Not long ago a train departed for nearly the last time from Amsterdam. It was headed to Warsaw, or at least the sleeper car I was in was. Other parts of the train would separate in the night for southerly or northerly destinations. Like a great, long conversation that adds or subtracts topics over its course, in different iterations, this ‘Euro Nite’ line could take you from Holland as far as Kiev or even Moscow; but more recently, one could board it in Holland and go to sleep, only to awake in Berlin, or Basel, Prague, Munich, or Copenhagen.
Warsaw was my weekly destination, as my Polish bride and expanding brood were at home there; whereas my work was split between Leiden and Warsaw. Those 50 or so trips, over two academic years, were some of the most ‘European’ experiences of my life, an experience that can no longer be shared by other (aspiring) Europeans.
The Czech porter sold Pilsner and savoury snacks; the Russians dealt in clear spirits and rogue masculinity; the Poles ran the catering car — when it was attached, and according to a schedule which seemed to defy all but Polish logic; and the Germans controlled the tickets and the logistics. The Dutch passengers attempted to fit their long frames into the small beds, to general amusement, the Danes remained their stoical selves and really enjoyed looking out the windows. Occasionally, German tourists or businessmen enquired meekly after other travellers.
Tourists and backpackers from all over the world were tolerated by these ‘locals’, whose faces were familiar even if they changed from week to week. And so we sauntered through the night, with common hope of reaching our destinations — and a little shared trepidation of the thieves and vagabonds occasionally boarding, against whom we had silently made a pact to assist one another when necessary (and it was sometimes necessary).
Friendship was possible but not forced. Rules were present but not policed (except at the limits). And there was no conflict implied between the many destinations and identities of those on board – whether native or alien – and our shared journey.
This marvel of order and cooperation — a metaphor ripe for picking — was cancelled after being curbed by the forces of ‘efficiency’ and ‘progress’. “Fast daytime trains and planes should be used instead,” I was told by a Deutsche Bahn operator. The German train service seems to have made that determination, “in consultation with European partners”.
It is true that the Deutsche Bahn had to foot the bill for the aging train cars and increased labour costs at night; and who can argue with ‘consultation’. Still, it was a terrible, anti-European decision, all too typical of bureaucratic Europe.
While there has been great effort and expense dedicated to designing money to unify us (e.g. EMI) and in creating architectural stillbirths to nest Europe’s leaders in (see the Europa Building), almost no attention is paid to that which makes Europeans feel European — where they practice being European — that is, until it is cancelled by a committee or immolated after long neglect (like Notre-Dame de Paris).
This is in no small part because contemporary Europe has, until very recently, identified itself with a creed of ‘European values’, as interpreted by an open conspiracy of representatives from the largest players, deliberately set against the Continent’s historical settlement, and dead set against the diverse settlements of the member states and of their varied provinces.
Europa non delenda est
“Europe is the best idea that Europe ever had,” a German Eurocrat once uttered. Whenever there was a problem in political Europe, instead of leadership, the trusty tonic of “More Europe in Europe” was served. (This was a phrase deployed by the sometime Polish prime minister, then serving as chamberlain to the French and German premiers.) ‘Europe’, it must be remembered, is an unalloyed good. For the past 25 years, wherever and whenever the European Union has extended, it has been unthinkable to imagine that there could be anything like a ‘bad Europe’. Even to level words like ‘reform’ or ‘renewal’ in reference to Europe was to reveal oneself to be on the side of the forces of destruction and probably, at bottom, a war-mongering nationalist, nostalgic for the past — or worse, a traditional Christian whose hope is not ultimately secular. For, ‘Europe’ — namely, the institutional EU under transnationalist rule — is the reason for peace in our time, and the Euro means prosperity, and our hope is in “an ever closer union”.
Thus, in order to avoid being either nationalistic or ‘Eurocentric’, one had to become EU-centric. And just so, EU-supremacy became the reining ideology. This is why it has been so easy to brand any Euroscepticism with devil words like ‘racism’, ‘colonialism’, and ‘X-phobia’, an experience that even the mildest Brexiteers have had in the UK.
The EU elections ending Sunday, 26 May 2019, confirmed that ‘Europe’ is dead — or at least dying — for all but the entrenched and hopeful few. The ‘radical centre’ constantly claiming to represent the real ‘Europe’ is hollowing out. It might have seven or even nine more years of political life — for instance, in Germany, which loves Europe especially because it fears itself — but the ideological expiration date of ‘Europe’ for most Europeans has passed.
That ‘Europe’ is dying is a good both for old Europe, which I’ll call ‘Europa’, and even for the European Union, which might see an injection of new life from unexpected, formerly forbidden quarters. The conflation of political and cultural Europe with a radical version of institutionalized ‘European values’ — really cloaked universalist aspirations — has been dis-covered and is now open for examination. “We all agree on European values,” a Polish European minister told Angela Merkel, “but we won’t allow their interpretation to be imposed on us.”
The European Parliament elections of 2019 mean a further opening up of who gets to examine and interpret European values. This won’t be an unmitigated good — many of the winners are what I call ‘National comma Socialists’, who share the same universalist ideas but merely apply them nationally (and then there are the Greens to be reckoned with) — but it will mean that both Europa and the European Union can step out of the long shadow cast by German terror, French resentiment, and British nonchalance. The mushroom cloud left over Europe by the ‘Baby Boomers’ will have dissipated. And it will be time for the younger generation of Europeans to make this project their own.
Fear seasoned with hope
Once the spectre of the living memory of the atrocities of WWII fades, the fear-based rationale propping up ‘Project Europe’ will cease to be effective blackmail against sensible policies. Under the guise of ‘European values’, it has proved impossible to police the EU’s external borders (at the cost of tens of thousands of lives lost in the Mediterranean), or prevent hate preachers and jihadi fighters from coming or returning to EU lands, or prevent the foreign funding of the buildings in which they preach and recruit.
It’s even been difficult to protect Europe’s few remaining Jewish communities from non-native-born hate (nativist anti-Semitism, it should be said, also persists and must be resisted). In the lands where European values are proclaimed the loudest, Jews seem to be least free openly to practice their faith, as recent incidents and ‘social experiments’ have demonstrated.
A few years ago, Dutch journalists Annabel Nanninga, Bart Schut, and Frank Verhoef were harassed and threatened by pro-ISIS demonstrators in Den Haag, a city which markets itself as ‘the city of peace’ (the ‘Peace Palace’ is there), international justice, and human rights. In their own ‘experiment’ last year, journalists Jaap Gunnink and Benjamin Beernink had the latter walk around several areas in Utrecht wearing a skullcap, and filmed the negative reactions and cursing.
The irony of European values proving dangerous for European Jews cannot be understated. It is in no small part the memory of the great sin against the Jews that props up Europeans’ self-loathing, that in turn encourages them to opens the gates to all sorts of (anti-Semitic) characters from around the world.
But perhaps the function of European values was meant to be civic, rather than either humane or remedial. Yet neither the fear of themselves nor the slight hope placed in the ‘ever closer union’ of Europe have been enough to make Europeans identify as European citizens. Such a project of ersatz identity and transnational constitutionalism was dead in the water for peoples who would gladly look more locally for their identities. Nevertheless, Europeans do still feel European. They cherish the ability to participate in its cultural, artistic, civilizational, political, religious, and natural resources. And the project of the European Union should encourage such participation, rather than facilitating its extinction.
The once and future Union
I do not pretend to know just what sort of confederation can emerge from the new European political reality. However, my experience moving about Europe for the past 15 years tells me that great trains of European cooperation and sleeper cars full of participation are possible while maintaining even greater differences. Unity of purpose in political Europe need not entail either ideological lockstep or political union. For that which still binds us to cooperate is older and greater than any mere political community. It is as hard to articulate as it will be to realize, but it is both articulable and realizable.
Toward that end, the European Union should be supported, in a reformed form, by all patriots of European lands and by any peoples worldwide who want the light of civilization on the Continent to persist in its Classical, Christian, Jewish, and modern forms. “Renevatio Europae” must be our call — remaining reformers both of Europa and of the EU.