It's in Europe, and it's huge – after Russia and the top five EU members, it has Europe's largest population, and twice as many inhabitants as all the Scandiavian countries put together – but Ukraine isn't a nation we often think of in the West, except when, as in recent days, it's in the midst of a crisis. It has spent most of its history being conquered and brutalized by its more powerful neighbors, and in the last century underwent one savage chapter after another: 1.5 million people died in the civil war that ended with its absorption into the USSR; millions more died in Stalin's deliberately engineered famine in 1932-33; during World War II, Hitler slaughtered an additional three million in what was intended to be the first stage of a program of exterminating two-thirds of the country's population and enslaving the rest.
Today, unsurprisingly, Ukraine is a basket case of a country, riddled with corruption and living in the shadows of its historic horrors. It's also a linguistically and philosophically divided land, torn between a western chunk whose people speak Ukrainian and identify with Europe and an eastern chunk whose people speak Russian and still feel an attachment to their massive neighbor to the east.
Viktor Yahukovych, the corrupt, autocratic president who disappeared last weekend in the face of mounting public unrest, is a Russiophile whose fatal error was his decision to strengthen bonds with Moscow (which coveted Ukraine as a key ally in a new Eurasian Union) and to turn down a free-trade agreement with the EU; most of the rioters who sent him packing are Europe-oriented types, the majority of whom are eager to see Ukraine become a Western-style democracy free of Putin's influence, but some of whom, it should be noted, are neo-Nazis who look westward to Germany for the least attractive of reasons.
Most of the Ukrainians who favor European ties also want to see their country join the EU – which, in their eyes, as one Swedish newspaper put it the other day, is “above all...a symbol of a society free of corruption.” Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who was sprung from prison on Saturday after Yahukovych took it on the lam – and whose own years in office (ending in 2010) were far from corruption-free – told the Kiev crowds shortly after her release that she's “sure that Ukraine will be a member of the European Union in the near future and this will change everything.”
Change everything! What is it that makes presumably liberty-loving Eastern European politicians talk about the EU as if it were a magic freedom elixir, a miracle cure for former victims of tyranny?
I suppose part of the explanation is that these politicians travel to the great cities of Western Europe and take in the relative freedom, the relative prosperity, and the relative lack of corruption and thuggery, and assume that all this has something to do with the EU. And part of it, naturally, is the ceaseless stream of pro-EU propaganda poured out by the Western European media and, not least, by the Western European politicians whom the likes of Tymoshenko consort with when they visit the West. Yet how odd that the superstate's economic woes haven't put a dent in the magic for people like Tymoshenko. How odd that even the merest glimpse of the way things work in Brussels – where corruption is, needless to say, very much alive and well, even though it doubtless falls far short of Ukrainian levels – doesn't give them pause. And how odd that when they witness the arrogance that's characteristic of virtually all Brussels bigwigs – their habit of responding to any reasonable criticism of the EU not with cogent arguments but with vicious ad hominem attacks – they don't immediately recognize that they're observing tyrants in the making, the sort of folks that you'd think they'd had more than enough of over the centuries, thank you very much.
Take European Council president Herman van Rompuy, that colorless, Politburo-style mediocrity, who in a 2011 speech blithely ignored the essentially undemocratic nature of the EU, describing it – outrageously – as “the fatherland, or the motherland of democracy.” Or take European Commission president José Manuel Durrão Barroso, who started his political career as a Maoist, and who in 2012 argued that the EU's democracy deficit isn't a bug but a feature:
“Governments are not always right. If governments were always right we would not have the situation that we have today. Decisions taken by the most democratic institutions in the world are very often wrong.”
Or take halfwit EU Foreign Affairs honcho Catherine Ashton, whose 2011 Guardian article lecturing Hosni Mubarak on the need for democracy in Egypt was widely (and rightly) ridiculed as the work of someone who, as Brendan O'Neill neatly put it in the Telegraph,
“has never once bothered the ballot box, never once ventured into the rowdy arena of public opinion to win the masses' backing, and who was elevated to her current position as the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs through backroom wheeling and dealing.”
Noting Ashton's enthusiasm, in her Guardian piece, for what she called “deep democracy,” O'Neill explained that “she doesn't mean deep as in profound – she means bureaucracy, the grey and unaccountable sphere that she haunts, the removed realm of experts and unelected high representatives” – a phenomenon Ashton contrasted (favorably, of course) with mere “surface democracy,” the undesirable, old-fashioned sort of system in which elected officials actually seek (horrors!) to honor their constituents' wishes.
Even a cursory look at the careers and pronouncements of these unelected demigods, these self-regarding technocratic hacks, is to recognize them as people who itch to rule an empire and who are, quite simply, outraged at anyone who dares to stand in their way for a moment. Given the transparency of their lust for monolithic power – a power, moreover, utterly liberated from any notion whatsoever of responsibility to an electorate – it's baffling that so many observers can actually take the EU seriously as a formula for European peace rather than for European autocracy.
What Europe has in Barroso, Ashton, & co., after all, is a pack of men and women who have done their level best to impoverish real political debate, to blunt its impact, and to make it seem obsolescent, counterproductive, and in every way undesirable. Former Czech president and staunch EU critic Václav Klaus asked in his 2011 book Europe: The Shattering of Illusions:
“Do we have real politics in Europe today – the political conflict of opinions – or have real politics been in fact eliminated by reducing the weight and importance of the nation states and by the self-confessed apolitical ways of Brussels?”
Which is another way of saying that Brussels isn't a city of politicians who have different political philosophies and who come together to debate ideas and hammer out compromises; it's a city of technocrats who share an ideology and who work together as a team to translate that ideology into policy – never mind what the rabble think. (Or, as Klaus put it even more bluntly: “the European Union is no longer the symbol of democracy it pretends to be.”)
Klaus has coined the term “Europeism.” It's a useful word, because it places the unreflecting, reality-defying enthusiasm for Europe in the category it belongs to, along with other, earlier European-isms. Among much else, Europeism views the free market as uncivilized and anarchic, places collective rights above individual rights, and strives, as Klaus excellently puts it, “for a homogenized, 'decaffeinated' world (with no flavour, aroma, and smell).” Europeists, he writes,
"do not believe in spontaneous, unregulated and uncontrolled human activity. They trust the chosen ones (not the elected ones), they trust themselves or those who are chosen by themselves. They believe in a vertically structured and hierarchized human society (in the Huxleyian Alpha-Pluses and in Epsilons serving them). They want to mastermind, plan, regulate, administer the others, because some (they themselves) do know and others do not. They do not want to rely on spontaneity of human behavior and on the outcomes resulting from this spontaneity because they think that rationalistic human design is always better than an unplanned result of interactions between free citizens, constructed and commanded by nobody. Even though we thought that after the collapse of communism all this was a matter of the past, it is not so. It is around us again. Europeism is a new utopism and, I add, it is an extremely naive and romantic utopism."
Above all, writes Klaus, Europeism “is based on the idea that states, more precisely the nation states, represent the Evil – because they were once the cause of wars among other things – while the supranational, continental and global entities represent the Good, because they – according to eurocrats – eliminate all forms of nationalist bickering once and for all.” This understanding of things, he adds, “is obviously childish, yet it is generally accepted in Europe.” Yes, it's accepted because millions of today's Europeans have been brainwashed into thinking that national feeling – patriotism – was the root of all of the worst things that happened to the continent in the twentieth century. No, ideology was the root – ideology in the form of Nazism, fascism, and Communism. And Europeism – which, by the way, has multiculturalism and fanatical environmentalism built into it – is the twenty-first-century heir of those wretched systems of thought.
Which brings us back to the latest developments in Ukraine. Tymoshenko's speech on Saturday night was followed on Sunday by the news that the EU – notwithstanding its own massive financial difficulties – is now ready to hand over bushels of cash to the newly Europe-friendly government in Kiev. To be sure, some EU nations, cognizant of the expenses such a move would impose on them, are hesitant to welcome Ukraine into the EU fold too quickly; but the powers that be in Brussels are plainly drooling over the prospect of landing this big fish – if not as an immediate new member, then as an obedient client state and keen member-in-waiting. Olli Rehn, the EU's Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner, appeared to be summing up the sentiments in the Brussels corridors of power when he said the following on Sunday: “From a European point of view it is important that we provide a clear European perspective for the Ukrainian people who have shown their commitment to European values.” The word European three times in one sentence – that's EU rhetoric at its most Europeist! But the fundamental point is this: as Reuters helpfully explained, “'European perspective' is EU-speak for a membership prospect.”
So there we are. Note to Ukrainians: accepting the EU's money is one thing. Go for it. But why this longing, on the part of Tymoshenko or anyone else in your country, to board the Superstate Express? Set aside, if you wish, the economic downside of the whole project, the looming disaster that is the eurozone, and just ask yourselves this: after spending most of your history taking orders from far-off imperial capitals, most of the twentieth century living under the nightmare of Communism, and most of the greater part of the generation that followed under the gravitational pull of post-Soviet Kremlin despotism, why be so desperate to subordinate yourselves to yet another set of haughty, high-handed foreign rulers? Why slip away from being under one thumb only to voluntarily place yourself under another?
Ukraine, here's one simple piece of unsolicited advice: vote for sovereignty. Vote for freedom. Take the money and run.
Stay out of the EU.
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