If anything positive comes out of the Syrian crisis, and I appreciate it’s like looking for silver linings in the Great Storm of Jupiter, it is that it has brought the European nations together as never before. Perhaps the last time that England, France and Germany fought in a major campaign together was the Third Crusade in the 12th century, a military adventure in the Middle East. Okay, so it ended disastrously, and ended up costing the English treasury about four year’s worth of taxes, but let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself. Part of me does wonder whether the Germans, having now engaged in military action again, will suddenly find something triggered in their brains. (‘Zis feels gut ja, Gunter?’) Or maybe not.
One of the main problems with the European Union is that it was specifically designed by people who oppose nation-states and so are incapable of countering national loyalty at a visceral level with their own vision. Look at its bank notes, with their imaginary buildings, its bland motto (‘united in diversity’), its ugly headquarters, the colourless language employed by its leaders, who seem to resemble second-rate middle managers. Who would die for the European Union? Or who would even want to burn the EU flag, which installs feelings of ennui and emptiness rather than love or hatred?
It’s a country for people who don’t like countries. Not that there’s anything wrong with being unpatriotic; I reckon anywhere between 5 and 20 per cent of western people have little or no sense of national feeling, but they tend to be disproportionately found higher up in society, hang around like-minded people, and so when designing political systems ignore that most people do love their country on some irrational level.
Unpatriotic people still have their own in-groups and out-groups, of course: for the likes of Jeremy Corbyn it’s socialists versus Tories/social democrats/Blairites, and sometimes this hostility to out-group members is fierce (as centrist Labour MPs have discovered in these past few days). For religious fanatics it’s unbelievers, heretics and apostates. For euro-federalists the out-groups in question are nationalists, rather than non-Europeans.
The out-group for European nationalism has traditionally been Islam. The word ‘European’ was first used by a Latin chronicler in the 8th century to describe Charles Martel’s victory over the Muslims at the Battle of Tours in 732; medieval western Europeans always had a strong sense of identity as Latin ‘Franks’ in contrast to Orthodox Greeks and Muslims. Twelfth-century crusader Fulcher of Chartres wrote of his experiences fighting the Muslims that ‘if a Breton or German wished to ask me something, I was completely unable to reply. But although we were divided by language, we seemed to be like brothers in the love of God and like near neighbours of one mind’. He was certainly not a Eurosceptic.
Such a Christian concept of Europe would today be considered downright sinister if not just vulgar, but the sight of French, British and German forces fighting Islamic extremists just as Kings Philip, Richard and Henry did in the 1190s is bound to remind British people subtly of their common European, Frankish identity, ‘like near neighbours of one mind’, as we have all felt towards the French these past weeks. Not that the EU’s leaders will pick up on this, of course. Their line will no doubt remain those heavyweight, cast-iron, logical arguments: ‘diversity is inevitable’, ‘nation-states will lead to war’, ‘Eurosceptics are on the wrong side of history’ and of course the classic ‘it’s [the current year], people’.