Since the European elections ten days ago, Europe has been going through a bout of navel gazing and introspection. When every country has its own legislatures both national and local, what is the European parliament for? Why did so few of the electorate vote, less than ever before? Why did the east Europeans, only recently liberated from dictatorship, vote less than anyone else (with a couple of exceptions)? Why are the British talking as if membership of the Union is a yoke around their necks? In short, what is Europe?
Writing in 1751, Voltaire described Europe as “a kind of great republic, divided into several states, some monarchical, the others mixed but all corresponding with one another. They all have the same religious foundation, even if it is divided into several confessions. They all have the same principals of public law and politics unknown in other parts of the world”.
In a way that Charlemagne, Voltaire, William Penn and Gladstone, the early advocates of European unity, could only dream, a united Europe has become a reality with half a billion members.
Time and time again, war has interrupted the pursuit of that objective. Continued civil war across the continent, across the centuries, has pitted the French against Germans, British against French, Czechs against Poles, Spaniards against Spaniards, Gentiles against Jews, reaching its dreadful climax in the second world war. Of all the continents, over the millennium, Europe has been the most warlike.
As Jan Morris has written of the second world war in her Fifty Years of Europe: “Great cities lay in ruin, bridges were broken, roads and railways were in chaos. Conquerors from East and West flew their ensigns above the seats of old authority, and proud populations would do almost anything for a packet of cigarettes or some nylon stockings. Europe was in shock, powerless, discredited and degraded.”
Many, if not most, of that generation wondered in 1945 if they’d ever see Europe again in any state of grace or glory, much less unified.
The fact that the urge to bury the hatchet and forge common institutions has come so far in such a short time against such a backdrop is the 20th century’s greatest achievement. Likewise the creation of the euro…