EU Referendum

Mr Cameron’s beloved EU is imploding. The reason? The elected elite running it simply don’t understand the power of patriotism, writes DOMINIC SANDBROOK

Well, I hate to say I told you so, but I did. This week, David Cameron returned from his continental tour proudly waving a piece of paper purporting to represent a new deal for Britain in Europe.

And just as I predicted in these pages several weeks ago, his much-vaunted renegotiation exercise has turned out to be an utter waste of time.

Like Harold Wilson’s similarly cynical effort in 1975, it proved to be nothing more than an expensive public relations exercise, designed to mollify the Eurosceptics in his own party and to persuade voters to back Britain’s membership of the EU.

Mr Cameron and his allies did their best to present his appearance in the Commons as a profound national event. In fact, it was more like a magician’s appearance at a children’s tea party: a slick feat, certainly, but a long way short of statesmanlike.

David Cameron returned from his continental tour proudly waving a piece of paper purporting to represent a new deal for Britain in Europe. Above, he meets Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo

 As Mr Cameron waxed lyrical about his non-existent victories — from a belated and therefore pointless brake on migrant benefits, to a vague and completely meaningless promise to respect British sovereignty — you could almost hear the nation laughing with disbelief.

Yet Britain’s future in Europe is no laughing matter, and I doubt I am alone in thinking that we deserve far, far better than the current EU non-debate in which, apart from anything else, Eurosceptic Cabinet ministers have been cynically muzzled.

What David Cameron won’t dare admit is that the EU he so longs to remain part of is in peril as never before.

If you really want to get a sense of Europe’s future, then forget the embarrassing charade in the House of Commons. And forget Mr Cameron’s little PR stunt, a mere sideshow compared with the gigantic dramas unfolding on the EU’s eastern and southern borders.

Our parliamentarians may love to boast about their sense of history. But if you want a genuinely compelling example of how our continent’s bloody past is shaping our shared future, then turn your eyes instead to the East.

In the West, the debate about the future of the EU is naturally coloured by memories of World War II. Indeed, in 2012, the EU was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for having supposedly guaranteed ‘60 years of peace in Europe’.

Further east, however, another shadow looms, if anything, even larger. In EU member states such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Baltic nations, memories of another vast multi-national project — the Communist empire of the Soviet Union — are still red-raw.

 Great swathes of central and eastern Europe still bear the scars of Communist repression, from the great hulking concrete monoliths that dominate their cities to the widows who still mourn their vanished husbands.

And it is precisely because so many of our European neighbours harbour such bitter memories that the collapse of Lenin’s blood-drenched experiment raises uncomfortable questions about the survival of today’s EU — questions that Mr Cameron’s renegotiation exercise has utterly failed to address.

On the face of it, of course, the EU and the USSR could hardly appear more different. Brussels is not the Kremlin. There are no EU labour camps, no psychiatric hospitals for political dissidents, no tanks rolling into the streets of occupied capitals.

What they do have in common, though, is an over-riding belief in international unity.

The Communists dreamed of uniting Europe under the Red Flag. They believed they could erase centuries of history, eradicating national differences, pulling down borders, wiping away the hatreds of the past. Lenin saw himself as the leader of ‘an international workers’ brotherhood’; hence his enthusiasm for the song The Internationale, which became the official worldwide Communist anthem.

‘We are opposed to national enmity and discord, to national exclusiveness,’ he wrote in 1919. ‘We are internationalists.’

Read those last words again, and ask yourself how they might sound coming from a senior figure in the EU.

The answer is that they would sound perfectly natural, because the principle of internationalism (‘ever closer union’, as the EU puts it) is at the very heart of the European project.

The key figure in the foundation of the EU, the French official Jean Monnet — a bureaucrat never once elected to a public office — made this quite explicit. ‘National sovereignty,’ he once said, was finished. ‘There is no future for the people of Europe other than in union.’

 David Cameron makes EU statement as he meets with Polish PM

EU founding French official Jean Monnet  said national sovereignty was finished

 It goes without saying that Lenin’s idea of internationalism and the EU’s version are very different. All the same, they both represent a utopian attempt to erase the legacy of history and to impose continental uniformity in place of national diversity.

In reality, the idea that Europe’s natural state is a harmonious union has always struck me as complete drivel. Not even the Romans managed to unite all Europe under one banner. Plenty of people — despots, usually — have tried since, but all have failed.

The Habsburg emperor Charles V had a go in the 16th century, picturing himself as the head of a European ‘universal monarchy’. He failed.

So did France’s dwarfish emperor Napoleon, some 150 years later. Hitler came closest to pulling it off, albeit in a peculiarly bloodthirsty form. But he failed too, in the end.

The truth is that for all the high-minded pieties of Brussels officials, and for all their fatuous attempts to promote a common European identity, national differences still run very deep indeed.

Most ordinary Europeans feel little loyalty to their continent, and still less to the policy-makers in Brussels. Their primary loyalty is to their family — their own immediate family, of course, but also to their wider national family, whether they are Britons or Germans, Spaniards or Hungarians, Poles, Danes or Lithuanians.

Nothing bears that out better than the reaction to the migration crisis, which represents an overpowering challenge to the European elite’s fantasy of a common political identity.

For as the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has admitted, the scale of the human tide has left the EU overwhelmed. ‘If Europe is not capable of protecting its own borders,’ he told the BBC, ‘it’s the very idea of Europe that will be questioned.’

UN: concerns over Denmark’s seizing of migrant assets

 EU officials have spent the past few days quivering with rage against the Greeks, whom they blame for letting thousands of refugees cross their borders. Above, Syrians flee Syrian government and Russian airstrikes in Aleppo

 Denmark has already introduced draconian regulations forcing refugees to hand over a proportion of their assets

 The problem is not just the sheer number of Middle Eastern and North African migrants clamouring to get into the EU — a challenge that Mr Cameron barely mentioned in his Commons statement. It is also the inevitable collision between internationalist idealism and national self-interest.

Brussels thinks that all member states ought to do their bit. But most national governments think they ought to look after their own interests first.

The result has been the unedifying spectacle of national governments squabbling bitterly about border controls and migrant quotas, pausing only to fire verbal salvos at the EU itself.

As it happens, EU officials have spent the past few days quivering with rage against the Greeks, whom they blame for letting thousands of migrants cross their borders, while the Greeks claim that western European states are merely trying to shift the blame for their own failings.

Denmark has already introduced draconian regulations forcing refugees to hand over a proportion of their assets, while Sweden has just announced plans to expel up to 80,000 migrants using specially chartered aircraft.

At the very least, the Schengen agreement, which guarantees open borders across most of the EU, seems doomed to the scrapheap. Indeed, if you want a symbol of the death of internationalism, then just look at the famous Oresund Bridge, spanning the narrow strait between Denmark’s capital Copenhagen and the Swedish city of Malmo.

This is the bridge that features in the cult BBC4 crime series The Bridge, itself a collaboration between the Danes and the Swedes. On television, detectives whizz back and forth across the bridge on their way to their next moody crime scene.

But in reality, the bridge has come to symbolise the death of utopian idealism. On January 6, responding to the migrant crisis, the Swedes brought in border checks for the first time in the bridge’s history.

In the Guardian newspaper, a Swedish academic bemoaned the fact that what he called ‘short-term national goals’ had supplanted the European vision of ‘how businesses, civil society and people can integrate across national and cultural divides’.

But pursuing short-term national goals is precisely what nation-states do. To expect them to behave otherwise is not merely absurdly unrealistic; it is a dangerous fantasy.

The real fault-line lies in central and eastern Europe, in precisely those countries that were oppressed by the Soviet jackboot until the revolutions of 1989. In countries such as Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, and especially in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which were once part of the USSR itself, memories of totalitarian imperialism are still all too fresh.

Their sense of patriotism and national identity is often intensely strong, as a reaction to the long years of foreign oppression. And since most still see themselves as exclusively Christian countries, there has been a groundswell of popular discontent at the prospect of opening their doors to thousands of Muslim refugees.

Not surprisingly, therefore, governments from the Baltic to the Balkans are outraged at the thought of being ordered by the EU to accept mandatory quotas of Middle Eastern migrants.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who rails against what he calls the ‘profiteers, monopolies, cartels and imperial bureaucrats’ of Brussels

 Hungary provides the most potent example. This year, the Hungarians are marking the 60th anniversary of the 1956 uprising, when thousands of ordinary people took to the streets to fight for freedom, only to have their national aspirations crushed under the tanks of the Red Army.

The legacy of 1956 means that the Hungarians have a particularly intense sense of their own identity.

Indeed, in recent years, kicking against the EU, they have been seduced by the xenophobic populism of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who inveighs against what he calls the ‘profiteers, monopolies, cartels and imperial bureaucrats’ of Brussels.

And where Hungary leads, other Eastern European countries now follow.

The Polish interior minister announced last week that his government will veto any EU attempt to impose migrant quotas on member states, while Slovakia’s Prime Minister, Robert Fico, promised that his country would ‘never make a voluntary decision that would lead to the formation of a united Muslim community in Slovakia’.

The result, he insisted, would be atrocities on the scale of the recent outrages in Paris.

‘Multiculturalism is a fiction. Once you let migrants in, you can face such problems.’

If the Brussels elite think that Mr Orban and Mr Fico are going to shut up and roll over, then I fear they are deluding themselves.

The truth is that the peoples of Eastern Europe waited too long for their freedom to see it swallowed up in the name of continental unity. Despite what the euro-idealists believe, national differences do still matter.

It is sheer arrogance to think that, almost overnight, the European elite can rewrite the history of an entire continent.

For as the past shows with overwhelming clarity, national patriotism is often a far more powerful force than either utopian idealism or economic self-interest.

It is not yet too late for Europe’s politicians to acknowledge the power of nationalism and to devise a more robust response to the migration crisis — one that reconciles our human obligation to those in need with individual nations’ understandable urge to protect their borders.

But if they fail to learn the lessons of the past, then one day, I fear, the EU will go the way of the Soviet Union — a discredited vision of utopian internationalism, unceremoniously dumped in the dustbin of history.

And if that happens, then who will even remember David Cameron’s little tour?

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