In his new reflection on the French presidential election, Adam Gopnik has a great line about Nicolas Sarkozy:

People will forgive a short man with a beautiful wife if he seems sufficiently surprised; Sarkozy seemed merely showy, and his energy, over time, merely antic and self-pleasing.

Gopnik’s essay contains a challenge to conservatives like me, who reflexively dislike the European Union as a federalized superstate that exists to denature and defeat the local and the particular in Europe. It’s also a threat to sovereignty. I dislike the EU for all the reasons you would expect a conservative to dislike the EU. And yet … here’s Gopnik:

In thinking about Europe and its union, the number that one needs to keep in mind is not the rate of the euro exchange or the measure of the Greek deficit but a simpler one, of sixty million.

That is the approximate (and probably understated) number of Europeans killed in the thirty years between 1914 and 1945, victims of wars of competing nationalisms on a tragically divided continent. The truth needs re-stating: social democracy in Europe, embodied by its union, has been one of the greatest successes in history. Like all successes, it can seem exasperatingly commonplace. There is something uninspiring about the compromises and the dailiness of a happy marriage, and something compelling about one that is coming apart: it looks more like the due fate of all things. Yet the truth ought to remain central. A continent torn by the two most horrible wars in history achieved a remarkable half century of peace and prosperity, based on a marriage of liberalism properly so called (individual freedoms, including the entrepreneurial kind) and socialism rightly so ordered (as an equitable care for the common good). Any pleasure taken in the failure of Europe to expunge all its demons threatens to become one more way of not having to examine our own. A mild-mannered, European-minded citizen king [Francois Hollande, the twerpish Socialist candidate for president of France — RD] is, at least, better than a passionately convinced exceptionalist. France, and Europe, learned that lesson the hard way.

Think of it this way: France lost 1.4 million men — soldiers alone, not counting civilians — in World War I. Think how traumatizing Vietnam was to America; we only (“only”) lost about five percent of that number. Among the British, 1.1 million subjects under arms died in that war. Two million German soldiers died, as did 1.1 million soldiers from Austria-Hungary. Plus, hundreds of thousands of European civilians died from disease and famine.

The total number of casualties — killed and wounded — from the four-month Battle of the Somme alone was 1.1 million — four times the American killed and wounded in the entire Vietnam War. Twenty thousand British soldiers were killed on the first day of the Somme, or died from wounds received on the first day. And there were more battles like that one.

Then came World War II, which was worse.

It’s too easy, I think, for people like me to look at the EU as some awful creature of the bureaucratic, master-planning, socialist mind — as, to a large degree, it is. But we don’t have the right to consider the EU apart from the hellish circumstances that gave birth to it. If the thing falls apart, it will have obviously been a failure, and one that was almost certainly baked into the cake all along, given how naturally fissaparous Europe’s diverse cultures are. If I were a European citizen, I would almost certainly be against the EU, given my political and cultural convictions. But I can’t say for sure. The Somme, Verdun, and the weight of 20th century European history cannot be discounted. That’s not an argument for voting Hollande over Sarkozy, to be sure, but it’s an argument against the sort of ahistorical thinking about the EU to which conservatives like me are prone. “Before you tear down a fence, ask yourself why it was built” — that’s a commonsense conservative principle. Apply it to considering the European Union, and it’s harder to hate the thing.

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