The Spirit of Charlemagne

Glen Newey

By origin the European Union is a deeply Catholic institution. Its six-member precursor took in the main Catholic powers of Western Europe, apart from Fascist Spain; even part-Protestant Germany was led in by that devout Roman Catholic Rhinelander, Konrad Adenauer. The Union's close historical avatar, the Holy Roman Empire, aspired to an imperium that, if not wholly Roman, remained as firmly of this world as papal power itself. In the 19th century, ultramontane Germans feted Pius IX's declaration of pontifical infallibility as a riposte to Bismarck's failed Kulturkampf against the Catholic Centre Party. Even 'subsidiarity' – the EU norm whereby decisions supposedly devolve to local level – has a strong lineage in Vatican social doctrine, latterly parroted by popes such as John Paul II, but with roots in Aquinas. Much of that doctrine owed less to fondness for families and civil society than hostility to European sovereigns as adversaries of the pontifical superstate. In this light, the caesaropapist Henrician reformation emerges as the original Brexit.

After the Second World War, pan-European dreams got a big fillip from French Catholicism. The school of Uriage, set up under Vichy in 1940 at the Château Bayard, 450 metres up in Rhône-Alpes, aimed to inculcate in France's new administrative cadres the values and virtues of medieval Christendom. Uriage, a would-be third way between the twin 'barbarisms' of atheistic Soviet communism and 'Anglo-Saxon' (in this case, mainly American) protestant capitalism, called its students moines-chevaliers or 'knight-monks'. Anti-liberal, anti-democratic and above all reactionary, the school's ethos aimed to blend the chivalric blazon and monkish habit with the scout's woggle (a touchstone being its attitude to women: as Jean-Jacques Chevallier, a law teacher at Uriage, put it, 'what she’ – i.e. women in general – ‘wants of a man, first of all, is to be a man … she harbours contempt for the womanish man' etc.). Several alumni would go on to the Ecole nationale d’administration after the war.

An Uriage founder, François Perroux, figures in the incipient European project as a prophet of monetary union. He was a close friend of Robert Schuman, whose name still adorns the glazed Vale of Hinnom that is the EU complex in Brussels. Schuman was a chaste, über-Catholic technocrat. For Perroux, fiat money, sovereign states' ability to create liquidity, was at the root of bad governance: the remedy lay in curbing this profligacy by creating a European central bank with sole discretion over issuance. Such a body would administer a European single currency. It was foreseen that locking productive economies into currency union would preclude the homoeostatic adjustment conferred, in classical theory, by floating exchange rates; hence a central agency – in effect, a European government – would be needed to direct inward investment to underperforming regions such as those of southern Europe. François Mitterrand agreed as much in discussion with another practising Catholic, Jacques Delors, who came to power in France and then the European Union via anti-Marxist syndicalism. A Eurozone would unleash large capital flows from debtor to creditor nations, as southern members' debt was financed by economic powerhouses like Germany.

It was not so much that currency union failed because there was no political union: it was engineered to fail, in order that there be political union. That bet has failed, and with it the French postwar fantasy of checking German hegemony via a European superstate (de Gaulle once said that if Europe was a coach, Germany was the horse and France the driver). A famous Figaro front page in 1992 after the Maastricht Treaty promised that currency union would effect the Versailles Treaty (granting reparations to France from Germany after the First World War) by other means; it's proven to be less like Versailles than like the Maginot Line.

Such as it is, the Union's flirtation with neoliberalism is recent-vintage software grafted onto a corporatist operating system. The stalling of the TTIP talks is indicative, as is last week's ruling by the EU Competition Commissioner that Apple remit $14.5 billion in unpaid taxes to Ireland – countermanding the Republic's own soft-pedalling on big business. The overriding of national sovereignty by corporate central authority could hardly be plainer. When Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt signed the Franco-German European Stability Mechanism – forerunner of the euro – in 1978, they marked the occasion by a pilgrimage to Aix-la-Chapelle (or Aachen), the seat of the first Holy Roman Emperor. At the press conference, Giscard mused: ‘Perhaps the spirit of Charlemagne brooded over us.’


  • 5 September 2016 at 8:29pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Glen's picture of the EU as a bejewelled neopapal octopus is pleasingly vivid for those of us still can't understand what's really right for us. But what will the new Britain look like? Glen? Anyone?

  • 6 September 2016 at 2:36am
    farthington says:
    'By origin the European Union is a deeply Catholic institution.'
    And NATO and Gladio?
    As for the end result, the joke, as Newey notes, is on France above all.
    With the French elite totally in denail of the self-evident.

  • 6 September 2016 at 7:30am
    cufflink says:
    I am gobsmacked to read Glen's House of Varieties parochial parody of putative protective Euro purposes.
    Please welcome the next act Ladies and Gentlemen with a round of raucous apllause for the upstanding Johnson's Brexit Three, who will lead us in singing Oh What a Lovely War.
    The blog is downright historicism and if we check each detail against say the evolution of Great Britain's unwritten constitution as it has evolved, the pattern is much the same Henrician muddle.
    We in Euro are vis a vis other World Blocs, maintaining our Monetary borders in the interests of solidarity and redistribution of productive effort within the community. There must be a Central Bank, the only question is by what arrangements is this achieved? Nominating pious villains cuts no salad mustard in this young millenial progress toward unity. If large tax exempt Corporations do not pay appropriate taxes (which is adjustable to economic investment) then as in the Republic of Ireland the subsidy to that country from the EU goes up, whereas if paid goes down.
    Austerity is not a cardinal but merely a venal necessity, and we must get the books to tally.
    We are not scarlet, we are not red, we are not blue; we are rainbow.

    • 6 September 2016 at 9:55am
      Harry Stopes says: @ cufflink
      You what?

    • 6 September 2016 at 12:00pm
      outofdate says: @ Harry Stopes
      It's no use, Harry.

    • 6 September 2016 at 2:23pm
      Charles Turner says: @ Harry Stopes
      Stanley Unwin at a pentecostalist meeting.

  • 6 September 2016 at 4:59pm
    Graucho says:
    The EU has two faces. Economic and Political union. Economic union, what's not to like ? The majority of the world's mega corporations are U.S. run, and the U.S. has the finest congress money can buy. Only a set up like the EU can stand up to the Apples, Googles and Exxons of this world. If we do not hang together then we will surely hang separately.

    Then, however, there is political union, the United States of Europe, the elephant in the room that hardly got a mention in the Brexit debate and a project that is surely a road to hell paved with good intentions. The European nations speak different languages, practice different religions, have different attitudes, different vested interests and a long history of fueding and fighting. The history of attempts to force such disparate elements into a single union is truly dreadful. At best it has ended up in divorce, at worst carnage. Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Ireland, Cyprus, Chechnia, the North and South of the U.S. not to mention the mess in the middle east, the break up of the Indian sub continent and Africa's bloody post colonial history.

    It would be hazardous enough if it was being done with the whole hearted consent of the people, but the game of grandmother's footsteps the Euro-politicians have devised, each new treaty another tooth in the ratchet, each referendum, if held at all, rerun when the result is not the required one, is begging disaster. My beef with the EU isn't that it is undemocratic, it's that it's anti-democratic. The Euro-politicians want power for it's own sake and ordinary folk are a nuisance to them as their patronising tones have made all too obvious over the years. By education, class and geography I should have voted remain, but this folie de grandeur is why I voted leave.

  • 6 September 2016 at 7:09pm
    tophat says:
    What a silly, backward, ideologically tainted description of Europe from the sunglasses picked up from the dusted cupboard of British Imperialism.

    Most of all it is untrue. Going back to Schuman and other founding fathers is scarcely helpful for today's problems, and even then Catholicism played a minor role in the shaping of post-war European history. Europe today is an amalgamation of all the influences that make up this part of the modern world (remember the commissioner candidate who had to resign because he said was guided by his catholic religion?)

    Glen Neway and others who commented should instead consider the use of a mirror: you appear to be trapped in a world dominated by the Catholic Church, where England is singled out and isolated from European politics. I believe that was a few hundred years ago.

  • 9 September 2016 at 2:06pm
    Higgs Boatswain says:
    I generally enjoy Newey's pieces, but this is a rather baffling little fantasy. Substitute the word 'Jew' for 'Catholic' throughout (as some critics of the European project always have) and you begin to get a sense of how sinister this sort of conspiratorial thinking is.

    • 9 September 2016 at 6:31pm
      Glen Newey says: @ Higgs Boatswain
      Well, if 'Catholic' were substituted by 'Jew', 'Freemason', 'Illuminati', etc., it would no doubt be a baffling little fantasy, but then it would be a different article, too. I don't actually use the term 'conspiracy' in the piece (nor synonyms like 'plot', 'scheme', 'subterfuge', etc.). That's not altogether surprising, since the article does not advance the view that the European project is the product of a conspiracy. It does say that a number of people who figured prominently in its inception and early stages were committed Roman Catholics. It also suggests that the paradigms of European civilisation drawn from medieval Christendom, both spiritual and secular, may have exerted an influence over their vision of post-World War II Europe. Rather than conspiracy theory, the idea is closer to Weber's view of the relationship between Protestantism and capitalism: namely that the former provided a serviceable legitimating vocabulary for early exponents of the latter, notably when it came to practices like usury. Weber didn't think that capitalism was the outcome of a conspiracy by Protestants to visit that system of production on the world. Similarly, the idea wasn't that the integrationist project was hatched in some dark conclave of Opus Dei or wherever. It was more that the medieval models shaped and served to legitimate integration in the minds of its intellectual and culturally Catholic progenitors. It seems to me that to some extent that still marks the European institutions, and attitudes towards them. One indicator of that is the generally more detached attitude of Europe's northern periphery to integration (apart from Catholic Ireland), reflected e.g. in Scandinavian non-participation in the Eurozone.

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