The Right Coast

June 05, 2005
Love, European Style
By Gail Heriot

I was in St. Lucia about a year ago soaking in a little Carribean sun. While there, I had lunch with a European couple (since Europeans seem to spend their lives on vacation, there were lots of them there). I don’t remember their names. But she was Swedish. He was Dutch. They had been married several years and lived in Switzerland together. They were both obviously well-educated and intelligent (as well as tall, blonde and beautiful). They both had responsible positions with NGOs in Geneva. In short, they were both members of Europe’s extended ruling class of bureaucrats.

One of the things that struck me during our conversation was how common these international marriages seemed to be these days. Each time one of them mentioned a friend or relative of theirs it would always turn out that the friend or relative was married to someone from a different European country and quite frequently living in yet a third European country. I said nothing at the time, but I remember filing it away in my mind as evidence that Europe was much further along in social integration than I had thought–and that this must be part of a genuinely modern trend.

No, I’m not foolish enough to think that just because political elites marry outside their nationality as readily as they marry within it, that garage mechanics and hairdressers are doing the same. I figured that this couple and their friends were probably a bit like the old Chinese mandarinate. As early as the Sung dynasty, Chinese elites were arranging marriages between their daughters and their sons from every corner of the Empire. That didn’t mean, however, that the local peasant boy wasn’t marrying the peasant girl next door.

But that's just the point. China was even then a reasonably integrated political unit in a way that Europe only aspires to be (or at least Europe’s elites aspire for it to be). I took the St. Lucia couples’s marriage as evidence of a new trend that would ultimately result in European political integration. Europe was becoming more like China.

Despite, this past week’s news, I’m still inclined to think that further integration is inevitable. (I’ll leave aside for the moment whether I regard that as good, bad or ugly). But no less a personage than Antonin Scalia has now disabused me of the notion that the St. Lucia couple’s situation was indicative of something new in Europe. I had occasion to be at a gathering up in Napa Valley that Scalia dropped in on. And while he was commenting on the constitution fiasco, he talked about something that really hadn’t occurred to me before: European elites have always married across national boundaries. They’ve been doing it as long as the Chinese have. A thousand years ago, European elites were intermarrying and otherwise grouping themselves in ways that transcended national boundaries. And looking down upon the democratic and nationalist concerns of everyone else. Maybe things aren’t changing as much as I thought.

Indeed, maybe the political struggles going on today in Europe aren’t new at all. What we're witnessing is simply the Counter Reformation. For many years, the concept of a Unified Europe was synonymous with Catholicism, which in turn was synonymous with anti-nationalism and rule by distant bureaucratic elites. Protestantism in contrast appealed to nationalist tendencies and to those who favor more local governance. The issues haven't changed. It's just that one of them--religion--has dropped out.

Under such a view, Brussels may be the new Rome -–anti-nationalist, anti-democracy, pro-bureaucray, but strangely stripped of Rome's spiritual element. And the complex networks of governmental and non-governmental organizations of today are analogous to the vast Vatican bureaucracy and the many monasteries and convents that once dotted Europe. Close your eyes and you can see the clerical garb on the all folks inhabiting the buildings in Brussels

One thing has changed though. There are now hordes of these modern monks and nuns taking six-week vacations to the Carribean. History never repeats itself exactly. That would be insufficiently entertaining.