When the dyspeptic poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), who loathed Belgium even more than most things, was asked to imagine an epitaph for that nation, he suggested: “At last!” Which is how many Europeans feel about the rapidly growing disgust with the European Union, which is headquartered in Brussels.
Opposition to the EU is a worthy cause that unfortunately has been embraced by, and might become the property of, political parties tainted by disreputable motives and members. That xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other acrid aromas of Europe’s past are today present in corners of the continent is an indictment of the EU’s — and of Europe’s major parties’ — disregard of the legitimate concerns of decent people dismayed by the damage the EU is doing to democracy and freedom.
In last month’s elections for the European Parliament — a misbegotten institution that presumes a common European political culture but has 24 official languages — parties frequently dismissed as “fringe” groups performed impressively in France, Britain, Austria, Denmark, and Greece by stressing hostility to the EU. They express, among other things, resentment of the “pooling” of national sovereignties in EU institutions, and the “harmonization” of national policies by bureaucracies in Brussels, all of which diminish the rights of national parliaments, won over centuries.
Greece’s Golden Dawn party (9.4 percent of Greece’s vote), whose symbol suggests the swastika, and Hungary’s unambiguously anti-Semitic Jobbik party (14.7 percent) are parties with fascist fragrances. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front won, but has attracted enough disagreeable adherents to cause Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence party (UKIP), to rule out alignment with it.
Europhiles may think these parties will, like bees, sting and then die. But although UKIP has no seat in the House of Commons, it won more British seats in the European parliamentary elections than either Labour or the governing Conservatives (who finished third), the first time Labour or Tories have not won a British national election in 103 years. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen notes that France’s Le Monde newspaper says Le Pen’s National Front won 43 percent of workers’ votes and 37 percent of the unemployed’s (the youth unemployment rate is 23.2 percent). With Le Pen having won 25 percent of the vote to the two major parties’ 20.8 percent and 14 percent (for the governing socialists), Cohen says “a two-party system is now a three-party system” and “make no mistake, she could become president.” The presidential election is in 2017.
One hundred summers ago, Europe stumbled into the first of two wars from which it emerged terrified of itself. Having misdiagnosed nationalism as the cause of Europe’s sufferings (Hitler was a racialist, not a nationalist; he did not become a German citizen until the year before becoming Germany’s chancellor), European leaders undertook the steady attenuation of nationhood. They have thereby eroded the basis of government by consent — the powers of national parliaments.
The assumption was that if the European could be made into homo economicus, a purely economic creature, he would accept an increasingly closer union of decreasingly sovereign nations as a price cheerfully paid for economic dynamism. But the draining away of the powers of parliaments by Brussels’ supranational bureaucracy now coincides with continental stagnation.
Now everything from cheeses to condoms is regulated. The German word for all this is “Gleichschaltung,” meaning to bring everything and everybody into cooperation, or at least conformity; the French word is “dirigisme,” from diriger, to direct. The English word is bossiness.
In 1988, in Bruges, Belgium, near Brussels, an unapologetic British nationalist denounced efforts to “suppress nationhood and concentrate power at the center of a European conglomerate.” Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher continued: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level.”
America’s tea-party impulse — a recoil against the promiscuous growth of government — could have fueled a third party, but a major party has managed to accommodate it. If Britain’s Conservative party had remained Thatcherite, or if a major French party had espoused Charles de Gaulle’s vision of “a Europe of nations,” the sensible anxieties of millions of Europeans about Europe’s intensifying statism and disparagement of nationhood could have been channeled into more mainstream parties. Instead, it has fallen to minor parties to insist: What more than a millennium of distinct national evolutions have put asunder, the EU should not presume to put together.
— George F. Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2014 The Washington Post