To aid my Italian study, I have been watching (and listening to) historic Italian newsreels on YouTube. I recently watched one featuring the annual ceremony for the Opening of Parliament sometime in the 1930s. Everything followed correct constitutional protocol. The King and his son, the Prince of Piedmont, rode in their state carriage from the Quirinale Palace, followed by other carriages containing the Queen and other Highnesses of the House of Savoy. The members of Parliament stood respectfully and applauded vigorously before and after the Speech from the Throne. Everything appeared correct and normal. It could have been Sweden!
Standing on the sidelines in his respelendent uniform, however, having arrived not by carriage but by car, was the Head of the Government - il Duce, Benito Mussolini. For all the external forms of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, I presume that every single person there, from the king on down, understood perfectly well who was really in charge and where the direction of public policy was coming from.
I thought of that video this morning as I read Ross Douthat's column in today's New York Times, in which he highlgihts what he calls "the cold reality of 21st-century politics," Europe's progressive abandonment of democracy and national sovereignty to salvage the Euro (which it probably should never have created in the first place) and the even more fundamental, underlying mistake which is the European Union itself.
Sure, it's convenient to cross borders without having to show one's passport all the time; and there can be no doubt that the original Common Market was a wise move, and that a certain level of economic integration is desirable and beneficial for Europe. Being a big believer in the benefits of national sovereignty in modern nation states, however, I have always been skeptical of the larger EU project, especially as its elitist, anti-democratic, bureaucratic character comes more and more to the fore. As Douthat reminds us: "the fact is that the project of European union has never enjoyed deep popular support. Its advocates were always adept at re-running referendums until the vote came out their way, or designing treaties that bypassed the voting public entirely. The people of Europe have always been wary of trading their sovereignty for ever-greater unity — and now we can see why".
History offers many models for organizing human societies, and the modern nation state is only one of them - and a relative latecomer at that on the political scene. I've always believed, for example, that the pre-World War I Austrian Empire was a lot better for that region than the 20th-century Nazi and Soviet horrors that replaced it. Geographically, the original Common Market (of the Six) corresponded fairly closely to the Empire of Charlemagne, a testament to the enduring commonality of Western Euopean culture, as well as to a residual historical sense of connection and the fittingness of the region as a single economic market. No political arrangement - including the modern, democratic, national state - has transcendent significance, and none is beyond criticism or irreplaceable.
Still, that said, the human benefits made possible by the modern democratic national state are enormous. Certainly, one contributing factor to the present social malaise is that, thanks to globalization, the supposedly still sovereign state can no longer so effectively protect people from the consequences of economic inequality as well as it could back in the 20th century. There have been enormous economic benefits to European integration (as there have been world-wide with globalization). But that should not make us any less vigilant about trying to preserve the social, cultural, and just plain human benefits which - in the modern world at least - can only be fostered and protected - by sovereign states. And those are precisely the social cultural, and human benefits least well fostered and protected by supranational, unrepresentative, anti-democratic, militantly secularist, technocratic bureaucracies like the EU.