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The European Immortals (July 2006)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

It is important to have a European presence that is more than simply ceremonial. We need a European Council of Elders.


I. Last of the line In 1989 I saw on television the funeral in Vienna of Empress Zita, the widow of Karl II and so the last of the Habsburg line to bear the iron crown. The six-horse funeral car, huge, baroque and black, drove through the city centre to the Capuchin Church, and the Chamberlain hammered on the door. From inside, a monk answered: Wer ist da? Who is there? The Chamberlain reeled off the titles of the deceased: "Empress of Austria, Apostolic Queen of Hungary, Princess of Bohemia, Grand Duchess of Lodomeria, etc., etc." Ich kenne sie nicht! I know you not! Then the recitation again. And again Ich kenne sie nicht! Finally the Chamberlain hammered for the third time. Wer ist da? Ein armer und sündiger Mensch. A poor and sinful creature. And the great door opened.

This ceremony was deeply moving, perhaps because it took place in an otherwise modern city, the funeral car making its way past newsstands, McDonalds, and parked motors. Also because it seemed to come from a deep level of the European past, a ritual being carried out by retainers indifferent to any present-day notions of popularity or image-projection.

It was moving in a way that the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, a decade later, was not. The latter event was a raw, emotional shriek of betrayal by the losers in an ambiguously United Kingdom: the archetypal mourner seemed a 45-year old single mum hung out to dry by the Child Support Agency, whose dignity and income benefited as little from the People's Princess as it would from New Labour. The magic of the Habsburg ritual was the same as Shakespeare's laconic dirge in Cymbeline:

Fear no more the heat of the sun, Nor the wild winter's rages: Thou thy worldly task hath done, Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages. ... Golden lads and lasses must, Like chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

It was unifying, dignifying and curiously egalitarian. You could see why the Holy Roman Empire had held out for centuries.

II. The dignified and efficient parts I have been working on a history of Liberalism within the institutions of the European Union; a topic that raises the issue of ultimate goals and the way that they are projected, as EU Liberalism is ambiguous. Figures like Gladstone with his concept of "international public right", and John Stuart Mill and Lord Acton in their defence of intellectual and personal freedom, were positing the same sort of universals the European Union exists to promote, but these could be constrained and even negated by political organisation and populist pressure on one side, and bureaucracy on the other.

The most dynamic liberal polity in economic terms, that of the United States, is not greatly associated with humanism or free inquiry and, in its vocabulary, the word "Liberal" has actually been transformed into something close to "enemy of the people". Two great 'liberal observers' of political processes voiced similar reservations. As early as the 1830s, Alexis De Tocqueville identified the menace of populism and, by the 1848 revolutions, it was apparent that electoral expansion could threaten the great Liberal universals. If they were to be of influence, they had to be, in the view of Max Weber, recharged with something of the charisma of an earlier, more reverent and religious, epoch.

Given recent events, it seems there is, after all, a great deal to be said for a third and very English contribution: Walter Bagehot's division of The English Constitution (1865) into its dignified and efficient parts. Can this be applied to the institutions of the EU, as a means of locking the European populace into loyalty to, and constructive criticism of, the otherwise unappealingly bureaucratic organisation of Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg? Ask people to name a European leader (has this exercise ever been carried out?) and I'd guess that the Pope, even a comparatively retiring and academic one like the present, would come well ahead of any secular politician or head of state.

Despite the fact that Catholicism is insignificant in Scandinavia and in rapid decline elsewhere in Europe, including Ireland and even Poland, Benedict XVI certainly would be far ahead of any figures associated with the European Commission or the Council of Ministers. While national leaders and politicians could contest their roles, their reputations are unlikely to be sustainable because of the inevitable uncertainties of politics. Make Poverty History created a few temporary European kings from the worlds of pop, sport and supermodels - think Bono, Bob Geldof (but how many, I wonder, know their tunes or lyrics?). Even so, they will inevitably be compromised by the costs of promotion, and the perils of celebrity.

It is important to have a European presence that is more than simply ceremonial, which makes its weight felt in a distinctive cultural sense, fulfilling what Lord Bryce once described as the symbolic "Imperium" that overarched the nations, regions and civic republics of Europe; a sense of paternal and civic duty performed despite everything. The scale of this absence could be registered, say, by the rackety but perceptive novelist Joseph Roth's affection (despite being a satirist, Jew and socialist), for the Habsburgs.

Reflecting on this, it seemed that there was a need to reassert some sort of ceremony of the Europen Geist in a way quite distinct from the usages of monarchy on one side, and marketing and celebrity on the other. For instance, nearly all the celebrations connected with competitive sport were increasingly flawed by financial intrigue and doping, while those which stemmed from contemporary European bureaucracy seemed private essays in self-congratulation: for example, the Aachen or Nobel prizes, and the Davos meeting, in which men in suits lard one other with praise, and no-one takes much notice. Ceremonies survive, however, which express duty, culture, memory and great age. We have to recognise that Europe is engaged in a cultural struggle with neo-conservative forces, atavistic as much as populist, both in the Muslim world and across the Atlantic, and the time for compromise with these is past. Conversely, the regional and cultural diversity under the European Imperium is something to be fostered and encouraged.

As a democratic counterbalance to the Pope, or the memory of the Habsburgs, one might consider Hans Küng's International Ethics foundation at Tübingen. The enthusiasm that greets the talks he organises - which have ranged from the German President Horst Köhler to the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to the Irish ex-President Mary Robinson - has also generated the sense that these lead back to dissenting structures as well as to the European mainstream: representing, if you like, the quest for humanist, liberal alternatives to Lourdes and Knock. And, symbols such as the Red Cross, the International Court, Amnesty International, the World Health Organisation, have a secular pedigree. This would suggest a bias to the intellectually numinous in terms of place - Voltaire's Ferney, Kant's Königsberg, Dante's Florence, Adam Smith's Edinburgh - and also, an unashamed celebration of confederal virtue, age and experience. We are an elderly continent; we ought to exploit the fact, and the resources and personal commitments that the European seniors can provide.

There could be a European Academy, concentrating particularly on the arts, individual liberty, education, medicine and literature, a society partly modelled on the Nobel Laureates, but on a more selective and, also, active basis: people known to have effective institutional clout.

How are these to be selected, accommodated, remunerated? The European Parliament and the, otherwise neglected, Committee of the Regions might have a role here, through some sort of jointly-convened body, an informal second chamber, which can be deployed to recruit public figures, choose ceremonial sites, and organise the television, print and broadcasting back-up. These figures, like the Immortals of the French Academy, would have largely ceremonial functions; would change at four-yearly intervals, and would represent Europe at important civic occasions. And, yes, these temporary kings and queens would have, like their French prototypes, uniforms and splendour, horsemen and trumpets.

One of Hans Küng's projects that didn't work was the address of Tony Blair in 1991: an hour of cheery generalities, framing that line about running neds to the nearest cashpoint and fining them with their own plastic. Alastair Campbell clapped (the cashpoint bit made the Sun the next day) and I felt heartsick. Then at the reception I met Marion Donhoff, covering the do for Die Zeit. She was 93 and, as Hella Pick wrote in her Guardian obituary, "a hack to the last". Leery of Blair, but interested to know what the students made of him, her first life as a liberal Prussian aristocrat had ended with the July 1944 plot against Hitler, and the subsequent slaughter of nearly all her friends: von Trott, von Moltke, Bonhoeffer. After the war she had set up the Hamburg-based weekly Die Zeit, which remains the conscience of the Federal Republic. She was a Liberal answer to the magic of monarchy in Vienna: the same dignity, but a tougher, braver history. A history that we must get on Europe's side.

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