Most ideas prove themselves by working well. The idea of Europe, on the other hand, seems to be most powerful when it’s going disastrously wrong. Over the course of modern history, it appears that Europe becomes an urgent business only when it is threatened with disintegration. When things are OK, Europe bores us to tears. It is 28 shades of grey. But plunge Europe into existential crisis and it suddenly seems to matter. This is the great paradox of the idea: it grips the imagination only when it is in a dire state. The odd way in which the threat of Brexit makes the notion of Europe interesting again is actually quite familiar.
Europe has always drawn energy from the proximity of catastrophe. The first modern conception of Europe – that of a Christian commonwealth of holy kingdoms – took hold because the Turks were at the gates of Vienna and the triumph of Islam in Europe seemed a real possibility. The religious wars in which Catholic and Protestant powers tore each other apart were ended by appealing to that same idea of European Christendom.
Later, the Enlightenment conceptions of a European culture based on science, reason and human rights became most vividly urgent when it collapsed face down in the mud of Flanders. And the European Union emerged from the ultimate degradation of the European Enlightenment ideal at Auschwitz. Threaten or destroy the idea of Europe and it becomes suddenly potent. Take it for granted and it atrophies.
In its 58 years, the EU has worked best when it has been, in the broadest sense, negative. It has stopped things happening. It stopped Germany destroying itself, and Europe, yet again. It stopped central and eastern Europe from descending into chaos after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It did not stop the horrendous civil wars in Yugoslavia, but it has offered a way out of them for Slovenia and Croatia and at least a roadmap for Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia.
It also – and this is not acknowledged often enough – allowed Europe to escape at least some of its own most vicious hypocrisies. At the heart of the idea of Europe were notions of superiority – of Christianity over Islam and of scientific rationalism over the benighted superstitions of lesser peoples. This superiority manifested itself in the barbarism of empires. “European”, to much of the world, meant a rapacious white man with a gun.
What can be said for the European Union is that it allowed its most powerful member states to imagine for themselves a post-imperial place in the world. With the exception of little Luxembourg, all the founding states of the EU were former colonial powers. They were joined over time by others: Portugal, Spain and, of course, the UK. The EU helped them to move, however incompletely, away from their imperial mindsets and helped Europe to get over its sense of itself as the centre of the universe.
All of these achievements were fuelled, not so much by idealism, as by fear. The banner under which the EU has marched forward has two short words inscribed on it: “or else”. The union’s 28 members must leave an empty seat at the table for a ghostly 29th: the abyss. The knowledge of how close the continent is to savagery and chaos is vital to the very existence of the union.
This is what makes the EU historically unique. The US, for example, is a federation founded on shared (and compulsory) optimism about human nature: the natural state of affairs is, as Donald Trump successfully reminds his followers, American greatness and any falling off from it can only be the result of evil conspiracy. Stitched in to the EU, by contrast, is a sense that the natural state of affairs is the war of each against all and that only strong common institutions and laws can hold it at bay.
There’s an obvious reason for this difference: Europe’s inherent and distinctive diversity. Europe’s identity is that there is no single European identity. Whatever notions there may have been that national identities would gradually fade as the EU took hold have long since been banished by experience.
If anything, the reality is entirely to the contrary: the EU has become a shelter under which nationalities such as the Scots and the Catalans can push for the break up of the states within which they currently exist. The EU has a weirdly fissiparous kind of unity – the bigger it gets, the safer it seems for its hidden nationalities to assert themselves under its umbrella. But this incorrigible diversity always carries with it the threat of conflict. Because it is built on difference, anxiety is Europe’s fate – and its source of energy.
Conversely, the EU has failed worst when it has fallen for the temptations of American-style optimism. Positive thinking doesn’t really suit the enterprise. Grandiosity has been the EU’s downfall. It led, firstly, to misconceived attempts to create a United States of Europe, with a constitution and a flag and a national day and a national anthem: everything, of course, except a “demos”, a people that regards itself instinctively as one. Second, it led to the woefully misdesigned euro project, with its blind faith that the mere creation of a single currency as an act of will would sweep aside all doubts about whether there was actually such a thing as a European economy. And third, it led to the creation of a technocracy that truly believes it knows best what is good for Greece or Ireland or Italy: adopt austerity and pay all debts and everything will be OK.
A dose of the pessimism on which the EU is founded might have averted these disasters. It might have reminded European leaders that their continent is never going to be a homogenous superstate because its peoples remain stubbornly attached to their own nations. It might have discouraged them from simply hoping for the best when they launched the euro, even though they knew full well that it had deep flaws. It might have prompted elected politicians to warn the technocrats, in the words of Oliver Cromwell: “Think it possible you may be mistaken.”
In a broader sense, too, the EU has needed to find its voice as a pessimistic counterweight to the insane optimism of neoliberal globalisation. Against the idea that market forces will ensure that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, the EU’s inherent anxiety should be a vital corrective. Its inclination towards fear has made the EU a much more progressive force on climate change than the US. But it should also have made it much more conscious that all institutions, especially its own, will fail if they are not continually challenged and revivified by democratic accountability. And it ought to have made the EU alarmist in the proper sense – alarmed that the rise of economic inequality will destroy the legitimacy of democratic institutions with fearful social and political consequences. Losing touch with its inner pessimist has allowed the EU to drift away from the urgency of building open and equal societies. The imperative of “or else” has been replaced by a belief that everything will be OK so long as we just keep liberalising trade.
By this logic, things should be looking up for Europe. Grandiose optimism is now in short supply and existential threats are everywhere: the possibility of Brexit and its knock-on consequences; the threat to the free movement of people from reactions to the refugee crisis; the north/south split over debt and the euro; the east/west split over migration and the rise of authoritarian nationalism in Poland and Hungary; the predictable failure of austerity to lead to growth in the eurozone.
If Europe prospers on its awareness of potential disasters, it has an embarrassment of riches. No one of the current threats may be on the scale of the challenges of postwar reconstruction or of the fall of the Soviet Union. But the combination of all of them does raise the starkest questions about the union’s purpose and future.
Maybe the British referendum will be the moment at which the EU begins to reconnect with its roots in the positive side of fear. Not a Project Fear of warning the Brits how harsh their lives will be outside an imaginary European Garden of Eden, but the energising fear that the world can be a pretty bad place if we don’t work in common to make it more equal, more democratic and more sustainable.