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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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