Will Brussels EVER learn from 2,000 years of hubris and folly? SIMON JENKINS reveals how megalomaniacs have tried and failed to subjugate Europe's sovereign nations throughout its history
By Simon Jenkins For The Daily Mail
20 October 2018
On August 6, 1806, a herald in full regalia rode across Vienna to the city’s Jesuit church.
He climbed the tower, blew a silver trumpet and summoned the crowd to silence.
He then announced that the Holy Roman Empire was dead.
After a thousand years of existence, Europe’s oldest union was being wound up — courtesy of Napoleon. The crowd wept.
President of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker, and French leader Napoleon, right. Today, Europe is wealthy, stable, mostly liberal and a magnet to the world’s migrants, rich and poor alike
Might it happen again? History tells us that whenever Europe tries to act in unison, it screws up.
The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne left an empire that collapsed into ruins. Ferdinand of Bohemia tried to create a single Roman Catholic empire, and unleashed the Thirty Years War in the 17th century.
Napoleon brought most of Europe under his rod, and millions died until Wellington did for him at Waterloo.
The Allies punished Germany after the First World War, and so brought Hitler to power. Today’s European Union mishandled Russia after 1989 and paved the way for the reign of Vladimir Putin.
Anyone who believes the EU is so modern, united and peace-loving that it will deftly handle Britain’s departure should read history — and shudder.
Ever since somewhere called Europe came into being under the Ancient Greeks, two forces have driven this continent forward.
The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, right, left an empire that collapsed into ruins. Rome was a sort of opposite, a realm of law and order, the wielding of power over the entire Mediterranean basin.
One is the inability of the descendants of its original migrant tribes to live at peace with their neighbours. The other is the attempt of one power after another to seek to dominate and unite those disparate tribes.
Rome tried. So did successive popes, Holy Roman emperors, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler and now, dare I add, the leaders of the European Union. Some of these attempts were well-intentioned; most were not so.
There is no question they together forged a continent that is globally outstanding.
Today, Europe is wealthy, stable, mostly liberal and a magnet to the world’s migrants, rich and poor alike. Whether this was because of or in spite of a history of ceaseless conflict is an open question. But so, too, is whether half a century of stability can survive any new breakdown in unity.
When I first studied Europe’s history, I searched for themes that have glued together its various forces. First was the potency of ancient Mediterranean culture. Greece under Pericles was a kingdom of reason, fascinated by the human condition as expressed in art, literature and civic politics.
Rome was a sort of opposite, a realm of law and order, the wielding of power over the entire Mediterranean basin. ‘These be your arts, O Rome,’ said Virgil, ‘to impose the ways of peace.’ The operative word was impose.
As Roman rule disintegrated, it mutated into that of the Christian church.
Christianity was ostensibly a doctrine of universal love and peace, but it soon became a cauldron of rivalry and disunity. It split Rome from Constantinople, and proved so quarrelsome that a third of Christendom — in the Levant and Africa — became Muslim and has remained so ever since.
In 1216, the bid of Pope Innocent III to declare himself sovereign lord of Europe bred endless conflict with the Holy Roman Empire, based in Germany.
A ruined Berlin in 1945. The collapse of a united Europe did neither tyrant any good, but it did turn Germany from a peaceful confederacy — a kind of giant Switzerland — into a belligerent power under the supremacy of warlike Prussia
So we can conclude that as a glue of union, religion was a failure. By the 16th century, the Reformation had split Innocent’s Roman church in two, between Protestant north and Catholic south.
This, in turn, led to the Thirty Years War — the cruellest devastation of Europe before the 20th century. From the wreckage of that first great European war arose ever more potent nation states — notably France, Spain and Austria.
The new cause of disruption was not religion but dynasty. Louis XIV sought perpetual war with his neighbours. Russia flexed its territorial muscles. Frederick the Great of Prussia declared that ‘national enlargement is a fundamental law of life’. To him, Europe was synonymous with struggle.
Nothing seemed able to bring peace to the continent: not the vitality of the Renaissance or wisdom of the Enlightenment, not great thinkers and writers like Petrarch, Shakespeare, Locke, Voltaire or Goethe.
Napoleon’s attempt to unite Europe under French rule led to five million deaths. The victorious nations at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, a few months after Waterloo, valiantly attempted a ‘Concert of Europe’. In future, they ordained, differences would be settled around a conference table not a battlefield.
Peace lasted for half a century, while Europe plunged into a different form of aggrandisement — that of overseas imperialism.
President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker (L) and European Council President Donald Tusk (R) in Brussels this week
By the end of the 19th century, the British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and Germans ruled an astonishing half of the world’s population, and 85 per cent of its trade.
Some might have hoped that such expansion might leave Europe itself at last in peace. Yet no sooner had it strutted the globe as a champion of progress, than it fell victim to two of the world’s most horrendous conflagrations.
The idea that the ‘Kaiser’s war’ and then ‘Hitler’s war’ were random Prussian monstrosities was absurd. They resulted from a failure of political imagination and leadership across all of Europe, whose turbulent nations seemed incurably belligerent.
By 1945, Europe was in self-inflicted ruins. Its peoples were starving, its cities destroyed and a centuries-old edifice of cultural achievement was crippled. Though Fascism had been defeated, the price was half a continent enslaved to Communism, and the other half dependent on American protection.
There is no doubt that the subsequent half-century saw Europe at its best. It rebuilt itself, displaying a sincere desire for there never to be a war ever again. Economics and trade should be the new glue of union.
Churchill pictured with American President Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference, which decided how Germany- and Europe, should be split after the war
A Common Market was formed in 1956 under the Treaty of Rome. This treaty grew and flourished, until a free trade area covered virtually all non-communist Europe. The continent seemed genuinely at peace, under the embrace of ‘ever-closer union’.
But as this half of Europe prospered and cohered, it also slid into the morass of bureaucratic centralism. And here is where the lessons of history were ignored.
The ambition of the Brussels elite was curiously reminiscent of the medieval church. It became a quest for ever-tighter control of its adherents, and a disregard for the political mood of member states.
The first moment of truth came with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This ended the wartime division of Europe, to which the EU reacted like a conquering power. It enticed Russia’s old Warsaw Pact allies into the EU and NATO, and left Moscow dangerously isolated.
When Boris Yeltsin warned that advancing NATO deep into Eastern Europe meant ‘the flames of war could break out again across Europe’, the EU laughed.
The result was Vladimir Putin, vowing to ‘make Russia great again’ under his kleptomaniac rule. In the U.S., the balance of power between a central superstate and its various subordinate states was embedded in a constitution, written in blood. In Europe, that balance was left to evolve.
The EU ignored the risks it was running, not just in mishandling Russia but in readily opening its borders to the immature democracies of Eastern Europe.
After Maastricht in 1992, which effectively pl
edged the continent to become one giant federal entity, majority voting in the EU council eroded the authority of national parliaments. Europe seemed the plaything of French bureaucrats and German bankers.
Once more, the hard-learned lessons of the past were disregarded in the zealous pursuit of a new Nirvana. For example, the continent’s longest confederation was the Holy Roman Empire.
Voltaire may have called it not holy, nor Roman nor an empire — but its respect for the treasured autonomy of dozens of German princelings contrived to keep the German peoples at peace with their neighbours for a millennium.
Soviet soldiers march through the Red Square, Moscow, on the May Day parade. Today’s European Union mishandled Russia after 1989 collapse of the Soviet Union and paved the way for the reign of Vladimir Putin
Europe gained, in the process, the wealth of the Rhine and the Baltic, the radicalism of Luther and the genius of Bach and Beethoven. That union collapsed only when Napoleon in France and then Bismarck in Germany could not tolerate what they saw as affront to their imperial ambitions.
The collapse of a united Europe did neither tyrant any good, but it did turn Germany from a peaceful confederacy — a kind of giant Switzerland — into a belligerent power under the supremacy of warlike Prussia.
The lessons must be obvious. Attempts at European union fail when they lose respect for the identity and autonomy of the continent’s ancestral communities.
You cannot ram union, let alone globalisation, down people’s throats. Diversity lies at the core of Europe’s collective experience, but it is a jealously guarded diversity.
When Russian president Boris Yeltsin warned that advancing NATO deep into Eastern Europe meant ‘the flames of war could break out again across Europe’, the EU laughed
Europe can never be subsumed under a single power structure. Union can only be light-touch and consensual.
The EU’s greatest mistake was to move beyond ever-closer trade to an ill-defined ‘ever closer union’. Above all, it lay in demanding that member states accept open borders.
That may have seemed a small matter to the globe-trotting cosmopolites of Brussels. But control over immigration meant control over the character and rate of change of local communities.
To the member states of Europe, this was a critical area of sovereignty. The character of one’s society is not to be bartered merely for tariff-free trade.
Unlike previous unions in Europe, the EU is a collection of self-determining democracies.
Already by 2010, anti-European sentiment was growing and consent crumbling. Turnouts in EU elections plummeted from 60 per cent to 40 per cent.
Populist politicians — anti-immigration and often anti-EU — emerged in the UK, France, Italy, Germany and former communist states.
The 2008 financial crisis saw the Eurozone’s German masters inflict terrible damage on Greece and Spain.
There was nothing new in Britain detaching itself from the rest of Europe. It had ‘left’ after the Hundred Years War that finally ended in the mid-15th century
Then, in 2016, the UK shattered the equilibrium. Its people voted — narrowly — to withdraw. Europe’s union faced a fissure, and a deep one.
There was nothing new in Britain detaching itself from the rest of Europe. It had ‘left’ after the Hundred Years War that finally ended in the mid-15th century, and after Henry VIII’s defection from Rome nearly a century later. It refused to join the Common Market in 1957, and only combined under NATO to benefit from America’s nuclear shield.
Now, once again, Britain has said enough is enough.
We should have no doubt of the reason. Political Europe has not found an answer to the question that defied all earlier attempts at union. How can this fragmentary continent be united without lurching either towards debilitating central authority or towards disintegration?
Since the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, the EU has lurched towards the former. Now, with the rise of a reactionary populism, it is lurching towards the latter.
There is hardly a member state that would dare imitate Britain, and hold a referendum on EU membership. But that is insufficient consent for union.
With or without Britain, the EU must find a way of returning substantive sovereignty to its member states, not least over their borders. If it does that, who knows, Britain might rejoin.
If it fails, Britain will not be the only defector. The EU will go the way of its many forerunners — to disintegration and danger.
A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin by Simon Jenkins, Viking, £25. To order a copy for £20 (20pc discount), visit www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15. Spend £30 on books and get FREE premium delivery. Offer valid to 27/11/2018.