'Europe' is meaningless
Like modal jazz and Star Wars, Europe is one of those ideas that's been going steadily down-hill since its inception
I have no idea what the so-called "Paris Statement," recently issued amid a depressingly small number of outcries and even less fanfare by a group of semi-prominent European conservatives, is supposed to be about.
Subtitled "A Europe We Can Believe in," it is a document of some 4,600 words whose authors get by turns misty eyed and histrionic about the fate of a meaningless concept.
The list of signatories is instructive. The English philosopher Roger Scruton, author of the forthcoming Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Intellectual Tradition (not to be confused with How to Be a Conservative or Arguments for Conservatism or the first, second, or third edition of The Meaning of Conservatism), is a man with some experience in the conceptual agony racket. Bart Jan Spruyt, the Dutch journalist, is notable for being almost certainly the first person in world history to have found the Heritage Foundation "inspiring."
"Europe," like modal jazz and Star Wars, is one of those ideas that's been going steadily downhill since its inception, in this case round about the 9th century in the Year of Our Lord.
It used to mean, very simply, the lands in which the population were paid-up members of the Latin — as opposed to the Greek — Church. (By that definition, which I stubbornly cling to, Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, is a far more "European" capital than Paris.) If around the same time you had the good fortune of visiting the other side of the dividing line, in, say, Byzantium, you would see a disgusting place where a lot of foul-smelling unfortunately wealthy ex-barbarians were nice to the pope most of the time and not just when they wanted something — say money — from the old Italian gentleman. In the centuries after Hank Tudor's famous divorce, it became a place where English lads went to gawk at buildings and scribble in notebooks and visit prostitutes. Then for a while after the Second World War, it was a place that was more or less within the American rather than the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War.
What does Europe mean today? What are people who are emotionally invested in the idea talking about when they use the word? Not simply the continent as a fact of geography or the European Union as a concrete legal entity. The signers of the Paris Statement tell us that:
Europe belongs to us, and we belong to Europe. These lands are our home; we have no other. The reasons we hold Europe dear exceed our ability to explain or justify our loyalty. It is a matter of shared histories, hopes, and loves. It is a matter of accustomed ways, of moments of pathos and pain. [The Paris Statement]
Who is the "we" behind the "us" there — or, more to the point, who is not covered by it? At one point in the document there is a vague reference to the fate of "political leaders who give voice to inconvenient truths about Islam." Which truths are these? There is a great deal of talk about "moral decay," most of which rings true. Euthanasia and abortion are legal in most European countries; in France it is not even possible to air a commercial in which adults with Down syndrome whose parents elected not to abort them express their gratitude. What does this have to do with Islam?
Beneath all the mealy-mouthed anti-Muslim rhetoric, there are some non-controversial points about government support for families and public funding for the arts alongside a few exceedingly lame American conserva-bro-style talking points about freedom of speech and the economy. There is a huge unresolved tension between the authors' illiberal, almost Hedeggerian obsession with "landscapes and events … charged with special meaning" and their ostensible desire for a return to "true liberalism"; they seem to want all the rhetorical benefits of being nice modern liberals while reserving for themselves the right to reject anything undesirable about liberalism. They complain that their opponents "ignore, even repudiate the Christian roots of Europe," as if the fact that these were once Christian countries were unknown or that whining about it would change the reality today.
What the document never gets around to addressing is the fact that for the rest of the world Europe today is a vaguely defined tourist destination, a barely differentiated mass of Instagrammable would-be landmarks, like that hideous wrought-iron pole built for a fair a little over a hundred years ago. The whole thing could be destroyed tomorrow and rebuilt by the set designers from Game of Thrones and it would make no difference. Meanwhile the altars of Europe's great churches are abandoned; in front of them at tables constructed in the '70s priests wearing preposterous Tolkien-esque vestments perform what is technically the sacrifice of Mass for shrinking audiences who line up to receive their participation wafers or snap pictures. Good wine and real beer are drunk, smoking bans are ignored, attractive trains run on schedule, wages in many countries remain high; a certain vision of the good life is allowed to flourish. This sounds like "true liberalism" to me.
What do the document's signatories really want? To turn back the clock? How far? To 1945? Maybe 1989? When did this Europe they sob over exist and what was it like then? A place very much like what we see today except with people who were more "moral" and able to tell unspecified "truths" about Islam and who paid slightly less in taxes while still welcoming children? They are yearning for a past unafflicted by the maladies of the present, which makes about as much sense as wishing for a better 18th century in which iPhone batteries lasted longer.
Look, I get it. "Stalin is not in charge of our food supply" was a nice thing to be able to say about your country circa 1955. That doesn't mean that there were any meaningful attributes other than geographical proximity binding you to the inhabitants of other nations lucky enough to share your fate, much less that there exist waiting to be discerned by chaired professors and professional scribblers some ethereal principles governing the mystical destiny of part of the Eurasian techtonic plate. On balance, it is a good thing that as I write this some French bureaucrat is about to go on the war path against an unscrupulous export merchant attempting to pass off one disgusting variety of expensive cheese as another. It is nice, too, that Chinese and America tourists who want to cram the Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, and Italy into the same five-day package trip will have an easy time at the border. But that's all covered by the EU.
What, I ask again, is Europe really? The EU and everything it represents? A highly interactive Disneyland? A relic of the Cold War?
For me Hilaire Belloc put it best: "Europe is the faith, and the faith is Europe."
He should have said "was."