My train departed from Amsterdam and headed to Warsaw.
Or at least, that was the destination of my couchette car. Other parts of the train would separate in the night for their own destinations. The Jan Kiepura was part of the EuroNight line, a train service that added and subtracted cars along its way, allowing travelers from southerly or northerly locations to link and unlink with the main trunk chugging through Europe’s slumbering heart. On the EuroNight line I could board in Holland and fall asleep, to awake in Berlin, Prague, Basel, Munich, or eventually Moscow.
Well, I could—until a select committee of technocrats decided otherwise. “Daytime trains should be used instead, or cheap planes,” a Deutsche Bahn clerk said the last time I inquired about tickets. The German national train service had made that determination in 2015, “in consultation with European partners.” In some ways, the decision made sense: Deutsche Bahn had to foot the bill for aging train cars and increased labor costs at night. And who can argue with “consultation”? But this was a terrible, anti-European decision, all too typical of bureaucratic Europe.
I frequently rode the EuroNight line from Holland to Poland and back again, and on those trips I learned far more about being European than I could in any course on “European values.” The Czech porters sold Pilsner and pretzels; the Russians dealt in clear spirits and rogue masculinity. The Poles hosted the catering car, in accord with a schedule that seemed to defy all but Polish logic. The Germans controlled the tickets. The Dutch attempted to fit their long frames into the small beds, to general amusement. The Danes remained their stoical selves and enjoyed looking out the windows.
The train had regulars. Even if the faces were unfamiliar, the types were recognizable. And as we sauntered through the night, for the most part confined to private places and committed to particular destinations, we were united by our slight trepidation of the thieves and vagabonds who might slip aboard. But we had also made a silent pact to assist one another when necessary (and it was sometimes necessary).
This security regime did not entail continuous effort. There was no compulsion for “ever greater union” on the EuroNight line. And “European values” had little to do with the success of our transit. Onboard, it was combined European, national, and personal virtues that made our pact work. The train’s external entries were secured, porters provided service and communication in each couchette, and travelers could lock their own personal cabins. We were guarded against intruders from without and against trouble from within. Otherwise, we were set at liberty. Friendship was possible, but not forced.
On one journey, a Polish nobleman asked me: Did I still believe all solutions come from West of us? And all problems are our own? He had been deprived of his ancestral home by the communists after fighting in the resistance against the fascists. As I think back on that conversation now, I am put in mind of the shibboleth recently uttered by a prominent Eurocrat: “Europe is the best idea that Europe ever had.” This vacuous mantra typifies the E.U. mentality, and entails E.U. supremacy.
When problems arise, instead of political leadership, the trusty tonic of “More Europe in Europe” is served. “Europe”—a hopeless abstraction meant to invoke both the institutional E.U. and European values—is championed as an unalloyed good. For the past twenty-five years, wherever the E.U. has extended, it has been impermissible to imagine there could be anything like a “bad Europe.” Even using words like “reform” or “renewal” in reference to Europe brands one as a warmongering nationalist, nostalgic about the past. Or worse, a believing Christian, whose hope is not ultimately secular. In the eyes of Europe’s bureaucrats, “Europe” could never be a loose, congenial, unimposed fraternity of nations traveling together down the tracks of history, or even a confederation.
For them, “Europe” means transnationalist rule, and is the only guarantor of peace in our time. Similarly, the Euro means prosperity. And our hope is in “an ever greater union” under the official interpretation and adjudication of the European values of “respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.” Anyone nursing Euroskeptic thoughts on the shared train ride of European history is derided with devil words like “racist,” “colonialist,” and “X-phobe.”
Yet “European values” are often shockingly ineffectual where they are most needed. Under their governance, external borders have gone unpoliced (at the cost of tens of thousands of lives at sea), and Europe’s few remaining Jewish communities have been left unprotected from anti-Semitic violence. Calls for “ever greater union” under this manifest misrule have not encouraged Europeans to embrace European citizenship. Quite the opposite.
This does not mean Europeans don’t still feel European. Of course they do. They cherish their ability to participate in Europe’s cultural, artistic, civilizational, political, and natural heritage. But while great effort and expense are dedicated to designing currency to unify us politically, and in erecting architectural stillbirths in which to nest Europe's leaders (see the Europa building), almost no attention is paid to that which makes Europeans feel European, to those places where they practice being European together but in their own national and regional idioms—like on the EuroNight line. The cancellation of the Jan Kiepura—a marvel of international order and cooperation—by the forces of efficiency and progress epitomizes European misrule.
I do not know just what sort of confederation might emerge as the failure of the E.U. project becomes more evident. However, my experience moving about Europe for the past fifteen years tells me that European cooperation, like trains in which peoples from many different nations rest at ease, is possible without minimizing differences. Unity of purpose in political Europe need not entail ideological rigidity or political union. That which unites Europe’s peoples is older and greater than mere politics.
I intend to benefit from that ancient unity by planning my next trip to Vienna or Krakow, Budapest or Milan, via the night trains that those nations are still willing to send through Europe.
Jonathan Price is a junior research fellow at the University of Oxford and assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Warsaw. He is editor of the journal Politics & Poetics.