downright dishonesty) of some governments, the scars of war have plainly not all been healed. Still, these squabbles, however nasty, of course could be temporary. Yet might it be that "Europe" rests on shakier foundations? Is there a deeper collapse of European self-confidence?

 

[amazon 0691143765 full] IN THE Tyranny of Guilt, Pascal Bruckner argues that Europe's crisis is even worse than it appears and is ignored at the Continent's peril. The French novelist and essayist is less concerned with the immediate political woes of Brussels and Strasbourg than with a collapse of self-confidence and a spirit of self-flagellation he finds among the former colonizers and masters of the world. This is supposedly manifested in various ways: a drop in the birthrate so drastic that populations are no longer growing and will soon decline in Spain and Italy; a reflexive hostility to the United States, and also to Israel; a self-hating or "miserablist" narrative of national and continental history; and a groveling, guilt-induced refusal to take seriously the threat from militant Islam, a threat which comes not only from as far away as Iran and Afghanistan but more and more from within, as greatly increased Muslim populations challenge, not only by their numbers, but also by their vigor and sometimes their violence, a post-Christian Europe which doesn't believe in itself anymore and too often retreats into sour Trotzreaktionen.

Even those who disagree with Bruckner's thesis must admit that he makes some good points, and lands palpable hits, although some on what might be called soft targets. There is certainly some degree of latent anti-Americanism lurking on the Continent. But by now there really should be no need to chastise, as Bruckner does, those Europeans from the would-be cultural elite who actually gloated over the September 11 mass murder. They were always a cranky minority, whose bitterness has little to do with the real-often justifiable-basis for skepticism about American policies and actions. Bruckner cites two such characters, both now late and only partly lamented: Jean Baudrillard, a French pseudo-penseur who called the destruction of the Twin Towers an "absolute event" and a reflection of an antagonism "which points past the spectre of America"; and Karlheinz Stockhausen, the German avant-garde composer, for whom it was "the biggest work of art there has ever been." My personal response to that was a resolve never again to read a word by Baudrillard or listen to a bar of Stockhausen's music. In these hard times we must all make sacrifices.

Now, Bruckner knows very well that most Europeans felt nothing but sympathy with America on that indelible day. What they didn't realize was how the horror would be used to trigger (rather than justify) a completely irrelevant-not to say illegal, needless and disastrous-invasion of Iraq. If the overwhelming European sense of identity with and support for the United States has been dissipated these past eight years, whose fault is that?

When Bruckner mocks the notion of "Islamophobia" as it is now used by the softer-headed European liberal Left to deflect any criticism of Muslims, peaceable or violent, as a form of bigotry supposedly akin to racism, he is on firmer ground. The very concept requires "the crudest confusion between a religion, a specific system of belief, and the faithful who adhere to it." This willful elision of religion and race is an obvious category mistake fueled by deliberate intellectual dishonesty: criticizing any religion, whoever practices it, is not "racism."

Essay Types: Book Review