How to be a European? This question provided the topic for the twelfth annual Vanenburg Meeting, an enterprise of the Center for European Renewal that gathers European conservatives for three days of reflection and discussion. I attended this year’s meeting and would like to report on what I took to be the highlights.
In the last couple of decades, an official answer has emerged to the question of how to be a European: Promote ever greater unity among the European peoples. This imperative was the founding inspiration for the European Union. Ordinary people may have lacked enthusiasm. But they largely accepted the elite, post-national vision for Europe, one that promised economic prosperity, convenient Mediterranean vacations, and immunity to the age-old temptation of going to war.
At the Vanenburg Meeting, there were no reports of Europeans’ being in the mood to reject prosperity, peace, or a culturally united Europe. But the participants testified to a widespread loss of faith in the European project, at least as it has been understood in recent decades. This is true even among the leadership class, which continues to mouth the old platitudes. As an old hand said, “Ever greater unity doesn’t get any traction anymore.”
A plenary address was given by an intellectual with a great deal of political experience. He helped me understand why the mood is changing. He pointed out that though the E.U. apparatus in Brussels proclaims its devotion to democracy, the democracy is not a functioning one. There is no opposition party in the European Parliament, which means that the Parliament operates as a single-party system without dissent. This state of affairs brings with it the usual trappings of non-democratic rule: lack of transparency, arbitrary use of power, and the unpleasant feeling that the real decisions are being made elsewhere.
Europe is rich, but it is troubled. Its political and cultural problems do not stem from dangerous new initiatives, proposals, or movements. The crisis seems to be one of enervation, paralysis, and the widespread sense of being stuck. The only option on offer seems to be an unworkable ideology of Europe, a culture united by commerce and “values” but without the capacity to imagine alternatives. As a participant said, “E.U. proponents talk about the bright future in order to avoid talking about present problems.”
By and large, participants did not have much to say about Vladimir Putin. There was discussion of Islam, but it, again, was not the focus. Instead, participants consistently returned to the danger of a vacuum, the concern that Europe possesses no consolidating energy or political will. As one of the presenters put it, the dissolving universalism and shrill moralism of human rights eats away at the body politic.
On this point—the enervation and dissolution of political life—I heard a number of participants, especially the Germans, express concern that the Christian legacy of Europe is to blame. The Sermon on the Mount is a manifesto of self-abnegation. Given political form, they argued, the Christian roots of Europe produce a post-Christian piety that welcomes demographic decline and cultural conquest by Islam.
This analysis of Christian humility as a corrosive force in culture is a version of Nietzsche’s account of Christianity as a “slave religion.” I leave aside my refutation. (You can read it here.) I’ll just report that, as I listened, I was troubled by the recollection that the Vatican and many Catholic bishops in Europe often reinforce rather than resist this way of thinking. To a great extent, the Church in Europe is a chaplaincy for the ancien régime in Europe, the E.U.-oriented dream of post-national, post-cultural openness and inclusion.
After a glass or two of wine during one of the dinners, I commented to a European friend that I detected two oxymorons just below the surface of many discussions. We’re familiar with the first: authoritarian liberalism. This uses terms such as “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “non-discrimination” to bulldoze all dissent from Europe’s postmodern ancien régime. A German at the meeting told me that the homes and cars of prominent members of the opposition party there, Alternative for Germany, are vandalized. It’s open season on “fascists.”
We hear less often about the second oxymoron: conservative revolution. Among the group, there was by no means a consensus in favor of conservative revolution. On the contrary, most participants harbored Burkean hopes that postwar European institutions and traditions could be reformed and renewed. But there were widespread expressions of urgency, a sense that authoritarian liberalism had advanced too far, making a politics of restraint and moderate restoration impossible.
As we discussed my observation, my friend sighed, “The sad thing is that these two contradictions are real possibilities. This is a sign of the decadence of the West. Weimar Germany was a problem. Now I’m afraid we’re living in Weimar Europe.”
This year’s Vanenburg Meeting was held in Berlin, which was fitting. On the final evening, I shared a bottle of wine with another American participant as we looked out over the city, busy with its reinvention as the capital of the now united Germany. Taking in the bustling scene, I was struck by the thought that, yet again, Germany has become Europe’s great problem.
This time it’s not militarism or pagan racial pride. Instead, Germany is the epicenter of Europe’s culture of self-repudiation, which wears the mask of vigilant memory: Never Again! And Germany, with its domineering pride, demands that its vassal nations in the European Union do the same. The political and cultural nihilism encouraged by this German-led outlook will not end well.
I’m a hopelessly American kind of American. So I don’t ask myself how to be a European. But I don’t imagine that the United States can stand aloof from “old Europe.” We’re joined in a common culture. Whither my European brethren go, so shall I go, whether I wish to or not.
As Americans, we were very unwise to imagine that we could dissociate ourselves from Europe’s agonies in the 1930s, agonies that revolved around Germany. It would be equally unwise to imagine that we can insulate ourselves from the very different but also unsettling agonies of Europe today, which revolve around Germany once again.
I left Berlin with this thought: We need to try to forestall both authoritarian liberalism and conservative revolution in Europe. To do so, we need to help Germany recover a culture of affirmation. That will require us to set aside our own very American illusions about universal democracy and a global empire of commerce. The way forward requires the reaffirmation of a central Christian truth: The Lord of history is the God who forgives.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.