Published March 31, 2022
Last week, the city of Brussels played host to a trio of conferences destined to shape the future of Europe: the European Council, NATO, and G-7. Less visible, but perhaps equally consequential in the long run, was the congress of conservative speakers from 19 nations who assembled for the second NatCon Europe, gathering under the auspices of the Edmund Burke Foundation to debate “The Future of the Nation-State in Europe.”
Like the other gatherings happening concurrently in the capital of the European Union, the conversation at NatCon was framed against the backdrop of recent events in Ukraine, which have put the traditional European order of nation-states to its most severe test since the close of World War II. Several talks were dedicated explicitly to the Ukraine crisis, and many other speakers alluded extensively to the lessons it had to offer for a national conservative agenda. Everyone seemed to recognize that behind the battles being waged on the plains of Ukraine was a deeper battle over the narrative that would frame Russia’s invasion, the lessons that the West must learn from it, and the vision for a future Europe that ought to emerge on the other side of this crisis.
As Israeli political theorist Ofir Haivry noted in his speech, European elites are eager to seize Putin’s aggression as an opportunity to discredit the despised nationalists in their midst. In their narrative, Putin is the arch-nationalist, and his invasion is exactly the sort of thing that you’d expect a nationalist foreign policy to produce. Ukraine, in contrast, stands for the liberal democratic universalism at the heart of the E.U. project, and has become a martyr for Western progressive values. Its invasion, so this story goes, proves more than ever the need for the European Union to continue its steady march toward “ever-closer union,” and embrace the role of a hyper-liberal super-state ready to resist autocracy wherever it may be found (including among its own members). Such elites have lost no time in branding national conservatives Putin apologists, boosters for his brand of chauvinistic gangsterism.
They might have been surprised, then, by the tenor of the remarks at NatCon. Speaker after speaker denounced Putin as an imperialist thug, and Russia as a power with whom “no compromise is possible.” Prime Ministers Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland and Janez Janša of Slovenia called for unstinting solidarity with Ukraine. Indeed, from the perspective of the national conservatives gathered in Brussels last week, if anyone had cause to be outraged by Russia, it was them.
On this narrative, Putin was no nationalist, but fit the classic imperialist profile, heading up a massive multi-national empire and now hell-bent on gobbling up a weak neighbor. “Ukraine,” said Richard Milsom, “was invaded because it insisted on being a fully sovereign nation, rather than accepting semi-dependent status.” Moreover, far from being martyrs for universal liberal values, Ukrainians were offering a sterling depiction of something we had almost forgotten: a fierce, courageous love of one’s fatherland. As U.K. writer Henry George put it, they were “fighting, like Horatius, for ‘the ashes of their fathers and the temples of their gods.’” They were proving again the importance of bonds of shared national loyalty and the consequences of European anomie.
Far from reinforcing the need for a European superstate, or encouraging Europe’s leaders to double down on the utopian dreams of the 1990s, Putin’s invasion was a “blast of reality, the end of the end of history,” as Rodrigo Ballester put it. It was a warning, if Western elites had still needed it after the rise of China, Brexit, Trump, and Covid, that liberal globalism was not going to coast effortlessly to inevitable triumph, and that investing in more McDonalds joints in Russia was no substitute for investing in guns and planes. Indeed, Ukrainian resistance and Russian failures were proof that guns and planes were of little use without a proud fighting spirit. Germany, with an economy ten times that of Ukraine, likely would not have fared as well, one speaker remarked. After years of coddling their citizens with worries about “micro-aggressions,” Europe was woefully underprepared to face real aggressions. “It’s not just that we’re not independent countries,” lamented Spanish political essayist Jorge Hernández, “it’s that we lack the moral resources to be so.”
Clearly, then, the answer to this crisis is not more of the same that got us here (an E.U. that dissolves national boundaries). Rather than leaning further into the idea of a European super-sovereign with a European army, the speakers advised, European leaders should strengthen their own nations and collaborate through intergovernmental (rather than supergovernmental) organizations like NATO. And instead of constantly looking to the United States to bail them out, advised conference organizer Yoram Hazony, it was high time for the Europeans to grow up and shoulder the burdens of their own regional security. America, he insisted, had bigger fish to fry—like facing down Xi’s China.
To date, however, even in the midst of its greatest crisis of this generation, E.U. leadership has doubled down on its own form of imperialism. Scarcely less frequent than lamentations for Ukraine were expressions of indignation of the European Parliament’s recently-announced “sanctions” against Hungary and Poland for their supposed violations of the rule of law. “Shame on those 478 MEPs who found the time to divide Europe when the drums of war were pounding,” fulminated Ballester. Polish MEP Anna Fotyga and Hungarian MEP Balázs Hidvéghi called the sanctions “political blackmail” and noted the irony that these eastern European countries were being denounced for their intolerance and violations of European values even as they opened their borders to the floods of Ukrainian refugees. Although the E.U. contends that it has imposed these financial penalties on its recalcitrant members because of their failures to guarantee independent courts, the speakers at NatCon had no doubt that the real cause was Hungary and Poland’s failure to toe the line of Western woke orthodoxy on abortion and LGBT issues. From this vantage point, E.U. leadership’s own form of imperialism may have been less bloody than Putin’s but was just as sinister in the long run. Both were violating national rights of self-determination and attempting to force a single vision of the good on all of Europe. As Hazony put it in his keynote, “An empire asks, ‘Why should they be free to make their own laws when we already know what the best laws are?” The nationalist, on the other hand, recognizes the right of each nation to determine where its own national interest lies and how to pursue it. The nationalist, moreover, will perceive that the lessons of the past few years, far from pointing toward the necessity of “ever closer union,” instead signal the urgency of recovering the ideals of both national sovereignty and national independence.
Whereas the steady growth of E.U. institutions has progressively infringed the formal legal sovereignty of its constitutive nation-states, these have no one but themselves to blame for their loss of economic independence. Transfixed by the illusion of frictionless global integration, many European nations have, like the United States, almost completely outsourced vital sectors of their economy. As Italian think tank leader Francesco Giubelei observed, Covid-19 was a deafening wake up call to the shortsightedness in such an approach, as his own country and many other Western nations found themselves almost completely dependent on China for basic medical supplies in the midst of national emergency. Now, less than two years later, the same sorry saga is playing out again as the Ukrainian war exposes the folly of dependence on Russian oil and gas. As his Spanish fellow panelist Juan Ángel Soto observed, “Conservatives are sometimes branded as protectionists. I would submit that this is not the case. We are just not stupid.”
Of course, commonsensical as all this may seem, it is not hard to imagine a cogent objection: How is this sort of nationalism not merely liberal individualism writ large? Many conference speakers, after all, were loud in their denunciation of the liberal ideal of the free, untrammeled, and self-determining individual, free to chart and pursue his own vision of the good without either the help or the hindrance of his fellow man or any higher authority. Wasn’t their ideal of the sovereign and self-determining nation simply Lockean man writ large?
The resemblance is hardly a new one; in fact, when Locke set out to describe his idea of the state of nature, in which individuals forged their own paths unconstrained by any human power, he explained that this was the state in which sovereign nations already found themselves. Indeed, it was a truism of early modern political thought that a lawless “state of nature” governed the relationships between states. Why, the skeptic might ask, should such anarchy be healthy at the level of nation-states if it is harmful to the individuals that comprise them? Or, put another way, if it is beneficial for individuals to surrender their sovereignty and band together into political societies, why shouldn’t it be equally beneficial for nations to surrender their sovereignty and band-together into transnational superstates, like the E.U.?
The great Swiss jurist Emer de Vattel raised this question in his 1758 The Law of Nations, only to decisively reject its premise. An individual and a nation, he argued, have little in common: “Individuals are so constituted, and are capable of doing so little by themselves, that they can scarcely subsist without the aid and the laws of civil society.” Nations, on the other hand, while they can certainly benefit from larger associations, are self-sufficient when it comes to necessities—or ought to be. The larger the community, the more quickly a point of diminishing returns is passed between the benefits and costs of surrendering sovereignty.
This is a compelling answer, but we may offer a deeper one. Whereas the contemporary liberal individual celebrates the transcendence of all limits, and values nothing save that which he chooses for himself, the nation-state is constituted by the given, rather than the chosen. Although the borders which limit it may have been somewhat arbitrary in the beginning, they come to constitute one of the deepest and most durable realities in human life, as the experience of Ukraine confirms. In a world that longs for infinitude, the existence of nation-states is a powerful reminder that flourishing depends on limits, and a powerful rebuke to the godlike aspirations of modern man.
In one of the most insightful addresses of the conference, Romanian writer Alex Kaschuta observed that for the dominant liberal ideology, every chosen difference between us is all-important, and every unchosen difference must be minimized or hidden in shame. Those individuals who succeed most thoroughly in shedding the unchosen bonds of birth and nature—like the transgender individual—are celebrated as heroes, while those retrogrades who embrace their biology—like the homemaking mother of five—are scorned as contemptible. In such an age, nothing can be more refreshingly countercultural than the unapologetic nation-state, which celebrates the unchosen bonds of shared birth and geographical limit as the foundations of its identity. It is in these national differences, of culture, language, and geography, that we can find the appropriate opportunity to “celebrate diversity,” not in the arbitrary and frivolous fantasies of the self-indulgent late modern individual.
One might have expected such an emphasis on national diversity at a conference of nationalists. What one might not have expected was the speakers’ stress on the importance of a common European culture. Indeed, in contrast to the strident Euroscepticism of the first NatCon Europe conference (in Rome in 2020), pan-Europeanism was a striking theme at this conference. One of the most venerable participants, John O’Sullivan, went so far as to suggest that Hazony’s “nationalism vs. imperialism” binary offered an insufficient framework for thinking of international affairs. An intermediate third term was necessary between the nation and the empire: the civilization. A civilization, he argued, can offer a common framework for discussion and debate, but without requiring that this issue in one common policy. Europe—and indeed perhaps that “Europe beyond the seas,” America, comprised such a civilization, once spoken of confidently and un-selfconsciously as “Western civilization.” Belgian historian David Engels argued that the need of the hour was for an international nationalism dedicated to the protection of Western civilization against the twin threats of China and wokeism.
This international nationalism, or resurgent Europeanism, would insist on holding diversity in unity in a way that the current E.U. project has increasingly failed to do. As Hungary’s Justice Minister, Judit Varga, explained in her keynote address, “We believe that our national culture is a rich contribution to the diversity of European unity.” In the early steps toward the European Union, indeed, it had been understood that whatever the common culture and common interests motivating European cooperation, this must be a cooperation of distinct, diverse, sovereign, and independent nation-states. If the E.U. could move back in that direction, instead of seeking to impose a stifling uniformity and top-down bureaucracy on its members, most speakers seemed to suggest, they would be more than happy continuing the great experiment of the European Union, with their nations as proud participants. Clearly, the nationalism articulated at this conference was not of the jingoistic go-it-alone variety.
But the internationalism called for at the conference differed from the reigning E.U. orthodoxy in one more crucial respect: It was organized, to a frankly startling extent, around the forthright re-assertion of Christian faith and Christian culture. One of the youngest and also one of the most powerful of the conference’s many speakers, Eva Vlaardingerbroek of the Netherlands, put it unapologetically: “We have a continent to reclaim for Jesus of Nazareth, whom we Christians call the Prince of Peace.” Both she and Hazony argued that the reason European conservatives have kept losing is because they have been too afraid to talk about God or Scripture. No longer.
Except perhaps Ukraine, no other theme was so prominent at the conference. Speaker after speaker highlighted the central contributions of Christianity to European civilization, and the indispensability of a return to it if there was any chance of a viable European project that could serve to protect, rather than seek to erase, the continent’s rich mosaic of nations. Rod Dreher, one of the few Americans present, told of the central role that the relics of European Christian culture had played in his own conversion, and warned, “the only way Europe and the entire West will survive this civilizational crisis as Europe is by rediscovering and living out the Christian faith.” Hungary’s Varga commended her nation’s new constitution, which explicitly affirms its Christian roots: “Christianity is the foundation-stone of our nation.” And the first keynote address on day two was given by the prominent Finnish politician Paivi Raisanen, an evangelical Christian currently being prosecuted for hate speech on account of her willingness to simply quote the Bible’s teaching on sexuality. One of the final speakers, Irish human rights lawyer Lorcan Price, wryly joked: “Many people here have used the term ‘created order,’ which is an incredibly transphobic term.”
To the cynic, all this in-your-face Christian propaganda might look like merely the arbitrary substitution of one set of top-down “values” for another. But it is not. For one thing, the idea of Christian Europe has history on its side. As Dreher remarked, and no American visitor to Europe can fail to appreciate, the reminders of Christian civilization can be seen on almost every street corner, or towering above every skyline in breathtaking Gothic spires. Political and legal historians also know well just how thoroughly Christian principles remain woven through the warp and woof of European institutions, however rapidly this generation’s liberal elites might seek to unravel them.
For another thing, although Christian Europe has certainly had its fair share of imperialist moments, the recognition of finitude is inherent to the Christian faith in a way it is certainly not for woke liberalism. Progressives may frantically exhort us to “respect difference” and “celebrate diversity,” but their creed, in truth, has no idea how. The venerable tradition of Christian democracy, on the other hand, understands well how, within the recognition of the limits imposed by creation and history, there is room for a thousand flowers to bloom. Indeed, several speakers suggested, as new “hate speech” law is increasingly used by E.U. courts to silence all dissent, a return to Christian civilization may now be needed to save liberal values like free speech from hyper-liberalism’s imperial excesses.
Some might wonder if all this talk of “Christian civilization” isn’t quixotic at best and delusional at worst. In many parts of western Europe, God has been dead for over a century, and Raisanen’s case suggests just how little tolerance remains for the mere expression of Christian beliefs and values in many corners of the continent. To be sure, one speaker observed, Western Europe may no longer have the resources for its own regeneration. Thankfully, however, in some of the nations of central and eastern Europe—so well-represented at the conference—the flame of faith is burning bright again, after decades of communist repression. Less likely to underestimate the precious worth of religion after seeing the consequences of its forcible erasure from public life, nations like Poland, Hungary, and Croatia are taking steps to reintegrate it into their law and culture. Perhaps, they suggested, they can keep such a model alive until the West learns again the value of what it has lost.
Brad Littlejohn is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program and president of the Davenant Institute.
Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.