The EU Was Too Perfect. That's Why It's Now Falling Apart

Brexit, the Catalonian crisis and ISIS: The tumultuous events of our time have emerged from the need for spontaneity

In this Nov. 11, 1989 file photo, East German border guards are seen through a gap in the Berlin wall after demonstrators pulled down a segment of the wall at Brandenburg gate, Berlin.

In 1969, British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott published an article titled “Berlin Walls.” The Cold War was at its height; the Vietnam War, the space race and the tensions along the Iron Curtain in Europe featured in the news on a daily basis, and the Western media expressed shock at the wall built in the heart of Berlin, which continued to be thickened and heightened through the mid-1970s. Surprisingly, Winnicott took a positive attitude toward the wall, even though he did not support communist East Germany. His reason was different: He argued that the wall was necessary for the sake of Europe’s psychic existence.

Winnicott likened the city, and actually the entire continent, to a single individual. When an infant grows and matures, he develops into an individual unit, a whole person who stands on his own. But this whole person also contains within him divisions and conflicts between various elements, both internal and external. Accordingly, Winnicott likened the individual to a circle through whose center runs a line – a kind of Berlin Wall in the psyche, “a line along which there is always war.” The internal struggle takes shape around this diametral line and manifests in different forms throughout life.

Some people, however, try to end the conflict. They eliminate the inner boundary line and thrust the destructive forces outside. At this stage, seemingly, the individual arrives at absolute, harmonious wholeness. But a new situation soon emerges: The individual who cannot tolerate “the potential war in the inner psychic reality” must project the destructive element onto someone else and thus creates an external conflict. “The arts of peace belong to the temporary success of a dividing line between opposing forces,” Winnicott wrote in his article.

It’s worth looking at Winnicott’s ideas in greater depth: “Idealists often speak as if there were such a thing as an individual with no line down the middle in the diagram of the person, where there is nothing but benign forces for use for good purposes,” he wrote. “In practice, however, it is found by all who study these matters that if the individual is almost free of the persecutory or ‘bad’ forces and objects, this simply means that some kind of scapegoat mechanism is at work.”

Twenty years after publication of the article, the Berlin Wall fell. Germany was unified, the communist doctrine was vanquished. Eastern European states were assimilated into the entity called Europe, which underwent increasing integration. Over the following two decades, Europe persuaded itself that the conflict at its heart had been resolved. The European Union was branded as a good and beneficial entity, characterized by benign forces, showing the world a triumphant model of peace, social welfare and culture. Suffice it to recall all those European envoys, teachers and instructors who were sent (and are still being sent) to all parts of the world in order to distribute the bounty of liberal European culture.

A quarter of a century has passed since the wall fell, and that image now looks more untenable than ever. New cracks are appearing in the psyche of the European unit. In the first stage, the conflict between the traditional center of the Continent and the fringes intensified – initially with Russia, then with the countries of Eastern Europe. In the second stage, young Europeans started to shoot people and blow themselves up in the name of Islamic State. The third stage saw the British island disconnect from the Continent and start to float into the misty waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The fourth stage is only just beginning: It involves a series of unforeseeable events, of which the current Catalonian crisis is among the most extreme. The self-image of Europe, that educated, mature child, has been vitiated beyond recognition.

Amazingly, precisely at the moment when Europe had ostensibly overcome its internal contradictions, the Continent began to be torn apart. The flaws now being revealed in the older continent don’t stem from some mistake made during the unification process. On the contrary: They derive from over-successful integration, from a utopian attempt to become a no-conflict unit without inner contradictions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks along remains of the Berlin Wall at the Berlin Wall memorial site at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin, Germany, Nov. 9, 2014.
Steffi Loos / AP

Europe became one of the leading forces in the dictatorship of the super ego and the feel-good desire that characterizes our era. But that posture was unsustainable. In Winnicott’s words, “the dictatorship breaks down because the fixed meaning of good and bad eventually becomes boring, and people become willing to risk their lives in the cause of spontaneity and originality.”

Ultimately, the search for spontaneity and originality, for events that go beyond the given and predictable process by which the human species is educated, constitute the motivation for the events of our time. Many people find it difficult to understand what prompted the seemingly content inhabitants of Catalonia to seize on their national identity and even to risk, for that end, the economic prosperity they enjoy. But we need to remember that in the secular era, nationalism is one of the projects that make it possible for people to depart from the routine utilitarian existence of work, consumerism and aging. For some reason, people refuse to be mere cows.

End of the liberal order

To the average person in our time, the Bolshevik Revolution, which erupted 100 years ago this week, looks like an incomprehensible event. “What makes so many people get swept up by an unfounded utopian ideology?” you may ask, as you roll your eyes skyward. Indeed, the people of Eastern Europe paid a steep price for the communist experiment, which lasted for more than seven decades. But it was precisely the split in Europe and throughout the world that preserved a certain element of dynamism in historical developments. The fall of communism turned out to be a pyrrhic victory.

“What will happen now, in the absence of rivals?” the East German writer Stefan Heym wondered after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “What kind of race is it in which only one runner remains, what sort of competition is it in which I am competing with myself alone?” Heym added that the aggressions that had been channeled into the inter-bloc struggle were already being manifested in numberless local conflicts. “In place of the great hostility between the kingdom of mercy and the kingdom of evil, hostility that promised at least a degree of stability in return for the appalling risks it contained – now a hundred small and silly hostilities, fraught with hatred, are erupting. Blood is flowing on all the continents, which are also often flooded by contaminated water.”

Although he opposed the East German dictatorship, Heym, who died in 2001, was a socialist. But even Joschka Fischer, the former liberal foreign minister of Germany, admitted not long ago that, in retrospect, the end of the Cold War marked the beginning of the end of the Western liberal order. The whole world became the West, and Westernism thereby lost its meaning. “In losing its existential enemy, the West lost the foil against which it declared its own moral superiority,” Fischer noted.

So, if Islam didn’t exist, it would have had to be invented.