The European Union Is Dead

By Hulsman, John C.; Schirano, William L. T. | The National Interest, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

The European Union Is Dead

Hulsman, John C., Schirano, William L. T., The National Interest

IN 1865, Viscount Palmerston, prime minister of England, lay dying. As is only too human, the great man desperately rejected the diagnosis. When Palmerston's physician broke the news to the elderly statesman that he was about to expire, he replied defiantly, "Die, my dear doctor? That's the last thing I shall do!"

This mixture of hubris and denial signaling the end is often as true of institutions and dreams as it is of men. And there is little doubt, following the twin "no" votes in France and the Netherlands, that the European Union, long proudly proclaimed as the future model of international relations, is dead. Throughout our travels this year in a Europe in crisis--to the European Parliament, the German Council on Foreign Relations, the French Army War College, the British Defense Academy and the Harvard University Seminar in Talloires, France--we have heard the same generic rebuttals from Europhiles everywhere: "The EU always manages to muddle through; the process of ever closer union has gone too far to be reversed; in a few years the EU will regroup and be stronger than ever."

Nonsense. It has long been our view that the EU, or rather the notion of ever-closer political union that has been at its heart, is the primary faith-based project in the Western world. Predicting the slow demise of the European constitution was not that difficult: A dreadful document, an economic malaise discrediting the entire European elite, political aloofness that wholly disconnected Europe's rulers from the ruled, and a willful ignorance of the Continent's amazing diversity assumed in an effort to force an artificial one-size-fits-all approach were there for all to see.

But Euro-cheerleaders could not see it. Emotionally driven, their failure of analysis was not an act of deception--rather, it was one of self-deception. So, to understand what is happening here, we must think unconventionally about the end of the dream of ever closer union--about death and the process of coming to terms with it. In 1969, in her seminal work On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross eloquently detailed the five stages of dying--denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance. (1) It remains one of the most important contributions to our understanding of the final phase of life and will do much to explain the otherwise baffling lack of self-awareness characterizing European elites' approach to the entire EU project.


DENIAL PROTECTS us from those truths that fundamentally challenge our conception of the world. In the case of dying, denial is an attempt to protect the fundamental assumption that the individual is, and will continue to be, a part of the world. Denial thus acts as the initial stopgap to the catastrophic collapse of the individual's worldview.

The cataclysm of the constitution's dual rejection represents such a threat to Euro-federalists across the globe. Mark Leonard, of the Centre for European Reform, challenged, "I think this is a storm in a teacup. People won't remember it in ten years time", as though dismissive words could take the place of a reality too bitter to bear. As Kubler-Ross said, "death is never possible to regard in ourselves."

For what is dying here is a worldview. Anyone who speaks with European elites notices that certain terms regularly crop up when they describe the European project--postmodern, post-Westphalian, post-nation-state--as though Europe had evolved beyond the structures of the national system and is at the vanguard of a future international order. What is striking in hindsight is how little doubt there was as to the outcome of the referendum exercise.

As the Laeken Declaration, which set out the ambitious goals for the constitution, made clear, "The unification of Europe is near." The declaration goes on: "The image of a democratic and globally engaged Europe admirably matches citizens' wishes", without giving much empirical evidence for this rather sweeping certainty. …

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