There is a great deal of nonsense talked about European unity. Even more nonsense is talked about Europeans. In this book Luigi Barzini contributes hugely to the former, but goes on to write with great sense and perception about the latter.

Why should he assume, as he does in the first paragraph, that there are “so many simple and obvious reasons” why Europeans should unite into one political unit? Why should he refer to “this Europe of the Dream” as if it were self-explanatory and self-evident? He lists a team of European front-runners of whom “we could all be equally proud,” starting with Dante and ending with “de Chirico, and thousands of others,” although why should imagine that this culture-vulture list has any relevance to anything (it includes Tolstoy, but does not mention Giotto, Leonardo, Racine, Voltaire, Marx, Balzac, Dostoevsky, Picasso, or Eliot) is bewildering.

He goes on to talk about wine as the essence of the European continent. It is, he says, a rebellious product, although what that means he does not explain. To make it, he tells us, man must submit to ancient and unvarying disciplines, trust his instinct, follow nature, and preserve ancient arts. Could not the same be said about whiskey distilling, wood carving, or bread making? Why pick upon wine as having some particular significance when many European countries do not make it, when the drinking of wine is not confined to Europe, and when vast quantities of the European wines that are sold around the world are sold under labels that are known to be bogus?

It would be puzzling to understand why a distinguished Italian journalist should indulge in such arguments if one were not familiar with the procedure. A specter has been haunting us, that of the United States of Europe. Dating back to the interwar period, but gaining strength after 1945, it has been claimed that the greatest goal to which Europeans can aspire is that of a European federation. This, it is said, would put an end to the nation-states as the main instrument for political and economic action and would avoid the dangers of future wars or the complications of excessive economic competition. A United States of Europe could resist Soviet Russia and its communist allies, could exert a wise influence on the United States, and could play a civilizing role in the jungle of the third world. Such aims were set out in the Treaty of Rome which, in 1958, formed the basis for today’s European Community. It was there stated that its aim was to lay the foundation for an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, and when Britain, Ireland, and Denmark later joined the Community, the nine governments committed themselves “to transform the whole complex of their relations into a European Union by the year 1980.”

This has not happened. People like Mr. Barzini are irritated that it should not have happened, and when two or three bureaucrats are gathered together in the name of Europe, there is much talk about the absence of moral idealism and the lack of political courage which are the characteristics of politicians today. The much revered founder of the European Community, Jean Monnet, certainly believed that unity could be created by the countries’ working together, and it could be that he thought that from the various agreements laid down by the Treaty of Rome there would be a natural progression toward a united Europe, doubtless with a president, a capital, and a government that possessed effective legislative and executive powers.

But all this is to create a problem where none exists. There is no reason to suppose that there was ever any popular movement in Europe in favor of European unification. Such movements that existed, or that exist, are to be associated with governments rather than with political parties or with public opinion, and it is hardly surprising that a European community that depends on the good will of its member states should refuse to proceed to any considerable reduction in the powers and responsibilities of these member states. Historians would probably agree that those governments which, in 1957 and 1958, committed themselves to the Treaty of Rome did so because of an exceptional combination of motives and calculations, which at the time outweighed the inconveniences and drawbacks that they recognized as existing in the treaty. They never believed in the emotional rhetoric of a United States of Europe. They had certain limited objectives in view, and it is significant to remember that it was the Danish prime minister who, in 1972, insisted upon the vague phrase “European Union” instead of the more precise “Economic and Political Union” because the Danes, he said, could never support the latter.

What has happened since those years has made the United States of Europe even more unlikely. It is clear that there is to be no automatic progress toward political union arising from the functioning of the European institutions. Each nation has its own experience of the impact of these institutions, but the general impression is one of purely bureaucratic interference, which cannot engender enthusiasm for federalism among the different peoples concerned. The increasing economic divergencies that have characterized the destinies of the different states are fundamental to the difficulties of the Community. The member states are not moving closer together as they face economic problems: each is after the best possible terms for itself. This was probably always the case. The Economic and Political Union of Europe was never on. It was an invention. Those academics who spent their days talking about it were probably doing no harm, but it is a pity that they wasted the time of their students.


But it is to everyone’s benefit that Mr. Barzini, however mistaken he is in believing that “obscure forces” are preventing the coagulation of Western Europe into a solid whole, should devote the greater part of his book to a discussion of the national and cultural characteristics of the principal peoples that make up Europe. This is a pastime that can be played at many different levels. Thus the American tourist in London will be overheard explaining that she has just attended the Trooping of the Colour ceremony in honor of the Queen’s official birthday. Normally she doesn’t like crowds and being in one is an experience she usually finds frightening. But an English crowd is different. People are orderly and restrained, cheerful, and tolerant of one another. Therefore, for her, these instantly become the national characteristics of the English. The Hungarian-born observer of the English, George Mikes, noted a certain tendency to conformity, so that an Englishman always queued for his bus, and even if he were all alone at the bus stop he formed a queue.

Other observers will dwell on different things and will come up with a different set of national characteristics: they could, for example, concentrate on football hooliganism, on violence in schools, on the outbreak of race riots in parts of London and Liverpool, on the long-drawn-out agonies of Northern Ireland, and they will define the English today as divided against one another, resentful and distrustful, unable to express their discontent in any meaningful language. Historians will seize upon the fact that England, once a great and influential country, the center of a vast economic and political empire, has become a small state with very limited power and influence, and as they pursue their researches they will discover that this discussion of the decline of England is in no way recent. In what has become a well-worn quotation, Matthew Arnold, as long ago as 1868, was writing of the imminent danger that England would decline into a sort of greater Holland, “for want of what I must still call ideas, for want of perceiving how the world is going and must go.”

The same is true of other countries. The tourist will find that the Germans are honest, the sociologist will comment upon their materialism, the political scientist will tremble at the slightest political upset and will pronounce the dread word “Weimar,” and the historian will comment upon how German leaders have always assumed that history is on their side, until they are proved wrong. “History is an old whore,” broadcast Goebbels in the midst of defeat, just before he killed himself and his family. In Italy the tourist may complain of being cheated, the sociologist will point to the particularisms that dominate Italian society, the historian will ask what went wrong with the Risorgimento.

It is a fascinating game. To follow it one follows in the footsteps of Count Kayserling, Salvador de Madariaga, André Maurois, and many other skillful essayists. But Luigi Barzini has nothing to fear from the competition of these predecessors. He is perceptive and witty, with a ready fund of anecdotes and a good sense of history (although it is a pity that at one point he confuses the French revolution of 1848 with that of 1830). He has many well-placed friends, and in a long journalistic life he has acquired a direct knowledge of the peoples about whom he is writing.

When he considers the English, his starting point is personal. It is a problem that has often puzzled him. Are the English intelligent? he asks. In some respects they obviously are not, in other ways they clearly can be, on certain occasions they find it natural to conceal the fact. It is quite common to find Frenchmen who are preoccupied with the same problem. In the game that was popular in French lycées during the Third Republic, when the supposed national characteristics of a people were illustrated by describing them as a single person, then as two, then as three, there was no agreement on what one Englishman represented. There were those who said that one Englishman was an island, but a steady body of opinion insisted that one Englishman was a fool (“un imbécile“). Some of the French have resolved the problem by saying that of all of the “imbéciles” to be found on the Continent, it is the English “imbécile” who holds all the records for being the biggest fool.


Barzini had a friend who resolved the matter in a different way. He explained that every Englishman had several ideas firmly embedded in his head (he said seven ideas, although Barzini thinks that this was too low a number, which is generous of him). This means that Englishmen knew how to respond to events, how to behave in the same way, how to react similarly. It is suggested that this explains the acquisition of the British empire, since the men in London knew exactly what the men in the outposts were thinking, and the colonial warriors on the spot knew exactly how they were expected to behave. These ideas were implanted in British heads by the elites, by people who had known one another for generations, who were related to one another, who had gone to the same schools and universities. These ideas had spread to all classes, they were absorbed in childhood from their parents at home, from the teachers at school, and from the ministers in church.

But the British tragedy, according to this way of thinking, is that the world has changed. The seven (if it is seven) fundamental ideas shared by all Englishmen were admirably adapted to other times, but not for present times. They were suited for sailors in rough seas, for farmers working on inhospitable soil, for soldiers in distant parts of the world. But not suited, argues Barzini, for the times in which we live.

It is a pity that he does not list these seven ideas. The only characteristic that he does mention is that of stoicism, which he sees as being linked to imperturbability. At its best such stoicism was to be seen in the last war, at Dunkirk or in the Battle of Britain or, more recently, in the Falklands campaign. But at its worst this is to be seen in the patience or almost indifference with which English people put up with absurd government regulations or with recurrent strikes which paralyze the country for weeks on end. And, getting to his point, Mr. Barzini argues that it was one of these seven ideas, and possibly a stoicism leading almost to indifference, which caused the British to take no part in the formation of the European Community. It is as if, for this author, the British had not taken the idea of Europe seriously, had not contemplated for one moment that they could be expected to attach themselves to the Continent and to accept all the implications of such an attachment. In any case they would not allow themselves to be hurried.

This sort of argument has often been put forward. It is often said by observers who were associated with the right wing in politics, that no other country would put up with the sort of strike action that has recently characterized such British institutions as The Times or the main automobile factories. And the reason the British are so tolerant is that they are so nice. If decent middle-class English people have to deal with striking railwaymen or miners or health workers, they are hampered by their education and upbringing. They have been taught to behave like gentlemen, possibly like country gentlemen. A not dissimilar argument is sometimes put forward by those who belong to the left. Disappointed that there is not more strike action and that militants are rarely given the overwhelming support of the work force, they blame the habits of deference. Not only are workers still ready to look up to their social superiors and to admire the officer class, they wish to emulate them. They want to follow the same sports, they are ready to vote Conservative, they constantly read newspapers that are filled with stories about the royal family.

In this sense Mr. Barzini’s general argument will find favor in many quarters. England, it is said, is living in the past. Whereas the Second World War was for other countries the occasion when everything was shattered, the English experience (particularly in 1940) was a confirmation of all traditions and all the lessons of the past. But this hardly applies to the British failure to join the Common Market when it had the opportunity to do so; nor does it explain the British failure to think and act in a more European manner now that they have joined.

It is a matter of history that British statesmen made two errors of judgment over two matters that vitally affected the issue of British membership. The one was that they did not think that the French would accept the European Community and that the French and Germans would agree together. The other was that the British took the initiative of trying to create a European Free Trade Area as an alternative to the Community. Both errors were easy to make. It is still surprising that the French accepted so easily (one might almost say so stoically). It seems to have been a fact that the Free Trade Area did have a good chance of success.

But this has nothing to do with national character. Other countries made errors of judgment. For example, there is reason to believe that when General de Gaulle came to power and confirmed the Treaty of Rome, he had very little real appreciation of the implications of that treaty or of the benefits that would accrue to France. More recently presentday Gaullists in France, who have always been sharply critical of the European ideal, have become more aware of the political benefits that might come to them if they presented themselves as more European. It is not a matter of national character. It is a matter of calculation.

To insist overmuch on character is to argue oneself into strange attitudes. Mr. Barzini admits that the Italians, like the British, have fallen into the habit of putting up with inconvenient and crippling strikes. Is this because the italians are stoical too? No, it is because the Italians are pessimists. They always like seeing the worst confirmed. Why not say, as some Italians have that Italians hate being Italian, that they are ashamed of being Italian, and that they are therefore delighted to see their fellow Italians make a mess of things. One can say anything as one flings a nation’s characteristics in its face.

This is a game. It’s a good game and it’s all right that De Gaulle should be described as following policies that he knew to be bad, that the Americans should be presented as not understanding anything about their own strength, that the Germans should be described as neurotic. But it’s a game that should be enjoyed, not taken seriously. Any more than one takes seriously the idea that the United States of Europe is just around the corner.

This Issue

August 18, 1983