Most conferences serve, at best, as agreeable talking shops, where like-minded people listen to a serious of empty clichés, meet each other over dinner, and – occasionally – keep in touch afterwards to their mutual benefit. But some conferences, with the right participants, the right themes, and benefiting from the right timing, are much more than that – as with the conference of (mainly – but not all – young) conservatives in Prague between 22 and 25 November. They came from the “Višegrad 4+” countries – that is the official “Višegrad” group, consisting of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, and – the “Plus”, that is the other Central and Eastern European countries. Among the latter group of invitees, the Croats, from the Centar za obnovu kulture (COK), comprised the largest national delegation.
The speakers had generally been involved in high level politics, but as advisers not professional politicians. They had a background in academia, or think tanks. They are occasional journalists and they write books about history, philosophy and economics. They argue their case, often as a minority, in the Public Square. These kind of intellectuals and political experts are not very numerous or prominent in Croatia, particularly on the Right of the political spectrum, and that is a pity.
The themes in Prague were well chosen. Inevitably, they focused on the future of Central and Eastern Europe. But they also addressed the future of the European Union as a whole, and not in the hypocritical, self-congratulatory rhetoric that is to be found in every conference financed directly or indirectly from Brussels.
The European future today is frequently described as “the future after Brexit”. Brexit is indeed a worry for some Central and Eastern Europeans, which have, optimistically though not always realistically, looked to the UK to resist plans dreamt up by the other European Big Two Powers – Germany and France. But, however messy it turns out to be, Brexit is not, in truth, a key element in the big issues Europe now faces.
Indeed, these issues have truly global significance. One is the rise of what is called (usually with critical connotations) “populism”. How much is this a permanent and how much a passing phenomenon? Do the established Right and Left divides, and the traditional parties representing them, have a future?
Another big issue, especially important in Europe, is the role of the nation state. Is a Europe of cooperating but independent, sovereign nation states now compatible with the EU as it currently exists? If not, what is to be done about it?
Closely linked, and of immediate relevance as the CDU prepares to choose a new leader, and Germany very probably a new Chancellor, how will and should a change of German direction affect the European project? Most of what has gone wrong in Europe – the Euro-zone management, energy policy with its resultant dependency on Russia, and above all uncontrolled immigration – can be blamed squarely and directly on Angela Merkel, who until recently has been regarded in Croatian politics and the Croatian media as the irreproachable source of all wisdom. Can a new German leader now put any of Merkel’s errors right? Can, in these circumstances, and more ambitiously, a new set of understandings between European nations, specifically the Višegrad 4+ nations (including Croatia) be established with Germany?
Mass immigration from the non-European and non-Christian world can, with difficulty, be stopped. It is a myth to pretend otherwise. But the impact it has had on people’s political awareness will remain. It has shaken public confidence. Ordinary people know how their leaders betrayed them in this, and other matters, relating to their security, identity and the future of their children. But the disillusionment has deeper roots and wider implications. The dilution of the Christian heritage of Europe by mass incursion from Islam, on a scale only paralleled by events in late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, is occurring at a time when a distorted, perverted variety of secularist liberalism is being promoted, financed and increasingly imposed by the West. This combination of events and forces has left traditional European society in crisis.
The title of the American political scientist Samuel Huntington’s final book – it was just one of the conservative key texts discussed by speakers at Prague – is “Who are We?” http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Who-Are-We/Samuel-P-Huntington/9780684870540 That is a question that all conservatives, with our different backgrounds but common outlook, must be able convincingly to answer. But it leads immediately to another question: “What are you going to do about it?” In other words, how are conservatives going to restore the culture and defeat the internal and external forces that threaten to sweep it away? Conferences like those in Prague help get conservative minded people into training for the peaceful but uncompromising counter-revolution now required.
Vice-president of the Center for Renewal of Culture
You can read Robin’s conference speech below:
Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges Speech, thirty years on – Is a Europe based on, “cooperation between independent sovereign states” still possible?
I have no doubt that Mrs Thatcher was among the twentieth century’s greatest political leaders – using the term great here to mean “good” as well as “effective”, and among her speeches I would reckon the speech she delivered to College of Europe, in Bruges on 22nd September 1988, as probably the most significant. https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/107332
Looking back, the reforming initiative underlying the speech was doomed, for the same reason that many visionary initiatives are doomed, namely it was before its time. As such, it was met in political circles, particularly European circles, with real or simulated horror. It caused no end of trouble for her, and indeed helped set in motion the changes that threw her – and in her wake, my humble self – bag and baggage out of Downing Street.
One has, in making an assessment, to distinguish between the significance of the speech then and now, thirty years on. In some respects, the situation since in Europe has changed radically, the immediate issues have passed into history – not solved, exactly, just become features of such enormous magnitude that they seem immovable parts of the landscape. But in other respects, the challenges that Mrs Thatcher issued are challenges for us still. Moreover, they are particularly relevant to the Višegrad group of countries, to the rest of formerly Communist Central and Eastern Europe, and, indeed, to Croatia – where I live.
Croatia is a rather small and very inactive part of the “plus”, as in the “Višegrad plus” of the title of this conference. Croatia is a wonderful place to live, with proud, talented, brave and highly moral people, but let down by a generally incompetent, lazy, unprincipled and often dishonest self-styled elite.
Croatia, in historical terms, is not just part of Central Europe. For centuries its population was cut to pieces defending Central Europe. Not being at all politically correct, I am pleased to live in a country that calls itself Antemurale Christianitatis, the bastion of Christendom. A few more bastions may need to be erected.
The timing of the Bruges speech has to be recalled, in order to understand what is in it, and what isn’t, and why. In 1988 the European Commission under presidency of the socialist Frenchman Jacques Delors was, for the first time, openly pressing for a federal Europe. Plans for a European single currency, the future Euro, were being drawn up, though Britain was still hopeful about stalling them. The Cold War was not yet over, but Reagan, Thatcher and Kohl were winning, and Gorbachev was losing, and the European Community was wondering how best to exploit events. Poland was deep in crisis, two months later Mrs Thatcher would make a triumphant visit to the Gdansk shipyards. But it was only the following year, 1989, that came the changes that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and eventually the dismemberment of the Soviet Union. German reunification was talked about in Germany, but nowhere else, and Mrs Thatcher had not started to obsess about it, as she later did – which makes the speech more useful, in fact.
From Britain’s point of view – which is also her and the Conservative Government’s point of view – the speech marked a sharp transition. In the first five years of the Thatcher government, Britain was engaged in a fierce struggle to reduce its excessive payments to Europe. Stage two was the development of the European Single Market programme, which Britain saw as intended to remove so-called non-tariff barriers to trade within the EU, but which also involved – and was intended by Delors and others to produce – a large increase in the power of the Commission to introduce social and economic regulations for the purpose of creating a centrally controlled economy. By 1988 Mrs Thatcher had realised that she had been duped about the Single Market and had fully understood the scale of the ambitions of the Commission – hence the tone and content of the speech.
I remember seeing a draft of it when I was at Conservative Central Office and being asked to comment and to suggest additions. I was shocked by what I read. Not because I disagreed – I had first become involved in politics as part of the European Common Market membership referendum in 1975, campaigning (unsuccessfully) for a “No” vote, so I needed no persuading about what was wrong with the corporatist European model. I was shocked, because in politics I am not naïve, and I realised at once that daring – even at that time, and even for someone of Mrs Thatcher’s prestige – to question the orthodoxy of the portentous European project – “ever closer union” in the words of the treaty – was simply dynamite. I was right and a mighty explosion it was.
We all like to think that we wrote the best lines in any famous speech – though only if your name is John O’Sullivan is this likely to turn out to be the truth. But among other bits of the Bruges speech, and as well as the concluding passage – which I shall read out later – I am pretty sure that I wrote this section, which reads nicely here today, and I quote:
“The European Community is one manifestation of …European identity. But it is not the only one. We must never forget that east of the Iron Curtain peoples who once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity have been cut off from their roots. We shall always look at Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as great European cities”.
One could add that nowadays Warsaw, Prague and Budapest have a better to claim to that title of European cities than do Paris or London….
The Bruges speech set out five principles – most of them not, in fact, principles at all, but what pass for them in political jargon – of which the first one is by far the most important.
The first principle declared: “Willing and active cooperation between independent sovereign states is the best way to build a successful European Community.” Mrs Thatcher argued: “To try to suppress nationhood and concentrate power at the centre of a European conglomerate would be highly damaging and would jeopardize the objectives we seek to achieve. Europe will be stronger precisely because it has France as France, Spain as Spain, Britain as Britain, each with its own customs, traditions and identity. It would be folly to try to fit them into some sort of identikit European personality”.
The speech a little later contained a line that enraged the Euro-enthusiasts more than any other:
“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them re-imposed at a European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”.
The second principle was that, “Community policies must tackle present problems in a practical way, however difficult that may be”. This was, in fact, just a catch all paragraph for complaints about finance and the common agricultural policy, so not of much note.
The third principle was more important, namely, “the need for Community policies which encourage enterprise”. Wrongly, but only restating the mantra that was repeated in Britain in those years, Mrs Thatcher claimed that the Treaty of Rome “was intended as a charter for economic liberty”. That was make believe. From its inception in 1951, through the Rome Treaty onwards, the European project has been based on industrial cartels and agricultural protection and subsidy. But the rest of that section is certainly right, noting how history shows that economic intervention and controls never work, and that free enterprise does.
The fourth principle was that Europe must be a force for freer trade and lower tariffs in the world – more relevant then than now.
The fifth principle related to the need for a maintenance of strong defence – including updated nuclear defence – within NATO, and without relying on the US to bear a disproportionate burden – the latter, a problem that is very relevant today, and which indeed threatens the future of the Alliance.
We need, though, to stand back a little to see what makes this vision of Europe – its member states, its governance, finances, its economics, its defences, its place in the world – distinctive, challenging and, I would argue, a better model than anything one can hear from the chanceries of Western Europe, let alone the offices of the European bureaucracy, today.
This Bruges vision is in the exact sense of the term liberal, or perhaps classical liberal if you prefer. It advocates, in the European context, a system based on the axes of liberty, competition and balance. Liberty of the individual to live, own property, and work. Liberty of companies to trade and do business free of excessive controls, taxes and interference. Liberty of nations to choose who will govern them and so to make their laws and control their borders. Competition between all these factors – that is individuals, companies and nations – I would also add, crucially, currencies – a competition which will force down general levels of regulation and taxation, and so drive up standards of living. Finally, balance – that is the balance that occurs in the natural order of things between free and competing forces, a balance which not only matches supply and demand in the interest of consumers, but which also through the much-maligned international balance of power, limits the ability of any one state to dictate terms to other states.
Today it is almost impossible to argue for such a liberal order because it is not understood on the left or the right. But this cannot be helped. What can be helped is to ensure that as conservatives we do not fall into any of the linguistic or ideological traps that are set for us. A liberal order does not imply that anyone, anywhere, has a right to be whatever they please, or have whatever they want. That is either chaos, or utopia, or more exactly childishness.
The kind of liberal order that the Bruges speech suggests is nothing like the globalist liberalism that today’s self-styled liberals – of the Obama, Hillary Clinton, Macron, Soros variety – embrace. This is a liberal order which is distinguished by respect for limits, and for natural and traditional institutions: it is not one based on radical individualism or the elevation of group rights.
Moreover, the Bruges speech’s description of how Europe should be organised is not intended to be a total description of political and social life. (This seems to be at least part of the answer to the criticisms of liberal democracy as an ideology levelled by Professor Ryszard Legutko in his great book, The Demon in Democracy).
At this point a short diversion is warranted. Since the 1980s conservatives have learned a lot that we could not have known beforehand. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan could not, for example, have envisaged that anything so stupid as gender ideology would be taken seriously. They did not think that, having once demonstrated that limited government and the market work wonders, a succeeding generation of politicians would build up a massive dependency upon public welfare. They would not have thought that, having beaten communism with the help of the captive nations, communist and post-communist elites would soon be back in control, not punished or purged, but rather welcomed, encouraged and generously financed from the West. They would not have dreamt that internationalism would be turned into supranationalism; and that it, in turn, would zealously propagate anti-nationalism – as we see every day in the media and politics.
But amid all these changes the central ideas of conservatism have not changed and should not change. One of these ideas – getting back to Bruges once more – is the concept that ultimately unites conservatives and classical liberals – the understanding of “spontaneous order”. Operating through a spontaneous order – in this case between sovereign nations, within a common set of rules, set against a degree of common values – is the essence of the Bruges speech vision.
It was, though, comprehensively rejected – above all through the launch of the Euro.
In 1988 it seemed as if the Euro could be stopped, not least because the German National bank and the German population preferred to keep the Deutschemark. The launch of the Euro made no economic sense, and the Eurozone has performed poorly in subsequent years. It has lurched from crisis to crisis. The Eurozone is not, by any definition anyone has ever produced, an optimal currency area. It is manifestly impossible for countries with very different productive potential – compare the Netherlands with Portugal, or Germany with Greece – to flourish under identical monetary conditions.
None of those contradictions has made, or will make, any difference, however, because the launch of the Euro was designed as an exercise for political objectives not an initiative of economics. A single currency, a single monetary policy and a single balance sheet, will ultimately require a single fiscal policy and thus a single economic government. This economic government will, inevitably, be based upon Germany. That has been, is, and will be the reality of the alternative to Bruges.
This is not, let me stress, an anti-German point. Germany is destined to be the most powerful country in Europe, for good or ill, and there is as much sense in objecting to that fact as in protesting that it rains a lot in England. The point is what to do about it. Germany can be just the biggest of a variety of powers. Or it can be the hub of a mega-power, sometimes described as containing it, sometimes projecting it, but always distorting it. That is where we are now.
A federal Europe – however you define it with, at one extreme, something like a single European mega-state, or at the other a loose confederation (which easier to discuss, than to define, let alone to sustain) – offers the apparent attraction of stability. And stability, in modern parlance, means peace, order, prosperity, uninterrupted travel etc. (Actually, stability is a much over-rated virtue, often equivalent to stagnation and petrification as in the last decades of the Soviet Union, but that is another matter). Anyway, federation has its own special and usually unresolvable problem. This is that, as a form of state organisation, it can only deliver the benefits, if the Federation is achieved alongside, or quickly leads to the destruction, or dissolution, of its component national identities.
In Croatia we may not know much about the European Union, but we know plenty about why federations do not work, more perhaps than anyone else. During most of the period of the First Yugoslavia and during the early period of the Second (Communist) Yugoslavia there was a concerted attempt to suppress Croat nationhood and the other national identities and create a Yugoslav nation. This attempt failed, and it did not fail peacefully, because the artificial nation quickly became a mask for something else, namely Serbian domination exerted by terror and violence. Artificially created states, like artificial unions of states, do not just succumb to internal contradictions, otherwise we might not take them too seriously. They also create power structures, of which some national or ideological group can take possession with potentially disastrous consequences.
The point here is not that the EU is likely to go the way of Yugoslavia – of course not– it is, rather, that the pursuit of stability by suppressing old, deep-rooted national identities leads to instability, disorder and sometimes worse.
Nor, just to be clear, is there any risk that modern Germany is going to behave like Serbia in the 1990s. The fact remains, however, that the Višegrad group of countries and those on the periphery of it must be acutely conscious that various decisions by Germany, within the centralised EU framework, have created conditions which are simply not tolerable. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe are, rightly, not prepared to accept the non-European mass immigration that Germany irresponsibly invited, with all the threats to their security, their culture and their economies. They cannot accept, either, the degree of energy dependency upon Russia, which again Germany has lurched into requiring – not least because Mrs Merkel abruptly discontinued the German nuclear energy programme in 2011. The Višegrad plus countries would, I suggest, also be very foolish if they agreed to reduce their own military preparedness and contribute instead to the new European army that Mrs Merkel now advocates.
Although sensible policies from Germany – perhaps under a new Chancellor – would make it easier for other European countries to protect their national interests, that is not, of course, the end of the story. This is because, contrary to what people often thought in the late 1980s, the truth is that the European project has not so much been captured by Germany, as that Germany has been captured by the European project.
The European Union today has embraced most of what is wrong with the modern world. Because its governing elite is, for the most part, unrooted in any particular European nation, it suffers from the same disease as all today’s international bodies suffer, and in a particularly acute form – it is infected by the virus of secular liberalism that is popularly known as political correctness. That term is inadequate, because it suggests a deformation of speech, reflecting a deformation of outlook, whereas today it is much worse – it is an aggressive, intolerant, vindictive, revolutionary ideology, intended to overturn normality, to replace nationhood, and to ridicule and where possible persecute the Christian faith.
But back to Bruges – what is relevant and what isn’t?
The speech is clearly out of date in some respects – but that said, like Mrs Thatcher’s reputation, it has weathered pretty well.
Once again, a different architecture of Europe is needed – the old one is dysfunctional, and every year that goes by shows how little faith national electorates have in it.
If anyone is to save Europe, assuming it can be saved at all, it is those now accused of undermining it – namely the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Those nations entered after the European Community had already embarked on its path of centralisation – indeed the prospect of their entering determined the Eurocracy of the day to go faster along that route, “deepening” before they thought about “widening”, as the jargon has it.
The Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks and others just had to take it, or leave it. And now they realise, I fancy, that they “took” more than they knew about.
They have, of course, no wish to leave the European Union – in that sense, there is no parallel with Britain. But there is a need to create a new framework both as regards mutual links, including I hope links with Croatia – and in dealings with Western Europe, especially Germany. Otherwise, even the largest East European countries – Poland and Hungary – will be constantly on the defensive, under pressure from the dominant leftist internationalists, who in Europe usually have the letter of the law, and always the authority of the institutions on their side. The next stage for Višegrad plus, I suggest, is to move from ad hoc resistance to planned strategic assertion – the promotion of a Višegrad equivalent of Bruges, but better prepared than we were in 1988 – for like the famous Charge of the Light Brigade, though with rather less colour, Bruges, itself, was another glorious British failure.
That said, Margaret Thatcher’s conclusion of the Bruges speech still reads well and is worth ending on now:
“Let Europe be a family of nations, understanding each other better, appreciating each other more, doing more together but relishing our national identity no less than our common European endeavour. Let us have a Europe …which preserves that Atlantic Community – that Europe on both sides of the Atlantic – which is our noblest inheritance and our greatest strength”.
Not a bad aspiration, thirty years on.