Recent elections in the former Communist countries and in Italy, France and Germany, and the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, show the extent to which sentiments of national identity are once more prominent in the cultural landscape of Europe. And they are the more prominent for the attempt by the Eurocrats to forbid them. 

I doubt that this situation was foreseen by those who first set the European process in motion. It seemed reasonable, even imperative, in 1950 to bring the nations of Europe together, in a way that would prevent the wars that had twice almost destroyed the continent. 

And because conflicts breed radicalism, the new Europe was conceived as a comprehensive plan – one that would eliminate the sources of European conflict, and place cooperation rather than rivalry at the heart of the continental order. National identities were seen, at the time, as part of the problem, and certainly not the basis for a solution.

People cling to the place, the language, the customs and the religion that have bound them in solidarity with their neighbours, and conferred on them the indispensable sense of “who we are”. 

The architects of the European plan, who were for the most part Christian Democrats, had little else in common apart from a belief in European civilisation and a distrust of the nation state. The eminence grise, Jean Monnet, was a transnational bureaucrat, inspired by the vision of a united Europe in which war would be a thing of the past. His close collaborator Walter Hallstein was an academic German technocrat, who believed in international jurisdiction as the natural successor to the laws of the nation states. Monnet and Hallstein were joined by Altiero Spinelli, a romantic Communist who advocated a United States of Europe legitimised by a democratically elected European Parliament. 

Such people were not isolated enthusiasts, but part of a broad movement among the post-war political class. They chose popular leaders like Konrad Adenauer, Robert Schuman and Alcide De Gasperi as the spokesmen for their ideas, and proposed the European Coal and Steel Community (the Schuman Plan) as their initial goal – believing that the larger project would acquire legitimacy, if it could first be understood and accepted in this circumscribed form. 

At the same time the long-term goal was kept secret, on the justified understanding that, if the people got wind of it, they would make sure it never happened. It is not that the ordinary people of Europe are by nature nationalists, in the manner of the 19th-century enthusiasts who first crafted the national idea as a cultural and political icon. It is simply that they cling to the place, the language, the customs and the religion that have bound them in solidarity with their neighbours, and conferred on them the indispensable sense of “who we are”. The nation, for most Europeans, defines the true “first-person plural”, the “we”, to which they belong.

When the first instruments of European cooperation were being devised, the continent was divided by the Iron Curtain, with half of Germany and all of the Slavonic countries under Soviet occupation and fascist regimes installed in Portugal and Spain. France was in constant turmoil, with a Communist Party commanding the support of more than a third of its electorate; the free remnant of Europe was critically dependent upon the Atlantic alliance, and the marks of occupation and defeat were (except in Great Britain and the Iberian peninsula) everywhere apparent. Only radical measures, it seemed, could restore the continent to political and economic health, and those measures must replace the old antagonisms with a new spirit of friendship. 

What we are now seeing in Europe is that yesterday’s radical visions cannot translate into today’s political needs. The imperial project has entered into conflict with the only source of sentiment upon which it could conceivably draw for its legitimacy.

As a result European integration was conceived in one-dimensional terms, as a process of ever-increasing unity, under a centralised structure of command. Each increase in central power was to be matched by a diminution of national power. Every summit, every directive and every click of the ratchet has since carried within itself this specific equation. The political process in Europe has therefore acquired a direction. It is not a direction that the people of Europe have chosen, and every time they are given the right to vote on it they reject it, as recently in Britain. The process is moving always towards centralisation, top-down control, dictatorship by unelected bureaucrats and judges, cancellation of laws passed by elected parliaments, constitutional treaties framed without any input whatsoever from the people – in short, the process is moving always towards imperial government. And only one thing stands opposed to this result, and that is the national sentiments of the European people.

For this very reason national sentiments have been demonised. Speak up for Jeanne d’Arc and le pays réel, for the “sceptred isle” and St George, for Lemmenkäinen’s  gloomy forests and the “true Finns” who roam in them, and you will be called a fascist, a racist, a populist and an extremist. There is a liturgy of denunciation here that is repeated all across Europe by a ruling elite that trembles in the face of ordinary loyalties. But the fact is that national sentiment is, for most ordinary Europeans, the only motive that will justify sacrifice in the public cause. 

In so far as people do not vote to line their own pockets, it is because they also vote to protect a shared identity from the predations of those who do not belong to it. That is the real reason why Viktor Orbán did so well in the recent Hungarian election, why the Law and Justice Party remains so strong in Poland and why Angela Merkel is facing such a radical challenge from the Alternativ für Deutschland.

What we are now seeing in Europe is that yesterday’s radical visions cannot translate into today’s political needs. The imperial project has entered into conflict with the only source of sentiment upon which it could conceivably draw for its legitimacy. The nation states are not equally stable, equally democratic, equally free or equally obedient to the rule of law. But they are all that we have. They alone inspire the loyalty and obedience of the European people, and without them there is no way that the machinery of the Union can act. By replacing national accountability with distant bureaucracy, that machinery has left people disarmed and bewildered in the face of mass migration, surely the great issue for Europe today, and one that the elite is determined to avoid.

The people of Greece, Spain and Portugal agreed, since nobody alerted them to the cost – the national cost – that will be paid, in terms of youth unemployment and the de-capitalisation of society, when the national government has lost control of its currency. 

The same bewilderment has been stirred by the common currency. The Euro, invented and imposed without any proof that the people of the “Eurozone” had any desire for it, was immediately understood, by the kleptocrats of the Mediterranean, as a way of enlarging the national debt, and transferring it to the hard-working Germans. And the people of Greece, Spain and Portugal agreed, since nobody alerted them to the cost – the national cost – that will be paid, in terms of youth unemployment and the de-capitalisation of society, when the national government has lost control of its currency. 

In a crisis people “take stock”, which means that they retreat to the primary source of their social identity, and prepare to defend it. They do not do this consciously. But they do it nevertheless, and the futile attempt by the comfortable elites to denounce the “extremism” of the people whose inheritance they have stolen, or the “populism” of those who gain the people’s favour, merely exacerbates the reaction. But the situation is not a happy one. 

Not only are there nations like the Flemish and the English which have no nation state of their own, the half-century of peace and prosperity has fed upon the European cultural inheritance without renewing it. The constitutional treaties and trans-national courts of the EU have made a point of granting no favours to the Christian faith, and the spirit of multiculturalism has ensured that national cultures receive no subsidies either from national governments or from the European Union. A “cult of the minority” has been imposed from above. Yet all across Europe “multiculturalism” is being rejected, both by ordinary people and by many of their elected representatives. For, while multiculturalism has done nothing to reconcile immigrant communities to their new surroundings, it has destroyed the frail remnants of national cultures that survived the Second World War. 

This is one reason why people who stand up for their national identity can so easily be made to look like “extremists”. You don’t look like an extremist, if you express your national sentiment in the idiom of a Péguy, an Orwell, a Lampedusa or a Sibelius. But when you have no national icons besides the flag and the football team you find it difficult to display the most important aspect of national sentiment, which is that it is an invocation of peace, and not a cry of war. 

That is why culture matters, and why its loss, in times of crisis, is a loss to the whole community, and not just to the educated minority who are aware of the fact. And it is precisely here, in the realm of culture, that the national idea needs to be defined and acknowledged. For European civilisation depends far more on national solidarity than on any of the transnational institutions that have emerged from the original plan.