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An epitaph for the European Union

Like a lot of big ideas that turn out to be unpopular, unworkable, misguided and just plain bad, the European Union probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

In fact, I’m sure it did. I’m sure it still does, to the dwindling band of believers across an increasingly-sceptical continent who still carry the faith.

You’d have had to have been there back in the day, I suppose.

Imagine yourself back in 1948, let’s say – the year the EU’s founding fathers got together for the first Congress of Europe. A lot of things probably seemed like good ideas back then, what with the dust barely settled from six long years of the most disastrous war in the history of mankind. It was the kind of a year when anything that was in any way different enough from the nightmare of what what had gone before would have seemed like the most excellent bloody idea ever invented.

There were a lot of ideas floating around back then, and a lot of people coming up with them. Architects, town planners, educationalists, psychologists, politicians, all putting forward wild ideas, radical ideas, extraordinarily ambitious ideas and sometimes just plain crazy ones, and pretty much all of them were being treated seriously.

And for all their differences, every single one of these ideas could be boiled down to just one thing: reinventing human nature.

So, that year, on one side of the Atlantic, an American psychology professor by the name of B. F. Skinner published a book called Walden Two. In it, he described how to create a scientifically-planned world in which happy, productive and creative people would be governed by qualified managers and planners, acting on the impartial advice of scientists like himself. It would be a world in which people no longer ate meals at home with their families but dined, instead, in communal canteens. Clothes would longer denote status, because status, like poverty and violence, would no longer exist – although the people would, of course, dress attractively in items carefully and strategically chosen to be beyond the fast-changing vagaries of fashion. In particular, women would no longer fill up their wardrobes with party-dresses, because that would be illogical and impractical.

As I say, you probably had to have been there: people took this sort of stuff seriously in 1948.

Meanwhile, over on the other side of the Atlantic, Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier, had just started drawing up his plans for the Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, which was to be the world’s first Brutalist concrete tower block, a plug-ugly but supremely rational ‘machine for living in.’ Big bare concrete walls, row upon row and floor upon floor of identical box-like apartments, bare corridors and stairwells. But it was the future, you see: and in the future no-one would want to live in actual houses any more, with differences and quirks and ld-fashioned pitched roofs and their own gardens. We’d all prefer high-rise boxes in centrally-planned, rational communities in which thousands of years of human imperfection would wither away to be replaced by a new kind of human nature.

Which brings us to the Congress of Europe. Because the idea that began to take shape there was very much like both Skinner’s and Le Corbusier’s, and very much like all of the other ideas being developed by the thinkers and visionaries of the time: they were going to change the way people are.

At the Congress, their tools were not psychology or architecture but politics and diplomacy, and their aim was to dissolve and merge the nations, cultures and customs of a continent through a process of harmonision, standardisation and ever-closer union. And when all that was done, life would be great. In particular, there would be no more war or conflict in Europe, because Europe’s peoples would be one. Singing Kumbaya in Esperanto, no doubt.

They tried: bless them, they really tried to bring it about. Five hundred million people under one citizenship, one flag, one anthem, one passport. Most of them under one currency and one border-free zone.

And then it started going wrong, as it was always going to go wrong. As all of the the other big ideas and grand theories of the late twentieth century started going wrong, once they were actually put into practice. It started going wrong because it failed to take human nature into account. Or, to the extent that it did consider human nature, it saw it as something shabby and imperfect; something to be overcome or bypassed; something that kept turning up with the ‘wrong’ referendum results, or huge votes for embarrassingly populist parties. But the truth is that despite the best efforts of the most ‘enlightened’ thinkers and planners, human nature remains pretty much as it always was. As it probably always will be. People don’t want to be harmonised, as it turns out. They don’t want to be homogenised. They don’t want their lives to be centrally-planned or their wishes and preferences ignored or looked down on. They want to live their own lives and shape their own futures, thank you very much. And if you fail to recognise that, and fail to work with it, things will end badly.

And now here we are.

It’s hard to say, with certainty, how the EU will all end or for how long it will linger and in what form. It’s hard to say how the Euro crisis will finally play itself out, or the migration crisis, or the surge of anti-EU feeling across the continent (and now even in France, of all places).

But sooner or later it will end. I’m hoping for ‘sooner’.

And when the end comes, ’It probably seemed like a good idea at the time’ seems to me like a fitting epitaph.

About Warwick Cairns

Profile photo of Warwick Cairns
Warwick is Press Officer of the British Weights & Measures Association and author of About The Size Of It: the Common-Sense Approach To Measuring Things (PanMacmillan) and How to Stop Living Dangerously (PanMacmillan). He has degrees from the University of Keele and Yale University. Born in Dagenham, Essex, he has lived many places, including in Africa and a Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, USA. He now resides with his family in Windsor, Berkshire, United Kingdom.

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