In a recent essay published in these pages, the Hudson Institute’s Michael Doran and Peter Rough correctly identify many of the problems plaguing Europe, and more precisely the European project. Unfortunately, the remedies that they prescribe leave something to be desired.
The authors correctly point to the limits of “globalism”, an intellectual approach that seeks to replace local cultural traditions and a sense of “rootedness” with a cosmopolitan, universalist outlook, in which gender, national, and religious differences are downplayed as backward and unimportant. Behind a superficial façade of diversity, globalism seeks to present itself as the ultimate embodiment of the progressive Western ideal, with a sole claim to legitimacy. A large segment of Western electorates rejected this vision, bringing rightwing populist politicians in Europe and in the United States to the forefront. Mainstream conservatives for their part failed to clearly differentiate themselves from both the “globalist” progressives and the populist right.
Our disagreement with Doran and Rough is thus mostly over their therapy for the Old Continent. In our view, the best response consists not in jeopardizing the common European institutions in favor of returning to some mythical golden age of European nation states. Instead, it involves reorienting the existing institutional framework of the European Union (EU) in a conservative direction—more sympathetic to cultural traditions and national identities.
At its heart, Doran’s and Rough’s essay posits a false dichotomy between an imagined ideal of “independent nations coming together to form a phalanx” and “the sludgy amalgam of total integration” supposedly represented by the EU. This binary choice neither accurately describes Europe’s history nor the reality of today’s choices facing European leaders.
It’s important to grapple with what one means when invoking national sovereignty. European nation states are by and large products—in some cases accidental—of the turmoil of the 19th century. America’s experience as an expanding continental empire couldn’t be more different. And Britain, which for many Americans serves as the main window into European realities, was always an outlier in the Old World, with a long-preserved territorial integrity unmatched by any other European state—not even France—until the late modern period.
The inability of Europe’s 19th century-style nation states to protect their citizens and provide a foundation for economic progress was already clear after the devastations of the First World War and the Great Depression. Almost a century later, there is no reason to believe that Europe’s nation-states are the final response to questions of political organization in Europe. The continent, after all, was never organized merely along the lines of fully sovereign nation-states. Instead, since the fall of the Roman Empire, the continent’s history was shaped by efforts at finding a workable form of cultural and political “unity in diversity”.
What is more, the political crisis of today’s Europe does not clearly pit common European institutions against nation-states. Citizens are equally (and in some cases more) distrustful of national politicians and institutions as they are of the EU. The reason is clear: While it is obvious that continent-wide cooperation is sometimes dysfunctional and far too focused on complex regulatory activities instead of playing an active role in defense, foreign policy, external border protection, single countries in the EU have also lost their ability to offer credible solutions to the challenges of our times.
Practical politics (as opposed to electoral campaigns) reflects those complex realities. For example, Slovakia’s populist Prime Minister Robert Fico rejects immigration from Muslim-majority countries and the idea of mandatory quotas for refugee resettlement in the EU. Yet he emphasizes that his country needs to remain at the forefront of EU integration when the Franco-German tandem presents the rest of the club with plans to bind Eurozone countries more closely together.
Equating modern-day “globalism” with the EU’s foundational principle of “ever closer union” betrays a misunderstanding of Europe’s founding fathers—at least the Christian Democrats and conservatives among them. German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Italy’s Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi, and the French foreign minister Robert Schuman all saw the European project as one that involved abandoning the disruptive nationalisms of the 19th and 20th centuries in favor of an older and more traditional pattern of political organization—one more attuned to Europe’s identity.
That pattern is not inimical to national traditions but grounded in them, as well as in the common European foundations descended from the Christian and classical heritage, which have shaped the continent since the early Middle Ages. Throughout much of Europe’s history, Germany and central Europe in particular were formed by the vision of a Christian polity unifying the whole continent as a federation of distinctive national and regional identities. The loss of that cultural horizon in the process of European integration after the Second World War can be explained by the secularization of European societies and by the turn away from classical values in favor of the technocratic, progressive agenda of scientifically informed societal management. As a result, the progressive, “globalist” narrative became associated with the European project to the point of completely crowding out alternative interpretations.
However, at its ideological roots, European integration was a project of conservative restoration, not of a revolution guided by liberal-progressive impulses. What is needed urgently today is a reinvention of the conservative narrative for the EU, reconciling European integration with the resurgent search for “rootedness” while preserving the achievements of liberal democracy. In our opinion, the most important challenge facing conservatives consists in finding out whether such a reconciliation, adapted to the realities of the 21st century, is possible, or whether the defense of European integration will only be left to liberals and progressives, with conservatives and Christian democrats standing on the sidelines.
For all his flaws, President Barack Obama managed to coin one sound principle for foreign policy and international engagement: “Don’t do stupid shit.” In our view, that principle should also inform American conservative thought about the European project. Whatever the ideological perspective of the current Administration, a strong, prosperous, and democratic partner on the other side of the Atlantic, able to project force and to help police the world order, remains one of the critical interests of the United States. In contrast, to advocate for a European “rebalancing” away from continent-wide cooperation towards the nation state—as if it were a simple unidimensional adjustment and not a disruption of a complex ecosystem of international cooperation—risks plunging the old continent into division and chaos.
America should not side with forces who want to dismantle the institutional infrastructure generations of Europeans have built to prevent the geopolitical calamities of the first half of the 20th century from repeating themselves. The Trump administration ought to cut ties with populists, and reach out instead to Europe’s Christian Democrats and conservatives. They must work to reorient the European project so as to preserve the unity of Europe, and respond to the legitimate demand for protection and collective belonging in our political communities.