In case you missed it, September 13 was the big day – the occasion of the annual “State of the European Union” speech by European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen. Whether you voted for her or not – no, scratch that; unless you’re a member of the European Commission, which nominates its President, or the European Parliament, which chooses to ratify or reject the Commission’s selection, you can’t possibly ever have voted for her. Free and fair elections by the citizens of sovereign nations? Forget them! They’re so twentieth century. Don’t you realize that the European Union has moved far beyond such antiquated concepts, and is fast advancing toward a degree of international integration and power concentration – known in the EU lexicon as “democracy” – that it’ll make the likes of Klaus Schwab at the World Economic Forum pea-green with envy?
But before we get to van der Leyen’s speech – and to the not-to-be-missed response by Guy Verhofstadt – let’s go back briefly to the beginning. You know, of course, that the cause of European unity has a long and noble history. Napoleon did his best to bring it about in the early 1800s. A bit over a century later, Hitler gave it the old college try. After World War II, the Soviets would have had a go at it too, but the Western Allies were spoilsports. On the western side of the Iron Curtain, however, there quickly arose a postwar movement to unite Europeans under one government, whether Europeans themselves liked the idea or not. The name most intimately associated with this movement was Jean Monnet, a Frenchman from Chablis whose family business was the production of chablis and whose obsessive pursuit of European unity makes one wonder if he was guzzling too much chablis. To read about the life of this wine merchant, who became known as the “father of Europe,” is to learn about a career consisting of a long series of fancy-sounding jobs as international advisor, diplomat, and negotiator, of memberships on various blue-ribbon commissions, committees, and councils, and of the high-level hatching of various plans, projects, and programs. What you never come across is mention of an election. Because nobody ever voted for Monnet for anything.
To be sure, the other major founder of the EU, Robert Schuman – who was born in Luxembourg with German citizenship but became a French citizen when his ancestral homeland of Alsace-Lorraine changed hands after World War I (which may be the ultimate European story) – was indeed active in electoral politics, serving after World War II as France’s Prime Minister and then its Foreign Minister. In his sales pitch for what would become the EU, Schumann acknowledged the failings of the feudal systems, empires, and utopian dreams of the past, but claimed that it was possible to move beyond, and avoid repeating, the recent “clash of nationalities and nationalism” (i.e., the war) by bringing the peoples of Europe under the umbrella of a single “supranational association” that would “safeguard” national identities (whatever that might mean) even as it took on the task of, well, actually running things. How, you might ask, would the people figure into this? What people? You mean the rabble?
Early on, of course, the unity was loose. European confederation was mainly about coordinating steel and coal production. And about facilitating trade. But the dream was, from the git-go, always far bigger than that, even though the number of dreamers was small. Very few ordinary Western European citizens wanted a full-scale overhaul of their continent’s political structures. And why would they? They’d just won an epic, bloody war against a dictator who’d sought to enslave them. To the east, they could observe a prime example of a “supranational association” in the form of the Soviet Union, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. As far as they were concerned, in any event, World War II hadn’t been a “clash of nationalities” – it had been the result of an attempt by Adolf Hitler to do by force what Monnet and Schuman now wished to do by fiat. Why on earth, having fought to recover their freedoms and national sovereignties, would Europeans want to cede them to a supranational entity whose architects had ambitions to make it a hyperstate – and whose leaders would be safely insulated from any possibility of being removed by the electorate?
Ah, “electorate”! Such a quaint word. Yes, these days we Americans, too, are burdened by a political establishment that, indifferent to our Constitution, views voters as a nuisance, imprisons its opponents in the name of “saving our democracy,” and (citing climate change) seeks to restrict the rabbles’ freedom of movement. But the EU was from the outset meant as nothing more or less than a polity of the elites, by the elites, and for the elites – a great leap backward to a time preceding the America-inspired developments of the past couple of centuries, a time when nobody had ever heard of individual liberty, a time when ignorant serfs were confined to the manor and powerful nobles looked down on them from the parapets of their castles. Alas, for the elitists who’ve been appointed by one another to powerful positions in the EU, the only real problem is that they’re not yet powerful enough. Brexit was a bummer. The resistance of countries like Poland and Hungary to authoritative EU directives is a pain. And the occasional refusal of almost all members to obey pronto can be disconcerting for a would-be absolute despot.
Which brings us to von der Leyen’s “State of the European Union” address. In addition to complaining that small businesses cause difficulties (well, at least she’s frank about this prejudice), thanking farmers for their contributions to the EU’s general welfare (while saying nothing about the EU’s all-out war on family farms), criticizing “polarization” in Europe (in other words, shut up and obey), and promising to support Ukraine in its war against Russian “for as long as it takes,” von der Leyen called for both “enlargement” of the EU and “deepening integration” of it. In other words, like many a European Führer before her, she wants to exercise growing power over a growing empire. And who, one might ask, deserves it more? Von der Leyen, don’t you know, is the daughter of none other than Ernst Albrecht, described by Wikipedia as “one of the first European civil servants” – in other words, one of the first politicians in Europe to hop onto what would become the EU gravy train and make a career for himself as a Brussels apparatchik. On her father’s side, van der Leyen is descended from a long line of wealthy cotton merchants; her husband, for his part, is descended from a long line of wealthy silk merchants. It’s fascinating, when you read about one after another of the most powerful European Union officials, to discover how many of them have such blue-blooded backgrounds and how few come from working-class or middle-class families, as did Margaret Thatcher and Geert Wilders and Viktor Orbán and Silvio Berlusconi. Thanks to the EU, the descendants of the elites of long ago are the elites of today.
Admittedly, von der Leyen’s “State of the European Union” speech was relatively civil. Or perhaps it’s just that it was deadly boring, in the way of so much EU discourse. But it was followed by something that can only be called an outburst – or, okay, a tirade, a harangue, a triple dose of bombast – by Guy Verhofstadt, the former Prime Minister of Belgium and a member of the European Parliament since 2009. Verhofstadt, who is “co-chair of the Executive Board of the Conference on the Future of Europe” and “rapporteur on the report on the proposals of the European Parliament for the amendment of the EU Treaties,” is what is known in EU circles as a “federalist” – that is, somebody who wants the nations of Europe to hand over their sovereignty fully to van der Leyen & co. Addressing his parliamentary colleagues in a tone of pronounced urgency, Verhofstadt warned that while the EU’s achievements thus far have been “profound,” its survival and growth are threatened by several developments. One is “the rise of autocrats” – by which he obviously (and hilariously) means the highly popular elected leaders of Hungary and Poland, whose insistence on attending to their respective electorates’ actual interests makes them a nuisance to Verhofstadt and the other aspiring (and unelected) tyrants in Brussels. Also threatening to the EU’s growth, according to Verhofstadt, are “Eurosceptics” – in other words, those Europeans who recognize that the EU is a means of depriving them of their fundamental rights as citizens of free and sovereign states.
These and other problems, charged Verhofstadt, “represent a profound threat to our democracies and the European project.” In EU-speak, of course, as in American Democratic Party rhetoric, any reference to “threats to democracy” means “threats to our unchallenged authority.” (Note how, as always in Brussels and Strasbourg, “democracy” and “the European project” are treated essentially as synonyms whereas, in fact, “the European project” is, by its very nature, an existential threat to real democracy.) Verhofstadt contended that the need for a strong and integrated EU is greater than ever, since a return by Donald Trump to the White House would make it necessary for the EU to act independently on the world stage. (Thus does an unelected, uninspiring European technocrat condescend to an American president who enjoys massive public support and who, incidentally, enhanced international peace and security – an accomplishment that EU leaders like Verhofstadt are always dishonestly attributing to the EU.)
And what to do about the threats to EU growth? After spouting a boatload of the usual rhetoric about the need to build “a brighter future for Europe” and to promote “a radical vision for a united Europe based on reaffirmed values,” Verhofstadt got to the point: the EU must be given the power to formulate and pursue its own foreign policy. And how to achieve that? Simple: the EU must move beyond the present structure, which requires that major policy initiatives by the European Council be approved by every last one of the EU’s member states. “Unanimity decision-making,” Verhofstadt insisted, “must be scrapped once and for all.” In short, in order for the EU to progress, member states must be deprived even further of their sovereign authority, period. This would mean, for example, that Europeans could be taken into a war for which the members of their own national legislatures never voted – and to which they may, for that matter, have been unanimously and vehemently opposed. Noting that the EU, which now has 27 members, may well be expanding soon to as many as 35, Verhofstadt asked: “Can you imagine a Europe with 35 members without reshaping the Commission and with the unanimity rule intact? Totally unworkable!” Reaching his climax, Verhofstadt – now shouting, waving his arm, almost trembling – declared with palpable exasperation that the EU’s only “real problem” at this point is that “member states are reluctant to transfer new sovereignty and powers to the European Union! And we all know that the only way out of this crisis is a new transfer of powers to the European Union and to the European institutions!”
It’s striking enough to read these sentences in black and white. But check them out on X (formerly Twitter). If Verhofstadt’s vituperative manner and aggressive body language bring to your mind any European orator of the last century, you won’t be alone. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the bullet that the U.K. dodged by making an exit, however protracted and messy, from the EU (not that the folks at Westminster are doing a much better job these days of representing British public opinion than the U.K. members of the pre-Brexit European Parliament were ever doing ). For Americans, meanwhile, the sight of Verhofstadt in action is a vivid picture of the kind of naked lust for power that lurks behind the bland, blank faces of our own D.C. swamp creatures – and a compelling reminder that we’d better do something before we end up in the same sad basket as those poor deplorables across the pond.