Europe’s Electoral Earthquake



‘There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation,” said Adam Smith — and that goes double for a continent. Sunday’s elections for the European parliament were an important stage on the road to ruin, which has now been traveled for almost 60 years, but they did not signal arrival at the final destination. From the standpoint of both its founders and its critics, that destination is a federal European state, and the transport system taking us there is the so-called “functionalist” theory of integration. Under this theory, Europe is supposed to be integrated function by function — coal and steel production, trade diplomacy, trade in goods and services, legal rules, police functions, defense, foreign policy, currency, etc., etc. — until its peoples and governments wake up one morning and realize that, Hey, we’re living in the same state/country/nation/polity/whatever. Isn’t that great! Henry Kissinger will be phoning any minute to congratulate us.

The single most vital missing ingredient in the functionalist recipe, however, is a European demos. “European” is no more than a geographical expression. There are Frenchmen, Germans, Brits, Italians, and Dutchmen, but there is no European people united by sentiment, common fellowship, language, historical institutions, the mystic chords of memory, and a sense of overriding vital mutual interests. There is the “vanguard” of a possible future European people in the form of those politicians and bureaucrats who go by the name of Eurocrats. But vanguards are no guarantee of a successful future demos, as the dissolutions of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia illustrate horribly.

Without a demos, however, functionalism eventually fails to function. It runs into a crisis and it finds that it cannot call on the loyalty of its citizens to solve it. Indeed, its creates a crisis by removing powers from its constituent governments that the citizens would prefer at home. Eventually it provokes a rebellion. And that is what arrived on Sunday.

For the first 30 or so years of its existence, the European Union (which went under various aliases, such as European Economic Community, for much of the period) mainly pursued activities that were either mildly beneficial (e.g., reduced barriers to trade) or temporarily soothing (e.g., agricultural subsidies) or remote from everyday experience. Most of the crises that European countries experienced in this period, such as the Soviet threat, were unrelated to its existence. It rumbled on functionally. Most people lived their lives without thinking much about the EU.

After the Cold War ended, however, the treaties that installed the single European market, the harmonization of European regulations, and the single European currency meant that their lives were increasingly interrupted and disturbed by decisions made in Brussels. Tom Rogan has a very useful list of typical interventions in his NRO article. What irked people in individual countries, moreover, was that there seemed to be no way they could repeal or obstruct new regulations that they found expensive, burdensome, annoying, or simply unjust. National governments claimed to be powerless before Brussels.

However irritating this regulatory Saint Vitus’ dance was, though, no single example ever seemed worth making a real fuss over. And those citizens who did make a fuss — such as Britain’s “Metric Martyrs,” who objected to the outlawing of the UK’s traditional weights and measures — could be snidely dismissed as cranks, fined, and be forgotten. People did begin voting for Euro-skeptic parties, but in small numbers that grew slowly election by election. It seemed that it would require a massive international crisis with all its attendant sufferings before the functionalist model of integration could be stopped.