I haven’t looked at Newsweek since its disgraceful number commemorating the tenth anniversary of 9⁄11, but at an airport the other day I spied the December 12 issue, its cover advertising a piece titled “Why We Need Europe” by Simon Schama, and I couldn’t resist.
Schama – the British-born, Cambridge-educated historian who’s lived in the U.S. since 1980 and now teaches at Columbia – proved to have written an ardent defense of the European Union.
Now, I’m not an EU fan, and I view with pleasure the fact that it now appears to have one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel. The first thing that comes to mind when I think about the EU is a sentence I’ve seen several times on a poster in the Copenhagen airport: “The European Union has created a set of rights to ensure air passengers are treated fairly.”
The first time I glimpsed that sentence, as I breezed past the poster, I stopped and went back to make sure I’d read it correctly. Yep, I had. “The European Union has created a set of rights…”
The word that threw me for a loop, of course, was created. The idea of the EU “creating” rights seemed – well, somehow wrong, and more than a little unsettling. As an American, I grew up with a different notion of rights, to wit:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….
“Unalienable rights” – innate rights, natural rights, rights that can’t be created or uncreated by any man or woman. The distinction between Thomas Jefferson’s and the EU’s way of thinking about rights may seem like a distinction without a difference, but the difference is real, and meaningful. It’s all about the way in which the people conceive of their relationship to those who govern them, and vice-versa. In the American view, governments don’t exist to create rights but to secure them.
I don’t think it’s insignificant that while the opening and closing passages of the Declaration of Independence rise to the level of poetry, the many different, and quite long, founding documents of the EU are, from beginning to end, exemplary specimens of technocratic prose. Consider, for example, the first sentence of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights: “The peoples of Europe, in creating an ever closer union among them, are resolved to share a peaceful future based on common values.”
Ouch. But not to worry! Check out this, from a news story that ran early last year but that I only became aware of the other day:
The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) wants the EU’s human rights charter recast as an 80-minute-long epic poem, accompanied by music, dance and “multi-media elements.”
“The FRA intends to launch a negotiated procedure for the creation and implementation of an artistic concept for the presentation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights in Poems,” reads the agency tender issued this month.
Has an invitation to write a poem ever been written in such unpoetic prose? Alas, there actually turned out to be an EU official who actually recognized these plans as “a frivolous waste of time and money” and put the kibosh on the whole ridiculous endeavor.
But the members of the FRA weren’t the first or last to think that the EU needed poetry – or something – to help cajole the masses into warming up to the EU, which is, needless to say, not a project “of the people, by the people, and for the people” but the creature of political and cultural elites. The British historian Timothy Garton Ash, for instance, has expressed the desire for a singable EU anthem and other such tokens of European nationhood, the goal being to nudge the rabble into thinking of themselves not as Spaniards or Germans or Dutchmen but as Europeans. The late Tony Judt, in his 2005 book Postwar, about the history of Europe since World War II, articulated the same hope that Europeans would develop a kind of patriotism for the EU – even though, as I wrote in a review of that book, “given how the EU works, with key decisions made not by the European Parliament but by unelected technocrats, the ‘patriotism’ he longs for would have to be founded not (like American patriotism) on a devotion to liberty but on a deference not unlike that of a serf toward his feudal lord.”
Indeed, Judt admitted that “if a clearly articulated ‘European project,’ describing the goals and institutions of the Union as they later evolved, had ever been put to the separate voters of the states of western Europe it would surely have been rejected.” For Judt, the lesson of this is that the highly undemocratic way in which EU technocrats gradually transferred to themselves powers which had previously been vested in the citizens of member countries was a good thing.
Which brings us back to Simon Schama, whose Newsweek piece turned out to be yet another effort by an intellectual to explain to the riffraff why they should stop worrying and love the EU – and try to save it before it’s too late. Schama’s piece was essentially a survey of the illustrious writers, philosophers, and statesmen through the ages who dreamed of a united Europe (Erasmus, Kant, Victor Hugo) and, more recently, the men who made this dream a reality: Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, Aristide Briande, Gustav Stresemann, Norman Angell.
Schama was plainly out to bowl over the great unwashed with this litany of big names – look, for centuries your betters have wanted this; how can you dare to be against it? He dismissed the patriotism that keeps many Europeans from warming up to the EU as a “tribal instinct,” a set of “fetishes of ancestral community” that led to the “warrior dictatorships” of the twentieth century and that “still exert an almost mystical hold on peoples wanting to blame the detested foreigner or the invading immigrant for their misfortunes.” Once again, an academic who is privileged enough not to have to live every day amidst the very real and often terrible consequences of misguided European immigration policies dismissed as mere bigotry the concerns of ordinary people who do live amidst those consequences – and who were never asked by their governments what they thought of those policies.
Schama closed by addressing his readers as if they were schoolchildren, explaining to them condescendingly that “we are all – across the oceans and continents – entangled in a common destiny,” and even quoting the “No man is an island” bit from John Donne. Nowhere in his entire piece, which was full of lofty rhetoric about the glorious triumph of European unity over “[r]ace, blood, soil, the markers of exclusiveness,” was there even a passing acknowledgment that the EU is profoundly undemocratic, any mention of how EU officials (in flagrant disregard of the desires of the electorate) effectively nullified French and Dutch votes against the EU constitution, or any recognition that perhaps – just perhaps – one reason why so many Europeans look forward to a post-EU Europe is that they’re sick unto death of being lectured at by patronizing, superior types who view them, indeed, in much the way that medieval lords viewed their serfs.
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