One country of the European Union recalls its ambassador from another country of the Union. Another, or the same, becomes, in defiance of every rule of solidarity among member states, a dumping ground for refugees that, once full, will fall under a ban, becoming a banlieue, similar to the vast and isolated leper colonies of the Middle Ages.
The Schengen Zone is shattering.
Official summits follow on other official summits, the decisions of which are made to look ridiculous by illegitimate, illegal regional sub-summits, such as the one that took place last week in Austria.
It is every man for himself, with the resulting risk of anarchy. It is national egoism on the rebound: the real law of the jungle, much more frightening that what we saw in Calais. In short, it is Europe itself that the so-called migrant crisis is tearing apart.
It is the very spirit of Europe that, left in the hands of timid officials without a plan, is succumbing to catalepsy.
And we may well be witnessing something that neither last year’s crisis in Greece nor the financial disaster of 2008 nor even the machinations of Vladimir Putin could bring about: the death of the beautiful dream of Dante Alighieri, Edmund Husserl and Robert Schuman.
The developments are not wholly surprising to those who, like me (as expressed in my 2014 play, Hotel Europe), have watched and worried as the Brussels government has become an increasingly obese, immobile bureaucracy staffed with the “crowned pen-pushers” that Paul Morand lampooned in his portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph and that another writer, witnessing the same disintegration, described as princes of standards and kings of weights, measures, and statistics for whom the idea of confronting history writ large or even real politics had become unimaginable — new Cacania, a new realm of the absurd, like Robert Musil’s fictional country, rotten from routine and wasting away from lack of spirit, lack of a plan, lack of a guiding star; a second “laboratory of twilight,” in the phrase of Milan Kundera, where sleepwalking leaders repeat, in blissful but morbid rapture, all of the mistakes of their forebears.
And, if things coast along on their present course, the catastrophe will be along the lines of the great error that some of us have warned about for decades: Europe is not a self-evident and inevitable fact inscribed in the nature of things or of history; no more so than Italy, as the King of Sardinia said in his famous response to Lamartine, will Europe build itself in the absence of positive action. If we forget that principle and rely instead on luck and lazy progressivism, our own Europe will go the way of Roman Europe, the Europe of Charlemagne and Charles V, the Europe of the Holy Roman Empire, of the Habsburg Empire, and of Napoleonic Europe, all of which were full-blown Europes, just as real as our own, Europes that their contemporaries believed, just as we do today, to be firmly established, rock solid, graven in the marble of reigns that appeared eternal but that crumbled soon enough.
The worst outcome is not a sure thing, of course.
There is still time—there is always time until time runs out—to bring about a political and moral awakening that embodies the lessons of the past and reflects the realization that without the stubborn, counter-intuitive, and seemingly insensate will of its best leaders Europe has always had all sorts of reasons to break apart. Only such an awakening, I fear, will spare us the frightening conclusion that now seems inevitable.
We cannot have it both ways.
Either we do nothing and let ourselves be overtaken by the widespread and shameful spirit of every man for himself, in which case rabid nationalism will win out for good over the European dream, reducing it to the gains offered by a large single market. While that outcome might still serve the purposes of globalized business, it certainly will not serve those of the masses of Europeans who aspire toward greater peace, democracy, and rule of law.
Either that, or the 28 nations of Europe pull themselves together and resolve to follow, first, the course laid out by Angela Merkel on the question of the reception to be given to our brothers and sisters in humanity who are knocking at the door of the house we share, a reception that should be morally infinite if necessarily conditioned by the politics of the possible; and, second, the course laid out by François Hollande on the question of Syria and the double-barreled barbarity that, by emptying the country of its residents and casting them by the millions onto the roads of exile, is the true source of the present tragedy. The two leaders, gratifyingly, are taking care to hear and absorb each other’s view of the situation, knowing that only a combined and coordinated approach can give body and soul to the Franco-German axis without which nothing is possible.
If we make the second choice, then and only then will Europe, with its back to the wall, obtain a reprieve and, with the addition of a little courage, gain a chance to survive and, just possibly, emerge stronger than it is today.
More than ever the choice is plain: either Europe or barbarism; either Europe or chaos, poverty, political and social regression; either a meaningful step in the direction of political integration, which is the only feasible way to meet today’s terrible challenges, or certain decline, expulsion from history, and the possibility, eventually, of war.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of France’s most famed philosophers, a journalist, and a bestselling writer. He is considered a founder of the New Philosophy movement and is a leading thinker on religious issues, genocide, and international affairs. His 2013 book, Les Aventures de la vérité—Peinture et philosophie: un récit, explores the historical interplay of philosophy and art. His new play, “Hotel Europe,” which premiered in Sarajevo on June 27, 2014, and in Paris on September 9, is a cry of alarm about the crisis facing the European project and the dream behind it.
This article was translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.