Admiral Nelson and the Non

Is Europe over its suffocating righteousness?


It must have taken an impish perversity to schedule the 200-year commemoration of the Battle of Trafalgar so soon after Britain and France brawled over the European Union budget 10 days ago in Brussels.

On Tuesday, 167 ships from Britain and 35 other countries participated in a reenactment of the battle, though several things in the event were slightly absurd: In order to take advantage of milder weather, it was organized four months before the actual anniversary, October 21; it was held near Portsmouth, not off the southern Spanish coast where the real nautical killing field is located; and though touted as an international extravaganza (even France's aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle participated), it was mostly a British affair. As French historian and commentator Max Gallo told the International Herald Tribune: "This anniversary means very little to us."

As well it should, since the defeat of a combined Franco-Spanish fleet by Admiral Horatio Nelson effectively undermined Napoleon's strategy of decisively defeating Britain "from the land," as historian John Keegan wrote in his 1988 book The Price of Admiralty. Thanks to Trafalgar, the British retained their major outposts in the Mediterranean, including Malta and Gibraltar, and were able to use this presence to draw Napoleon's ships and soldiers away from Europe's main battlegrounds towards the periphery of the empire, later bogging the French army down in what Keegan called a "strategically irrelevant" war in the Iberian Peninsula. ?

However, there was one thing that made the battle commemoration most bizarre: It recycled the compulsory, vacant rhetoric of consensus that prevails in the European Union these days—even as the EU continues to reel from the recent rejection of its draft constitution by France and Holland. In an outlandish effort to play down that Britain and France had fought a bloody battle for European domination, the organizers described the Trafalgar festivities in this way: "[W]arships will gather from around the globe as a wonderful reminder of how the sea has brought together so many countries in friendship." ?

Only Queen Elizabeth seemed to dimly grasp what the anniversary was all about: triumphalism. In a written message composed by palace scribes, she stated: "Admiral Lord Nelson's supreme qualities of seamanship, leadership with humanity and courage in the face of danger are shared among our maritime community today. He could wish for no greater legacy." Though wretchedly bland, the phrase managed to get through that Trafalgar was about victory, and even hinted at Nelson's fine warrior instincts. Had Brussels crafted the statement, it would have conceivably portrayed the battle as the first joint Anglo-French-Spanish endeavor to feed Spain's fish population. ?

The marketing of the Trafalgar anniversary was faithful to the EU's habit of mistreating history in order to minimize past enmities between its members. The vice admiral leading the French ships in the reenactment issued this safe analysis: "It's not done to put the UK from one side and France and Spain from the other—it is done to have a common memory of what has occurred 200 years ago. It is a festival of the sea." ?

To this and other affirmations of goodwill, Anna Tribe, Nelson's 75-year-old great, great, great-granddaughter, replied poppycock!: "I am sure the French and Spanish are adult enough to appreciate we did win that battle. I am anti political correctness—very much against it. It makes fools of us." ?

One can applaud Tribe's refreshing bluntness, but with Nelsonian precision she demolished something else: the latest manifestation of the increasing righteousness pervading common European projects in recent years. Indeed, where there is excessive solicitude, there is also moral smugness. Since the Maastricht Treaty in particular, and leading into the most recent round of debate over the European constitution, those opposed to greater EU integration have been regarded as ethically suspect. That's partly because for a time the main source of opposition was the far-right, deploying jarring nationalist slogans, deploring EU expansion and closer ties between member states. This impression was only partially dented by the revolt of a segment of the French Socialist Party against the constitution, because prior to the referendum the critics managed to sell their desire for a more "social" Europe as a call for a more moral one. ?

Righteousness is a peculiarity of grand political ventures: It stems from insistence that when states and societies move towards broad common understanding, it is unbecoming to buck the trend. Sticking to the consensus, no matter what happens, becomes a byword for achieving the greater good. In this narrative, the mad metastasis of European institutions, rules, employees, and schemes has embodied the collective will. Denouncing this, or questioning it validity, has often been interpreted by Europhiles as spitting on EU harmony. Britain, where fears of an overbearing Europe remain, is still mistrusted for its heresy; Jacobin France, more enthusiastic towards centralized power, was frequently the one questioning British commitment. Hence the irony that it was the French who killed the European constitution. ?

With that rejection, European righteousness, mercifully, crashed. The assessment of policy through increasingly moral lenses forces complex policy choices into simple categories of good and bad. That, in turn, corrodes democracy by limiting the choices one feels entitled to make. But Europe isn't a moral project, nor should it be. It's an alliance of convenience, occasionally even of pleasure. But convenience and pleasure don't mean always having to day you're sorry, particularly if history handed you well-merited victories.