The scene at Bratislava Castle last week was a familiar one: European leaders gathered for another summit in a typically idyllic setting, where the natural beauty of their surroundings belied the deep imperfections of the union they were struggling to salvage. But now, in the wake of Britain's vote to leave the Continental bloc, delusion steeped in the ideals of an "ever-closer" union is wearing thin, and the realists in the room seem to be gradually gaining ground.
The shift in the summit's tone was to be expected; closet Euroskeptics can no longer hide behind the United Kingdom as they assert national rights and tamp down Brussels' principles. They realize that the longer Europe's leaders avoid the hard questions, opting instead to continue extolling the "spirit" of the European Union as a way to survive, the more the bloc's guardians will have to react to — rather than shape — the enormous changes bubbling up from their disillusioned electorates. As Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (who has tied his own political fate to a referendum in October) testily noted, the Bratislava gathering amounted to little more than a "boat trip on the Danube" and an "afternoon writing documents without any soul or any horizon" on the real problems afflicting Europe.
Tempering Ideals With Realities
The same frustration was palpable in several conversations I had during a recent trip to Slovenia, a country that tends to stay below the radar in Europe but is nevertheless highly perceptive of ground tremors. Slovenia lies, often precariously, at the edge of empires. Under the weight of the Alps, the former Yugoslav republic has one foot lodged in the tumultuous cauldron of the Balkans while its other foot toes the merchant riches of the Adriatic Sea. All the while, its arms are outstretched across the Pannonian Plain toward Vienna, the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Slovenia is a land where the Slavic tongue is spoken with Italian gaiety, where German and Austrian freight trucks fill the highways, where quaint Germanic timber homes and Viennese boulevards are dotted with Catholic iconography, and where German bratwurst mingles naturally with Balkan cevapi, Turkish burek and Italian gnocchi on restaurant menus. Slovenia's medieval castles, dramatic scenery and dragon folklore are the stuff of fairytales. But sober-minded Slovenians know from a troubled past that even after being accepted into the European Union, their country should not hold its collective breath for a "happily ever after" in such a fluid corner of the Continent.
Instead, a welcome dose of realism met me in Slovenia in talks on the future of Europe. During a panel discussion I participated in at the Bled Strategic Forum, one comment in particular stood out to me. Dr. Ziga Turk, a professor at the University of Ljubljana and a former government minister, argued that Europeans must stop deluding themselves into thinking that they can build a European nation on ideology. Common language, history, culture, religion and kin will consistently trump shared ideas on the free market, democracy, social justice, human rights and environmentalism. This is not to say that the latter are unimportant; they just aren't enough to hold up a European superstate. The implication, at least in my mind, is that European leaders need to temper their ambitions and focus on rebalancing the merits of a Continental union with the realities of the nation-state.
This is still a very unsettling idea for Europeanists who would rather talk about the veritable achievements the European Union has had in preserving peace for decades. One member of the audience complained that he was severely disappointed more of the panelists were not speaking in defense of EU values. But wouldn't time be better spent working to understand and respond to the very real forces that are pulling the union apart? This, to me, is like keeping a vintage Ferrari in the garage without ever taking the time to repair the engine that makes it run. We can continue to admire a beautiful relic of a bygone era, but it will not get us anywhere until we are willing to get our hands greasy fixing and maintaining it.
A Rare Set of Geographic Circumstances
Perhaps nobody better understands the shortcomings of ideology in building nations than those who have lived through such experiments' failures. Socialism and Slavic brotherhood proved woefully inadequate in taming ethnic and nationalistic currents in the former Yugoslavia. Dialectical materialism held sway with intellectuals who were repulsed by Western capitalism, but it quickly became a nightmare for the masses living behind the Iron Curtain in the crumbling Soviet Empire. Gamal Abdel Nasser thought he could foster a common Arab identity by creating a United Arab Republic, only to find that his efforts to ensure Egyptian domination accelerated his project's downfall by consolidating a Syrian identity in opposition to Cairo. Now, the Islamic State faces at least a dozen militaries as it tries to prove it can resurrect a caliphate under the tenets of Sharia, even if that state can only be built and maintained through brute force.
But there are "good" and "bad" ideologies, one might counter. What about a nation based on seemingly universal values? Many Europeanists point to the United States as an example of a state bound by a common Lockesian belief in life, liberty and prosperity. Perhaps such uncontroversial values could provide an equally sturdy foundation not just for a European superstate, but also for the post-colonial power vacuums scattered throughout the Middle East, or for the numerous fledgling nations trying to become full-fledged states.
Values are easy to discuss in the abstract. But they can also come back to bite. Europeans may trumpet democratic values as one of the binding principles of the union, yet referendums and elections — the very tools of democracy — are pulling the union apart. The West likewise promotes democracy in the Middle East but is not eager to face the consequences of Islamists being elected into office. Democracy is both tantalizing and terrifying for everyone involved. Alone, however, it is not enough to build a viable state.
We can romanticize the founding of the United States as the first nation-state to be built on universal truths and values. We should also remember, though, that the young republic had certain undeniable, unique geopolitical advantages. European empires were too busy competing with one another on their own continent to overextend themselves in the New World. And with a sizable ocean buffer, robust river networks and ample farmland to develop, young America had the breathing room it needed to build its economy, population centers and industries, fight a civil war, and settle boundaries with its neighbors. This luxury enabled it to eventually emerge as a great power without the constant intervention of external powers stunting its growth.
Ideology, ethnic kinship, language and culture are all pillars of a nation's architecture, but geography still forms its foundation. Without some degree of geographic coherence, resources and insulation, a tribe is unlikely to find the time and space to forge a common identity and organically mold it into a nation. It is for this reason that China's Han core will outlive the Communist Party, and that a Persian-dominated Iran, buffeted by a mountain fortress, will endure beyond the Islamic Republic. It is for the same reason that a collection of distinct European nations cannot be shoehorned into a United States of Europe.
In Search of a Geopolitical Haven
On my flight back to the United States, a family of Syrian refugees stood ahead of me in line at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. Two nearly identical young boys and two small girls stood with their father holding a thick stack of passports — one yellowed and weathered Syrian passport and four crisp new U.S. passports. The father's young face was crowned by a single, thick brow, the deep lines around his eyes exposing the long journey behind and a glimmer within them hinting at the hope ahead. The mother was conspicuously absent. It seemed as though the family had made a big effort to dress for the occasion: The two boys had fresh haircuts and were buried in the folds of their oversized three-piece suits, while the girls wore long Arabic dresses and brightly colored hijabs. One struggled to walk with an adult-sized Dior purse wrapped around her small frame, and both tripped over shoes that looked several sizes too big. Despite their new clothes, each dragged a dirty plastic bag with Arabic lettering full of worn, dusty shoes and slippers.
The family before me was a piece of the migrant mosaic that is forcing Europeans to confront a basic pillar of the union — the free movement of people — and a basic human desire to be surrounded by people who look, speak, act and believe as they do. As I watched the children and their father, I remembered the derelict border checkpoints that I had driven past on the Slovenia-Italy border, wondering whether those tragically beautiful buildings peppering the Schengen zone would remain relics or be rejuvenated in a new and uncomfortable era of a Continent that believed in reviving national borders.
The Syrian family I stood in line with will not have to worry about that. They are leaving behind a land where Syrian nationalism — forged by Arab kinship and a common language, culture and history — has dissolved, for now, into a sectarian bloodbath. Western powers, still attempting to work off the obsolete Sykes-Picot model, will soon gather in Vienna to try to impose the values they deem necessary to rebuild the Syrian nation, even as regional powers distort those values for their own ends. At summits, any country can call for an end to violence or for talks on a power-sharing arrangement in Syria. But in practice, can Turkey tolerate a federal Kurdish region on both sides of the Euphrates? Can Syria's Iranian-backed Alawites concede large swaths of Sunni territory like Aleppo? By all appearances, the Syrian nation will remain subject to the whims of Western powers trying to stay within the lines of a colonial-era coloring book as regional actors carve out their own spheres of influence.
The four kids ahead of me are escaping that fate. They will probably grow up as Americans, chiding their father for his accent once they've outgrown their own and holding faint memories of the day they got dressed up for a flight to a new land — a nation with the geopolitical underpinnings to support the ideas it espoused from the very beginning.