Boris Johnson’s observation that the European project is ‘an attempt by different methods to unify Europe’ is level-headed and historically grounded.
Ever since the time of the remarkable French leader, Napoleon, there have been movements to create a uniform administration across Europe.
It was the dream of idealists, maniacs like Hitler, but also sober careerists like the lawyers, accountants and bureaucrats who dominate today’s EU. They are driven by career ambitions. So were the officials who tried to make Napoleon’s dream of creating ‘a superior power which dominates all the other powers a reality’. So were the talented and resourceful officials like Albert Speer and Hjalmar Schacht, without whom Hitler’s vision of a Nordic European empire wouldn’t have got very far.
The pan-European order of the Corsican soldier and the failed Austrian artist ultimately got nowhere, ending in military defeat and destruction for France in 1815 and Germany in 1945. But European schemes have been periodically rolled out because of the problems that rival nationalisms have posed for the peace of continental Europe. Disputes over territory have given rise to periodic conflicts, above all the First World war.
A period of heightened nationalism followed, which foiled attempts at cooperation by moderate leaders of victorious and vanquished nations.
Despite the brutality and terror that accompanied each stage of the Nazi movement’s rise to power, its potential for uniting a fractious continent led idealistic and ambitious people on the Left and the Right to conclude that Hitler and Mussolini were the wave of the future.
Both men had started out on the Left. The idea of a powerful State managing society was central to the socialist idea. The Italian and German dictators took this concept a long way, right to micro-managing people’s existence in a totalitarian order. Stalin was simultaneously doing the same in his confederation of peoples stretching from the borders of Poland to the Pacific Ocean.
These ruthless autocrats had their admirers among the genteel ranks of the British left…George Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, the founders of the Fabian Society – one of the biggest intellectual influences on the Labour Party.. So it is odd for Hilary Benn to describe Boris’s analogy as a desperate one when there was backing for a planned economic order obliterating borders from such luminaries.
The Belgian left-winger Paul Henri Spaak is one of the historic founders of today’s EU. In the 1930s, he was advocating a corporatist planned Europe in which parliamentary institutions were increasingly decorative. Instead of elections, decisions on policies would be decided by major interest groups guided by technocrats.
Spaak’s patron was Hendrik de Man, head of the Belgian trade unions in the 1930s. He was well-known to many on the British left, later prominent in the Attlee government, through organising conferences in the 1930s on the need to embrace corporatist planning.
In 1940, Hendrik de Man welcomed the demise of parliamentary socialism and endorsed the need for a new project that would take European civilisation forward to a new era. After the Nazi occupation of Belgium, he drew up the pro-collaborationist manifesto of the Belgian Socialists, one passage of which read:
‘Peace has not been able to develop from the free understanding of
sovereign nations and rival imperialisms: it will be able to emerge from
a Europe united by arms, wherein the economic frontiers have been levelled.
‘The elite character of the European project would appeal to similarly
restless and ambitious men of de Man’s stamp eager to experiment with a
In June 1999, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroder of Germany issued a paper called the “Third Way” (in German, “Neue mitte”), a sketch of a new kind of socialism to modernise Europe with the State taking the lead to shake up both capitalism and the labour market. Schroder described the idea as an attempt to ‘modernise the interpretation of basic social democratic values’. Within a few short years, he would be a prize acquisition for Vladimir Putin, bestowing legitimacy on his authoritarian regime and playing a key role in one of its main oil holdings.
De Man could have been one of the architects of a new post-war Europe if like Spaak (whose ideas were not different from his in 1940) he had found himself on Allied territory by the time Hitler had completed his Western conquests.
Spaak in the mid-1950s was calling for a European Constitution and tried to set up a European Army. Having begun on the Trotskyite far-left he ended up as a beneficiary of significant amounts of funding from the US Central Intelligence Agency.
US policy-makers were keen on a United States of Europe, believing integration could provide much needed stability for the continent and halt the westward march of the Soviets.
If it is hardly a scandal to remind ourselves of this fact, why should it be an outrage for Boris J to point out that ambitious blueprints for a common Europe were devised first by Napoleon and then by Hitler?
The Hitler analogy is stinging and upsetting for a lot who see the EU even now as an expression of modern progress.
But it is necessary to draw lessons from the stages that authoritarian systems go through. Who would have thought Stalin’s Soviet tyranny would have merged into the humane vision shared by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s? Equally who would have assumed in 1939 that the bloodstained dictator of Spain, General Franco, would become a much milder technocratic leader by the 1960s?
From Gorbachev’s abortive reform process, Vladimir Putin emerged in 1999. But the Spanish dictatorship peacefully gave way to a viable democratic system containing many of the old personnel of the Franco era.
So why should it be so extraordinary to imagine that there can be authoritarian legacies such as a common European state that assume more benign forms than originally intended? Napoleon, an enlightened despot, and Hitler, a cruel one, both wished to place Europe under a system of rule with uniform laws and control. They saw it as modernisation and a wide array of Europeans were in agreement and prepared to collaborate with them.
It is impossible to know if the Nazi regime could have evolved into something less malign because it was in place for too short a time. But Napoleon and the Soviet communist system grew less rigid and frightening with time.
By the same token, the EU has shed a lot of its liberal and progressive aura. Who could have imagined that in 2010 the leaders of two major member states would be deposed by top Eurocrats because they were trying to break free from the EU’s most ambitious experiment, the single currency? It has proven a colossal failure that has devastated the economies of a string of north Mediterranean countries and ruined the lives of at least one generation of youth from Athens to Lisbon.
But so intent are EU decision-makers on retaining a toxic single currency because it is such a totemic symbol of integration, that they are prepared to alienate many millions of EU citizens.
The ill-will between Germany and countries that find the euro a millstone around their necks is arguably greater than it was in the 1950s. Then it was felt vital to create European institutions to reduce he chances of another fratricidal conflict. But influential figures determined to continue on the supra-national path come what may appear to have forgotten this lesson.
Ironically, there are several largely forgotten German figures who counted for much in the 1950s who wouldn’t be surprised by the evolution of the EU into a menacing and ideologically rigid force. It was Germany that in the 1950s produced an antidote to top-down Euro corporatism. Ludwig Erhard, the architect of Germany’s ‘economic miracle’ fought a lonely battle to slow the rise of the EU in its current form. He believed, in the words of one biographer, that ‘there were so many differences among the various European peoples or among the places where they lived that a single economy or fiscal policy for the entire continent would inevitably fail’.
As an alternative to creating supranational organisations shaped around French centralist planning, Erhard called for adoption of the subsidiarity principle in international relations. In effect, he wanted decisions to be made at the lowest possible level, thereby preventing the growth of a large European central bureaucracy.
He was unsuccessful in his attempt to place the economist Wilhelm Ropke in charge of the European Commission when it was created in 1958. Ropke wanted a Swiss model for the new Europe based on limits to bureaucracy and an active democratic component.
Neither Chancellor Erhard or Ropke would, in my view be appalled by Boris’s analogy. They witnessed the tragedies of their own times and drew appropriate lessons. We should do the same while the EU can still be contained and criticised.
So it is imperative that we should ponder the missteps that could lead to a new European empire – one capable of being as absolute and arbitrary as several predecessors.
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