‘What Happened to “Europe without frontiers"?’

by Nigel Lewis

In these troubled times for the European Union, one might do worse than pray for guidance to the patron saint of Europe, Saint Benedict. In Italy this summer, I was in Umbria, in the central Apennines, and happened to visit the ancient town of Norcia, where Benedict was born. I didn’t go there to pray, but since the referendum of June, 2016, when the British voted to leave the EU, there hasn’t been a day when I haven’t worried about Brexit, and Norcia did prompt a prayer of sorts, a meditation on the past, present, and future of the EU.


Benedict lived in the final days of the Roman empire more than a millennium and a half ago. The monastic order he founded, the Benedictines, carried the Christian message to the far corners of a Europe whose main dividing lines were rivers, lakes, seas, and mountains. In Umbria one picks up echoes of this primordial Europe. A travel article urged me to cross the Apennines into the neighbouring province of Le Marche, the forbiddingly named “borderlands”. “You can almost taste the pioneering spirit”, it said, “You may feel you have crossed a new frontier”. A frontier isn’t only a line drawn on a map - it also means something like the edge of the known, civilised world.


An EU brochure on the Schengen Area says that “removing borders, ensuring safety, and building trust took many years after two devastating world wars”. The Area is a showcase for the EU – it realises the old dream of a “United States of Europe”. However, a much older dream is regaining its hold on the European mind – the dream of living among one’s own people within secure, defended frontiers.


Few remember that Saint Benedict was one of the original inspirations of European union. In Norcia’s Piazza san Benedetto is a statue of him. The inscriptions on its plinth take us back to the years soon after World War II, when Europe and Germany were divided by the Iron Curtain, and much of it was in ruins. They draw discreet parallels between Benedict’s mission in late antiquity and the European Economic Community (EEC) set up in the Rome Treaty of 1957. Benedict is called Pacis Nuntius, messenger of peace, and


Unitatis Effector, the “realiser” of unity. Among the effectors of the EEC were devout Catholic politicians consciously inspired by Benedict’s example. The German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was one of them. Another, the French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman, spoke in 1958 of a European unity “deeply rooted in basic Christian values”, which in the wider, Cold War context of the time, were also denominated as “western” or “democratic” values. A democratic system of government remains a pre-condition of EU membership, but a union of democracies no longer commands the passionate belief and popular support that it did before the collapse of the Soviet empire.


For Schuman, Europe was a “community of peoples” sharing a common homeland and drawing upon similar cultural sources. The 1990s saw a doctrinal shift from Schuman’s ideas to those of the EU’s other leading theoretician, the French economist Jean Monnet. It is evident in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, and in the name-change from European Community to European Union. For Monnet, the “ever closer union” of the Rome Treaty wasn’t a post-war reconstruction of European “community” but a brand-new construction project from the ground up. “Europe”, Monnet once said, “has never existed. One must genuinely create Europe”.


The French political scientist and former member of the European Parliament, Jean-Louis Bourlanges, describes the EU as divided over whether it is “the political expression of a common cultural heritage” or “the organised affirmation of an interdependence of chosen values”. It was, said Bourlanges, “essential” to choose between them, but the choice “has never been made”. If the EU cannot or will not define “Europe”, it should come as no surprise that EU member states have differing ideas about what Europe is and should be; or that some prefer their received values to the EU’s chosen ones; or that millions of European citizens, any number of political groupings, and some governments, are now “pushing back” against the EU.


In Benedict’s time, the schisms that would tear Christianity apart, and Europe with it, lay many centuries in the future. So did the Treaty of Westphalia and the advent of the modern nation state. Ever since, the driving ethic of European history has been the territorialism of competing states, whose frontiers have been frequent flashpoints of war. The EU originated in a profound mistrust of the nation state, yet it is an organisation of nation states, not quite a confederation, but with federal ambitions to be the “single European State” of Monnet’s vision. It is sometimes compared to the Holy Roman Empire, and in its enormous “territorial” expansion since 1957 it is indeed a kind of empire. There is also an analogy with the League of Nations. Like the League, it is a sort of permanent peace conference, whose core mission, inherited from the EEC, was to reduce the frictions generated by nationalism and prevent the frontiers from bursting into flame again.


Without sovereign powers of its own, it has had to tread carefully around the sovereignty of its member states. It accepts the status quo ante of their frontiers when they join, and as far as I know it has never taken sides in a border dispute (Gibraltar, for example). It doesn’t remove frontiers as such – they remain in international law; but it pulls their teeth by negotiating the removal of their provocative apparatus – fences, border-posts, checkpoints, and so on – so that they no longer matter as much, or at all. The EU, like the EEC before it, has been defusing Europe like an unexploded bomb left over from World War II.


The Schengen Area enjoys the “de facto solidarity” that Robert Schuman outlined in his Declaration of 1950 - nations co-operating in a common market, and so enjoying greater prosperity, would understand one another better and settle their differences amicably. In 1952, this policy of enlightened self-interest was pioneered by the European Coal and Steel Community, with the aim of pacifying Germany’s borders with France and the Benelux countries. Almost seventy years later, it seems to have eradicated a recurrent black spot in Europe’s history, a contributory cause of both World Wars – the German and French dispute over Alsace-Lorraine. Recently, however, Hungary has rekindled a border dispute with Rumania dating back to the Treaty of Trianon of 1920, and Brexit threatens the return of another black spot. The relaxation of the northern Irish border since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 would have been inconceivable without Irish and British membership of the EU. No new border, not even the softest, could replace one that has been magicked away, psychologically and practically.


Elsewhere, the relaxation of tension between nations has had the effect of inflaming tensions within them. All over Europe, the longlasting peace under the aegis of the EU has emboldened separatist movements in countries whose origins are themselves federal. When issues of internal sovereignty arise, the EU expects its members to fend for themselves, on condition, however, that they abide by EU rules and do not settle these conflicts by force, as they were usually settled in the past, and as Spain has come within an ace of doing, and may yet do, in Catalonia. One shouldn’t underestimate the fissiparous effect of separatism. The rise of Scottish nationalism was a potent factor in the UK referendum – some voted for Brexit to spite the Scots, others because they feared the break-up of the United Kingdom.


Some see the Schengen Area as the crowning achievement of the EU; to others, it is an ideological step too far towards the “fusing” of nations that Monnet anticipated. Though I think of myself as “a European”, I don’t feel any more of one in the Schengen Area. Convenient for trade and tourism, but also for drug-smuggling, people-trafficking, and terrorism, it reminds me of the “drive through” states of the USA. When the EU urges me to “hop in a car and visit your neighbours”, something in me even murmurs that “good fences make good neighbours”.


The Schengen Area shows that the core mission of “defusing” Europe has been accomplished. In a way, however, the EU is a victim of its success. As memories of conflict recede into the past, it is harder to demonstrate the historical necessity of a “Europe without frontiers”. In the 1950s, it wasn’t difficult to define what Europe was. It was in crisis, but it wasn’t an identity crisis. The Europe that didn’t yet exist was what the geopolitics of the day prevented it from being.  Nations to the east were cut off behind the hardest of frontiers, the Iron Curtain. Over the Pyrenees, Catholic Spain and Portugal were ineligible for EEC membership because they were dictatorships. Once the Iron Curtain came down, the western democracies had no nearby tyranny to define themselves against. Since then, and since its massive fifth expansion of 2004, it has been harder for the EU to say what it “stands for”.


It is a secular body that no longer subscribes to Christian or western values, but to “common values” – including religious freedom - held to be those of humanity as a whole. These values, however, are of no help in defining Europe in terms of anything specific to it - its culture, or history, or geography. Some countries of the 2004 intake – notably, Poland – claim that the EU actively promotes secularism and has an “ideological” bias against Christianity. The EU has been unable so far to reconcile the eastern European experience of the 20th century with western Europe’s.


Poland’s Christian belief and sense of nationhood were its immune defences against Nazi occupation and Soviet domination. It was, I suggest, always unrealistic to expect countries that had just escaped the clutches of the Soviet Union to cede too much of their sovereignty, too soon, to another union, even one that they had signed up to. It seems self-evident that EU member states must be European, but that only became an explicit condition of membership in the Copenhagen criteria of 1993. By then, existential unease had been sown over the years by the EU’s ambivalent responses to Turkey’s applications to join. The EU seems to see Turkey – European or not – as a tempting prize. In 2017, its most recent application was turned down on the grounds, inter alia, that Turkey isn’t a stable democracy, not that its population is Muslim, or that Europe and the Ottoman empire were at war for centuries, or that Europe traditionally ends at the Hellespont.


The background to Brexit and the other reactionary movements is the same disillusion with “big” government and western democracy itself that is felt also in the United States - we are seeing the breakdown of the post-war “West”. One of the things that they react against is the sheer size of the EU. It aspires like Christianity to be an empire of the spirit without frontiers, disseminating belief in democracy and other chosen values. But it is also an “empire” of this world, which has probably reached the limits of its expansion – in the present decade, Croatia has been its only new member. Its twenty-eight member states, as against the EEC’s original six, cover an area of four million square kilometres, with a population of more than half a billion.


For obvious reasons, a “Europe without frontiers” can never be without external frontiers - the EU’s stretch to more than 17,000 kilometres. In its foreign policy, set out in Article J of the Maastricht Treaty, the EU has nothing to say about these frontiers. To the east, hopes of Ukrainian membership are thwarted by Russian willingness to use force, Poland frets about the security of the EU’s eastern boundary along the River Bug, and relations between Greece and Turkey are at a new low. To the south, uncontrolled mass migration over the porous Mediterranean frontier has made nonsense of the EU’s system for processing refugees and asylum-seekers, the Dublin Protocol of 1990.


The salient point about this difficult and emotive issue is the “breakaway” effect on the EU and on the wide-open Schengen Area – the effect, magnified on the nightly TV news, of a desperately sad, modern version of something that empires fear, barbarian invasion. Uncontrolled migration has crystallised a crisis in European identity that has been brewing for a generation. The knowledge that it is a humanitarian catastrophe does not mitigate the feeling that the EU is fiddling while Rome burns, or the fear that people are in danger of losing “their” Europe – the corner of it that they know and love. Against this backdrop, “identity politics” rejects the EU’s pursuit of a single European State and asserts the idea of Europe as a “community of peoples”.


The Italian movement led by Matteo Salvini grew out of the separatist Lega Nord and calls itself, significantly, “Noi Con Salvini”, usually translated as “Us With Salvini”. The “de facto solidarity” of mations has moved closer to home. A new frontier has sprung up in Europe, between people like “us” and an alien, threatening “them”. Communities are welcoming up to a point – then they can turn nasty. In embracing the “us” who belong to them, they necessarily exclude a “them” who don’t. The European Community was both inclusive and exclusive (of Franco’s Spain, for example). It affirmed an identity - the EU has no clear identity. The EEC curbed nationalism – the EU provokes it.


On the day in August, 2015, when Chancellor Merkel made her “we can do this” speech opening Germany up to almost a million migrants, a young German woman told me she had never felt so proud of her country. I asked her about the effect on the German right. She stared at me - “What German right?” The EU has neglected its external frontiers. The member states whose outer edges are contiguous with its own have been expected to police them, with the assistance, since 2005, of the EU’s own “coordinating” border agency, Frontex (from frontières extérieures).


Between 2013 and 2016 the Frontex budget almost tripled, and in 2015, its mandate was extended. Germany, France, Austria, and Poland are among nations backing plans for a “standing corps” of up to 10,000 border guards. Facts are hard to come by - the EU is oddly opaque about Frontex - but it looks as though the EU, having dismantled internal frontiers, has accepted that its outer ones must be harder. If so, it has taken a step towards a territorial definition of “Europe”, and possibly, further down that road, towards a federal European State, or some other form of supra-national sovereignty. At a time of increasing worry over NATO, the idea of a European Army might re-emerge, as it has done, periodically, ever since the 1950s. The EU insists that its standing corps will be subject to its rules on human rights. It won’t be an army, but some already find it reminiscent of the border guards of the DDR, the puppet state of Communist East Germany, where Angela Merkel grew up. Of necessity, these thoughts on the future of the EU are speculative, and of a scope commensurate with a project that took on the whole of European history, and is now at a turning point in its own.


In late 2016 – not long after the Brexit referendum – Norcia was struck by a series of earthquakes registering up to 6.6 on the Richter scale. Two years later, much of the town still looks like a cleared-up war zone. Article 92 2(b) of the Treaty of Rome promises “aid to make good the damage caused by natural disasters or exceptional occurrences”, and the rebuilding of Norcia is well under way, supported by a huge grant of 1.2 bn. euros from the European Solidarity Fund. This neighbourly helping hand is what the EU was originally about. A young man said something that has stayed with me. He was describing what it’s like to live in an earthquake-zone. “Our lovely, peaceful view of the Apennines”, he said, “makes us forget that beneath the mountains the forces that destroy us are always gathering”. I suggest that something similar is true of the EU.


Absorbed in its vision, it overlooked its susceptibility to “exceptional occurrences” – the sudden end of the USSR, the migrant crisis, Brexit, a USA which, with Donald Trump as president, is as hostile to the EU as Putin’s Russia. The EU should stop its mission creep. Discussing the CETA Trade Agreement last year, the then deputy German chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, said that “Canada is as European as some member states”. Does that mantra also cover Germany’s controversial gaspipeline deal with Russia, which is no democracy, but in other ways is more “European” than Canada?


Gabriel also called the EU “the largest civilisation project of the 20th century”, a description as high-handedly simplistic as Jean Monnet’s Europe that has “never existed”. Europe has always existed, and its “civilisation project”, like any other, has always been precarious. Quiescent for decades beneath the lovely view, the old tectonic plates have begun to grind again, with seismic shocks all over the place – Hungary, Austria, Poland, Italy, Spain, the UK, Denmark, Holland, even Germany and France.


Some see the shocks as signs of the EU’s imminent break-up, but geopolitical frictions, like those of geology, take time to reach breaking-point. Steps can be taken to alleviate them, and I hope that the breakaway movements will subside. I want the European Union to reform, but I don’t want it to fail. The Europe of the EU, for all its faults, is a continent that still renounces unreason, a place of kindness and, yes, civilisation. It is the only Europe we have - we may not need it for the same reasons as before, but the world needs it more than ever.