29 July 2015

Europe is faced by threats far more complex than the Cold War


August approaches. For T. S. Eliot, April was the cruellest month. It brought spring and new life to challenge the evasions of despair: the men who try to live without God. The Crucifixion took place in April: “And yet we call this Friday Good.” The cruellest event, the greatest event: a hideous death, a triumphant renewal – Eliot’s April confronts men with pain, but also with hope. The pain of mortality gives way to the hope of resurrection. The cruelty was merely apparent; death shall have no dominion.

August is another story; ” cruellest month” a profound understatement. This August, there could be a crisis in Turkey, and the Middle East is in a permanent state of crisis. We await economic developments in China and geopolitical occurrences on Russia’s borders. August may be a holiday month; this does not mean that the world can relax.

There are baleful precedents. In the high summer of 1914, the young men of Europe set off to war. Heads held high, and with them, hopes; fresh and confident levies, a song on their lips, a brisk light infantry pace to make light of pack-weights and hardship. Never in human history had so many millions been so profoundly infused with gallantry and courage. Thus inspired, they marched off to win the war to end all wars: towards the second fall of man.

Twenty-five years later, another August; much less singing and little talk of the war to end all wars. The enemies of European civilisation are making common cause to destroy it. Auden described the Thirties as “a low, dishonest decade.” That was unfair on the British and French politicians who had to cope with an economic depression, fascism and communism, as the Versailles settlement crumbled. But it was a bleak and fear-haunted decade, which seemed likely to end in a war to end all peace.‎

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality;” another Eliotism, and just as well that he was right. In 1945, a more sensitive and realistic species might have given up. Europe seemed finished. Its cities, broken and battered: its empires, crumbling: its peoples, cold, hungry and frightened. The barbarians were in charge. There were benevolent barbarians from across the Atlantic, with nylons and Hershey bars and the opulence of the PX store. There were malevolent barbarians from the Urals, who had raped and plundered their way through central Europe, and yet still retained the allegiance of idiot-savant Left-wingers. Neither of Europe’s new masters seemed to have much use for old European wisdom – and why should they? Why should they not conclude that it was the wisdom of the graveyard, the concentration camp; a wisdom which had ended in failure?

In 1945, it seemed probable that failure would have endless dominion, as the rival invaders eye-balled one another across what rapidly became the Iron Curtain. Europe, so recently the master continent, had so lost control of its own destiny that it seemed fated to provide the playing-field for the next and terminal world war. Three strikes, and Europe would have been out.

We Europeans were saved, not by our own efforts, still less by our own wisdom. We owe our survival to the threat of mutually-assured destruction. and to the benevolence of the Americans. To paraphrase Marx, anti-Americanism was the socialism of fools. On the Left, there were a lot of fools. To their eternal credit, the Americans ignored them and saved the Europeans from themselves. The result: no third world war – merely a Western victory in the Cold War – and the brief delightful illusion that we were about to enjoy the end of history.

This August, we know better. it is true that Europe is infinitely more peaceful and prosperous than anyone could have imagined in 1945. But we do not and cannot control our destiny, while we are also afflicted by problems of our own making. In 1945, out of tragedy, there grew an apparently benign but ultimately destructive illusion.

As the youngsters with political aspirations met amidst the ruins of great cities, while columns of gaunt, ragged refugees sought shelter and sustenance, it is easy to understand why those who would rise to power over the next few decades had lost faith in the nation-state. At moments, especially during the upheavals of 1848, nationalism had seemed to offer progress, modernity, freedom. Latterly, it wore jackboots: ” a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.” Many of the finest rising political intelligences in Europe concluded that their continent could only survive if it transcended nationalism in favour of a European union.

It is an attractive vision. It is also deeply flawed. Mankind does not do transcendence – or at least, not in this world. Attempts to reshape human nature as part of some Enlightenment project are bound to fail: Jacobinism and Marxism are obvious examples. Try to turn men into Angels and they will end up as Orcs. The attempt to unite Europe was another doomed essay in reshaping.

In the first place, the diagnosis was wrong. Nationalism is redeemable, because human beings can learn lessons from history. In 1648, it would have been widely assumed that it was hard to share a continent with the Spaniards. By 1815, the same would have been said of the French, and in 1945, of the Germans. But nations change. Even without the European Union, there would have been no risk of the Germans and the French going back to war over Alsace-Lorraine. Second, men need nations just as families need homes. In a globalised and insecure world, most people feel a neo-Hobbesian need to identify with a polity; with a government which owes its legitimacy to popular consent.

Could the European single currency have earned such consent? It seems unlikely. Monetary union cannot work without fiscal union. In turn, that must mean political union. Are the French – to take an obvious example – really ready to surrender that much sovereignty? It seems unlikely. But we shall never know. The men who devised the European single currency were in too much of a hurry to wait for consent. They were determined to build their house. So they started with the roof.

The multi-faceted delusions and dishonesties of the Greek degringolade are worthy of analysis, and laughter. But they should not distract us from the graver difficulties. Even in counties which seemed better equipped to cope with the Eurozone’s rigours – Italy, Spain, Portugal, France – it is clear that the single currency rests on sure foundations of economic despair. Idealists devised it, but there is nothing idealistic about mass youth unemployment, which threatens to blight the life-chances of a generation, in counties with no long tradition of political stability.

History has not ended. Europe is faced by threats which are far more complex than those of the Cold War. To cope with them, our continent will need wisdom, strength and luck. Wisdom, from the politicians who adopted the single currency? Strength, from counties beset by unemployment and low growth? What remains? In a paraphrase of St Paul and the Beatles, the greatest of these is luck. But luck is not all you need.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator