The E.U. Speeds for the Iceberg

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.


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The foreign minister of Spain recently compared the troubled E.U. to the Titanic, a metaphor not quite so trite given the new research into why the world’s biggest ocean liner collided with an iceberg. Titanic historian Tim Maltin argues that a cold-water mirage may have obscured the iceberg from the watchmen until it was too late. So too with the E.U.: ideological illusions have for decades fooled the EUrophiles into thinking that they could speed full steam ahead to their utopian destination, a United States of Europe that could rival the United States for global power and influence. Now that the fiscal iceberg is looming ever closer, the enthusiastic effusions of those who once touted Europe as a “bold new experiment in living” and “the best hope in an insecure age” sound more and more like the White Star Line’s assurances that the Titanic was unsinkable.

The mirage that has blinded the E.U.’s creators and champions is not hard to explain. For two centuries many Europeans have been deluded by the notion that nationalist loyalties and identity could be subordinated to a transnational institution run by elites with superior knowledge and technical skills. Loyalty to and affection for one’s own people, land, customs, governments, and mores were seen as primitive holdovers from a less enlightened age. Like religious faith, these exclusionary, divisive values were barbaric instigators of war and civil strife, predicated as they were on ignorance and superstition. Sweep those loyalties and beliefs away, and the human race could progress to peace and prosperity by relying instead on science, technology, and the elites who possessed the knowledge of both.

And why not? History offered evidence of such progress. In the 19th century, communication and transport technologies like the telegraph, railroad, and steamship shrank the world, making possible a global trade and exchange of ideas that seemingly bound people into a “solidarity which unites the members of the society of civilized nations,” as the Preamble to the First Hague Convention put it in 1899. For many internationalist idealists, what Immanuel Kant a century earlier had called the “progress of the human mind” was creating a global community of shared values and aims, a “harmony of interests” that could be codified in international laws and institutions superior to the parochial cultures, irrational customs, and retrograde values of any individual country or people. An imagined consequence of this increasing unification of peoples was Kant’s imagined “federation of free states” that could create global peace and prosperity by transcending the zero-sum and often irrational, destructive interests of individual states and peoples.

World War I should have put paid to the illusion that humans could progress beyond the local and particular cultures in which most people lived and found their identities. From 1914-1918 millions of Europeans slaughtered each other on behalf of those national loyalties, even the universalist, transnational socialists fighting and dying in the trenches under their nations’ banners. In 1918, G. K. Chesterton explained why: “Nobody has any such ecstatic regard for the mere relations of different people to each other, as one would gather from the rhetoric of idealistic internationalism . . . Now, too much cosmopolitan culture is mere praise of machinery. It turns ultimately upon the point that a telegram can be sent from one end of the earth to the other, irrespective of what is in the telegram.” In the end, Chesterton says, “Men care more for the rag that is called a flag than for the rag that is called a newspaper. Men care more for Rome, Paris, Prague, Warsaw than for the international railways connecting these towns.”

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  • harrylies

    People like Robert Lee killed thousands because they thought Texas was different than Bew York. Now, people in Texas and New York both see themselves as Americans. They are not tearing up the flag.

    Now in Europe, the idea of Germany going to war with Poland is as silly as Texas going to war with New York. Yes, the EU has economic problems. So does the US. The tribal thinging that lead Europe to commit the worst crimes in history is being taken out for the trash, except for groups like the Irish Republican Army.

    At the end of the Civil War, Lees' primative tribal beliefs just lead to hundreds of thousands dying, and him surrendering. Same with the tribal views of Europe.

    • Tiberius

      Tell that to Greeks who right now hate the Germans for demanding austerity measures before the EU would lend more money. Ask the Germans how they feel about the people of Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain who spend too much money and save little or no money. Ask how they feel “punished” for they Germans can save themselves but the other Europeans can not. My point when things go south, the Europeans do become Germans, Poles, French, etc. than just Europeans.

    • kongMing

      Lee was neutral and felt slavery should die a natural death. Succession in Virginia primarily occurred in response to Lincoln and Stanton ordering hundreds of thousands of soldiers to march into Virginia. The casual mindset of war with industrial advances led to the horrific numbers.

      The same casual view of war can be seen today with our modern appeasement of drug lords and terrorism.

  • SCREW SOCIALISM

    Except for the Czech Republic, SCREW EUROPE.

  • tagalog

    It will be sad to watch Europe degenerate back into a melange of nations with armies all goose-stepping in their diverse ways.

    • ebonystone

      It's even sadder to watch Europe degenerating from Islam. The occupying army of tens of millions of goose-stepping Moslems will soon transform Europe, stamping out remaining national differences, replacing them with a uniform, continent-wide realm of ignorance and bile. Burkhas from Sicily to the North Cape! Butts raised in worship from the Channel to the Urals!

  • JerryM

    And the Catalans in Barcelona just love those folks in Madrid!

  • NAHALKIDES

    To an extent, Thornton partakes of the mistaken view that nationalism is what causes wars. What causes wars is the desire for power. Had the nations of Europe truly been free, the EU might have worked, but it would not have been necessary – free nations can cooperate with each other without being part of a "greater" union. But Europe could not shake off collectivism in the form of welfare-state socialism, thus the internecine strife that always accompanies income redistribution never left and is now resurgent.

    Too many people in Greece want to continue the organized looting that is socialism even though there's nothing left to steal in Greece itself; therefore, they plan to stiff the bondholders who were unwise enough to lend money to them and then steal as much from the Germans as they can. And after that? Well, they don't have a plan for afterwards, any more than the American Democrat Party has any plan other than to keep spending and borrowing.

    Those who would avoid economic collapse must give up socialism – it's as simple as that.

  • http://www.americarepublicspring.com Marvin E. Fox

    The Euro Zone is failing because the contolling socialists have killed the businesses and manufacturing of products in Europe. China and other countrie are producing the goods needed by the people of Europe. China has trillions of Europe's Euro bonds, Europe itself is broke because it stopped producing the products needed by its own people. The profit for those products went mostly to China. Europe is attempting to keep feeding the cow that is being milked by China. The cost of the feed is Europe's; the milk and cheese is China's!
    Where is America's cows being fed? Who gets America's milk and cheese?
    Marvin E. Fox

  • WilliamJamesWard

    Ultimately it is in the hands of those who are going to have to lower the life boats or not. When Europe
    was broke after WWII America took on the Marshall Plan and by industry and sweat at differing paces
    moved into a more affluent age. What was not forgotten was the desire for and easy life as posed by
    Television and it via the MSM gave the marching orders post "1950. Bathed in propaganda and
    confliction of world views Europeans joined together in false collectivism and are sinking in a sea of
    false expectations. What is the answer to their problems that will have lasting effect. Obviously the
    ideas of man have failed, Europe has turned their great Cathedrials into museums and with false
    pride do not recognize the loss of Blessing and rather blame politicians………so it goes…….William

  • Len_Powder

    Nothing that man has ever created is indestructible or incorruptible. God has reserved such power to Himself. Yet there have been from the beginning of man's existence men who thought and acted as if they were gods. The Tower of Babel was one example of man's folly, the League of Nations and the United Nations were others, as was the European Union. The problem with the "elites' all over the world is that they don't know their limitations as human beings. Many people have the same problem who are not elites. However, what distinguishes elites from most of us is that: (1) they consider themselves elites, (2) believe they have no limitations, and (3) think of themselves as perfect beings entitled to subject the rest of us to their will. I pray that one day they will be made to realize that they too have feet of clay, just as the rest of us do. I pray that the consequences of their arrogance and conceit will one day teach them humility and honesty.