Europe, Europe, Europe! Has there been a time in living memory when we’ve heard so much about Europe? Not since 1945, in any case. Hardly a week goes by that we are not treated to bulletins announcing the death of the euro, the collapse of the European project, etc. It was going to collapse last week, but didn’t. This week, we’re told, things are looking very dire. Greece, or Italy, or Spain will be the tipping point: the patient has only days—no, only hours—to live. You go to bed, convinced that by the time you awake it will be all over, but no: as of this writing, anyway, the euro and the European Union are still with us. On life support, perhaps, but still breathing. Will it all come to an end someday? Maybe. For now, though, we feel a bit like Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest. First, her employer announces that his wild brother Ernest is dead, taken off by a severe chill in Paris. But wait: He is not dead after all. In fact, he is waiting for them in the dining room! “After we had all been resigned to his loss,” observed Miss Prism, “his sudden return seems to me peculiarly distressing.”

We write this in mid-December. Who knows what will happen in the couple of weeks before readers can put their feet up, this issue nestled in their hands? The latest bombshell is that David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, sat through an all-night meeting in Brussels only to veto proposed regulations that would have negatively affected Britain’s financial interests. What wailing and gnashing of teeth that action occasioned!

In fact, the response to Mr. Cameron’s display of backbone was divided. On the one hand, the Left abominated it. Mr. Cameron had “isolated” Britain. (Remember that old headline: “Fog in Channel, Continent Cut Off”?) The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, ostentatiously snubbed the British Prime Minister, ignoring his proffered hand after the Brussels meeting broke up before dawn on December 9. Other reports—some named Mr. Sarkozy as the source, others someone else from the French delegation—complained that it was as if Mr. Cameron had gone to a wife-swapping party and neglected to bring his own wife.

That may strike you as a bizarre analogy. But is it inaccurate? Think about it. If the left recoiled in horror at Mr. Cameron’s veto, the euroskeptic right celebrated it as an overdue sign of resistance to the statist encroachments of Brussels. It reminded us of the old French verse (unheeded there in modern times): “Cet animal est très méchant/ Quand on l’attaque, il se défend” (“this animal is very naughty; when attacked, it defends itself”). Mr. Cameron’s constant refrain was: “It has to be in Britain’s interests.” The proposed new regulations would have penalized Britain’s financial industry by tens of billions of pounds. The Greeks have been profligate. The Italians irresponsible. Ergo, Britain must pay.

As for Britain being isolated, we like the analogy we’ve seen proposed in several places: Britain, in saying no to yet closer “integration” with the European Union, is like a first-class ticket-holder who decides at the last moment to stay dockside and wave farewell as his ship, the RMSTitanic, steams off. That, too, is “isolation” of a sort.

We applaud Mr. Cameron’s decision to stand up for Britain. But, like the journalist Charles Moore, we note that this one action is only a beginning. Mr. Cameron is a “mild” euroskeptic who endeavors to walk that fine line between putting Britain’s membership in the European Union to a referendum vote (all the polls say the British people want out) and bringing Britannia along to that wife-swapping party the French mentioned. Alluding to the crafty Sir Humphrey in “Yes, Prime Minister,” Mr. Moore, writing in the London Telegraph, cautions that the

danger is that he will think he has done enough: the gesture has been made, and now it is fine to let what Brussels calls “the institutions, mechanisms and procedures” of the E.U. be employed to make the new treaty. Then Sir Humphrey can remount, the treaty can eventually become European law and the United States of Europe will at last have been created. The Cameron “No” would turn out to have been a cheat, a delayed “Yes.”

“Yes” to what? For most of us cisatlantic commentators, the whole “European Project” is a murky enterprise. What is it really about? Tearing down artificial trade barriers? Wasn’t that the public rationale for the creation of the euro? Why have the inconvenience of francs and Deutschmarks when a single currency would make business much more “rational”? (But what happens, you ask, when you add the lira and drachma into the mix? Was that rational? We’re finding out right now.) Is economic “unity” what the European Union is fundamentally about?

Not really. Everyone knows this, but somehow the other answers seldom surface. Why? Remember Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Purloined Letter”? The operative conceit of that classic in the literature of detection is that if you wish to hide something, your best bet may be the brazen option: leave it lying about for all to see. The Prefect of the Paris Police couldn’t see what the mastermind Dupin instantly grasped: many things “escape observation by dint of being excessively obvious.” Thus it was with the letter purloined from the royal apartments. It was hidden in plain sight, in a card rack by a writing desk in the perpetrator’s apartment, but the Prefect and his minions couldn’t see what was right beneath their noses.

So where is C. Auguste Dupin when you need him? Consider Europe—not the geographical mass but the idea, the “European Project” that was the brain child of Jean Monnet and other socialistically inclined politicians in the 1950s. What’s the most obvious thing about Europe today—apart, that is, from its staggering debt? What would M. Dupin say?

Before we speculate about that, let’s minute a few historical markers. The idea behind the European Union was to create a “United States of Europe” that would consign intra-European military conflict to the dustbin of history. That was one goal. Another, which was not so frequently acknowledged, was to forge an economic and political entity that could challenge the hegemony of the other United States. It took a while to get going. Impediments like patriotism and allegiance to national (versus supranational) interests kept breaking in. (Remember Mr. Cameron’s refrain, “It has to be in Britain’s interest”—Britain’s, not Europe’s.) Things didn’t really pick up steam until the Maastricht Treaty came on line at the end of 1993. Then there was the introduction of the single European currency, the euro, in 2002. That was a prelude to a continent-wide Constitution. Unfortunately, those old selfish nationalist interests reared their parochial heads again in the mid-2000s, when a European Constitution was offered to the voters of Europe to approve. Mirabile dictu: voters both in France and the Netherlands declined their ticket to EUtopia. This temporary setback was addressed by the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008. This was essentially the same document as the European Constitution, but rewritten to be impenetrable to ordinary readers.

And what does the Lisbon Treaty provide for? Leaders who are appointed, not elected; leaders who are accountable to each other, not the people—rule, that is to say, by self-perpetuating elites who can mostly dispense with the inconvenience of the consent of the governed. The consent of those who govern is so much easier to negotiate. What does this mean in practice? Here’s a taste. On Thanksgiving, José Manuel González-Páramo, a director of the European Central Bank, declared:

We cannot completely delegate governance to financial markets. . . . [The euro] cannot depend solely on the opinions of ratings agencies and markets. . . . This underscores my central point that a much more comprehensive approach to economic governance is now the priority for the euro area. And this means more economic and financial integration for the euro area, with a significant transfer of sovereignty to the EMU [Economic Monetary Union] level over fiscal, structural, and financial policies [our emphasis].

“A significant transfer of sovereignty”: What is sovereignty? It is the political power to determine how one wishes to live. At bottom, the European Project is an effort to seize power (“transfer” sounds much nicer, though, doesn’t it?) from local and national entities and invest it in a central authority. An early step on this road is what Mr. González-Páramo calls “integration,” i.e., what the Germans in the late 1930s called “Gleichschaltung,” bringing all aspects of life into harmony with certain central dictates.

“Gleichschaltung” is not the only ominous German word one hears about Europe these days. Another is “Anschluss.” Back in 1938, that’s what happened when Germany suddenly absorbed Austria. A week or two back, we were talking to an Italian friend, a former Italian senator, who employed the word to describe the ascension of Mario Monti to the Italian Premiership on November 11. “Super Mario” was technically appointed by the Italian President; in reality, he was foisted upon Italy by the European Union. As it happens, that same day, Lucas Papademos was sworn in as Greece’s prime minister. How did that happen? Well might you ask. That day, we received a plaintive email from a journalist friend in London. “Today, two modern European democracies installed prime ministers who had been elected by nobody,” she wrote. “This is what we have come to. It is roughly the equivalent of the federal government stepping in to appoint an unelected governor of California when the state went broke—which is beyond inconceivable. Pray for us.”

As we write, all the news is about David Cameron’s “No.” But note this: so long as Britain remains tethered to the European Union, Brussels will be able to impose all the regulations it wanted via other treaties. If it is to mean anything in the long run, the Cameron No will have to become far broader. “Très méchant”: that is the French for “self-preservation.” The only question is the extent to which the quality has been bred out of the British ruling elite. Mr. Cameron surprised many by his show of courage. Perhaps it is the beginning not of isolation but of a new independence.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 5, on page 1
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