“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."
Daniel Hannan is a writer and journalist, and has been Conservative MEP for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the European Union is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free.
Eurosceptic? I suppose you want the First World War to break out again!
Happy Europe Day. Or is it 'Merry Europe Day'? I always forget. No doubt most readers will be spending the day in prayer and fasting, but here in Brussels we're being treated to a series of receptions, parades and wince-making songs sung by children.
In the chamber just now, speaker after speaker stood up to deliver the solemn clichés that the occasion demands. 'We must not retreat into narrow nationalism!' 'The solution to the crisis is more Europe, not less Europe!' 'The people are demanding that Europe acts!' 'We cannot go back to the wars of the twentieth century!'
It's easy to mock but, in the spirit of Europe Day, let me instead do Eurocrats the courtesy of taking their argument seriously. The desire to end war is surely a high-minded one. The founders of the EU had passed through horrors which we, thank God, have been spared. It is understandable that they should be prepared to try anything – anything – rather than risk a third European conflagration.
That argument is dusted off every year on 9 May. Indeed, it is the ultimate backstop of the Euro-integrationist case. Yes, the budget is bloated, but it's much cheaper than conflict! True, the CAP is wasteful, but surely it's preferable to shooting at each other on the Western Front! You're against giving more powers to Brussels? Would you rather have another Holocaust?
This last argument was made, in terms, by the then Swedish Commissioner, Margot Wallström, at a ceremony in 2005 to mark the anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Terezin. Speaking in the run-up to the French and Dutch referendums on the European Constitution, she addressed 'No' voters directly:
There are those today who want to scrap the supra-national idea. They want the EU to go back to the old purely intergovernmental way of doing things. I say those people should come to Terezin and see where that old road leads.
There are several objections to this line of reasoning – beyond the obvious one that it turned out to be untrue: France and the Netherlands voted 'No' without any consequent Nazi revival. Any ideology which presents itself as the sole alternative to fascism and war is allowing itself a great deal of leeway. It could be pretty abominable while yet remaining the less bad option. Nor, in any case, is it true that nationalism led to the monstrosity of Terezin. On the contrary, national citizenship was one of the few defences which European Jews, and other victims, had against the murderers. As Robert Wistricht showed in his harrowing, because matter-of-fact, chronicle, Hitler and the Holocaust, even fascist and Quisling governments tended to draw a distinction between their own Jewish passport holders and refugees who had sought sanctuary on their territory. The Nazis well understood this tendency, which is why their first act, on occupying a new territory, was often to declare all Jews stateless. The worst atrocities took places in those parts of Europe where there was no national government at all, namely the Nazi-occupied parts of Poland and the USSR, whose Jewish inhabitants were statistically far less likely to survive than their coreligionists in Germany. During the Second World War, as so often, the nation-state was a more secure vessel of freedom than any trans-national ideology.
Believe me, I don't enjoy this argument any more than you do. If we hadn't been forced onto this territory by the Wallströms of the world, I wouldn't dream of going near it. But, by constantly arguing that the EU is the only reason we have enjoyed peace since 1945, the integrationists more or less oblige us to address the question. To take just two recent examples, here is Herman van Rompuy:
We have together to fight the danger of a new Euroscepticism. The biggest enemy of Europe today is fear. Fear leads to egoism, egoism leads to nationalism, and nationalism leads to war.
And here is Angela Merkel:
Nobody should believe that another half century of peace in Europe is a given — it’s not. So I say again: if the euro collapses, Europe collapses. That can’t happen.
Alright, then. Since we have been pushed into this wretched debate, let’s at least be accurate. Was the EU a cause of European peace, or was it rather a consequence of the peace brought about by the defeat of fascism, the spread of democracy and the Nato alliance? Is it a vaccine against Nazism, or simply the latest in a long line of presumptuous supra-national ideologies?
The notion that, as Van Rompuy puts it, ‘nationalism leads to war’ is more often asserted than explained. Looking back over the past half millennium, we find plenty of wars that have ideological rather than national roots. Europe was, for example, more often plunged into conflict by religious than by national differences. The wars of the counter-reformation were not patriotic conflicts. From Münster to Drogheda, terrible atrocities were committed by people of the same blood and speech. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was the longest continuous war in Europe’s history and, on some measures, proportionately the most lethal, yet it divided people by belief, not nationality.
More recently, political differences came to replace religious ones, generating the same fanaticism in twentieth century men that sectarianism had been capable of generating in their great-grandparents. Fascism and Communism were to cause far more death and destruction than any nationalist conflicts. It’s true, of course, that, as with any wars, national interests became entangled with the doctrinal schisms. The Second World War and the Cold War were not simply ideological clashes; they also ranged whole countries against each other. But they were primarily ideological wars, which cut across national differences. This was obviously true of the Cold War, but it was true, too, of the Nazi aggression. There wasn’t a country in Europe which didn’t have combatants on both sides. When Berlin fell in 1945, the last troops still standing in its defence were the Scandinavian and French soldiers of, respectively, the Nordica and Charlemagne Waffen-SS regiments (both of which, incidentally, had sought recruits on grounds of ‘defending Europe’).
Where nationalism was at the root of a conflict, it was usually the nationalism of a people who had been, as it were, incorporated into the wrong state. The nineteenth century saw several wars which began as risings against foreign rule, or as attempts to embrace irredenti populations. When Euro-enthusiasts blame the two world wars on ‘nationalism’, they rarely emphasise what kind of nationalism it was. The Great War was sparked by the demand of the South Slav citizens of Austria-Hungary for statehood; the Second World War by Hitler’s annexation of German-speaking parts of Poland. It's true, of course, that these were by no means the sole causes of the conflicts; but it is striking how many wars begin over the misalignment of state with ethnographic borders.
Look around the world today, and see how many conflicts are rooted in the denial of national self-determination. Pushing different nationalities into common structures tends to make them more, rather than less, antagonistic. The EU shouldn't expect to be any different. It launched the euro as a means to bring the peoples of Europe closer together. Look how that worked out.