Magazine

A Point of View: The European dream has become a nightmare

Fireworks illuminate the Brandenburg Gate

An end to the European project in its current form could bring a new dawn, says Will Self.

As in Greek mythology the sun god Apollo Helios drives his chariot across the skies to both create the day and engineer its duration, so the charioteer and four horses that surmount the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin embody the idea of contemporary German nationhood - and, by extension, engineer the destiny of the European Union.

The quadriga - as such a statue is known, after the original triumphal classical grouping from which all modern ones derive - is everywhere in Berlin.

As you disembark at Schoenefeld Airport and stump through the beige corridors towards immigration and customs, you're treated to a series of large and jocular advertisements for the Berliner Morgenpost featuring the stony equestrienne and her team, cut out of their familiar context and instead pasted down in the Vatican, or cantering across the green swathe of a football match, or keeping pace with a caroming military transport plane as it deploys infantrymen in some dusty Middle Eastern theatre of war.

The image is comical, certainly, but the serious messages - as with all advertising - are in the slug lines: Keiner Schreibt Naeher - Nobody Writes Closer - the first proclaims, and below this: Hier ist die Haupstadt - Here is the Capital - and then finally there is the claim beloved of so many media outlets: Wir Sind die Zeitung - We are the News.

On the U-Bahn train you ride into the centre of the city there's a curious design on the windows of every carriage: small, stylised Brandenburg Gates arranged in a rectilinear pattern like the teeth of some perverse and confusing zip. And, of course, in the city centre itself, the Gate and its vehicular occupant are to be found on billboards, T-shirts, fast-food outlets, bus sides and indeed all the spaces available for commercial-cum-nationalist agitprop.

It's true that as monumental edifices symbolic of Berlin go, the Brandenburg Gate and its quadriga are fairly innocuous - but it's a strictly relative thing, given the alternatives on offer are hardly promising.

What could the Germans opt for otherwise: the Imperial Palace of the Hohenzollern Dynasty, finally demolished a half-century ago, yet which is constantly slated for rebuilding? Or Hitler's Reich Chancellery, thankfully gone the way of the Thousand Year Reich whose deranged grandiosity it enshrined? Or perhaps the Reichstag itself, viewed under the Weimar Republic as an ineffectual and porous institution that let in the Nazi tide, but which since reunification in 1990 has been rebuilt in the best possible pan-European taste by one of our own master-dome-craftsmen, Norman Foster?

And yet, on closer examination - rather than simply as a stylisation, or as the backdrop for the joyful Berlin-Wall-busting crowds of 1989 - the quadriga is almost as troubling as these other symbols.

Many visitors to Berlin are solemnly assured that it isn't even the right way round: that it was originally intended to be facing into the city, and rather than being a triumphal arch was dubbed 'the gate of peace', but then Marshal Blucher had it away to Paris during the Napoleonic wars - just part of an ongoing traffic in symbols between the two European powers that continues to this day - and when, in 1814 the quadriga was repatriated, it was dumped on top of the gate arsy-versy.

The tale is a fabrication, but its very retelling speaks volumes. Then there's the vexed matter of the charioteer's staff, originally topped-off with a Roman eagle, but after its French tour re-equipped with a Prussian one and an Iron Cross. When in 1991 the quadriga was slated for restoration it was argued that - in a return to irenic principle - she should be deprived of cross and eagle, on the grounds that they were redolent of Prussian militarism and Nazi crimes.

But actually, if it weren't for the Nazis making plaster casts of the quadriga in 1940 it wouldn't be available as a symbol at all. Badly damaged by 1945, in perhaps one of the most bizarre episodes during the Cold War, the statue, recast in the West, was dragged into the no man's land of the Berlin Wall and left there so that the Easterners - on whose territory the Brandenburg Gate stood - could heft it back on top.

So, the quadriga: peaceful or warlike, facing east or west? Roman or Prussian? Coming or going? Real or false? Inasmuch as Germany today sits in the very cockpit of the European project, so the quadriga is a perfect symbol of how confused and contested that project has become.

A fortnight or so ago - before setting off for Berlin on my quadriga-spotting tour - I heard the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond, on Radio 4 opine that what Europe really needed now was for Germany to, once again, take a proper responsibility for the continent's security and vastly expand her armed forces, which, since 1945 have been a mere bundeswehr rump.

I nearly fell off my Brandenburg Gate of a chair: the whole point of the European project had been to bridle the bellicosity of her big powers - and in particular that proven troublemaker Germany - and that in this respect at least, the European Union represented one of the few examples in human history of the political classes of several nations acting selflessly and sensibly.

Will Self was charmed by the idea of Europe

That these same politicians were afflicted by a strange sort of doublethink - both aspiring towards unity, and desperate for their own nationalistic electorates to preserve the substance of their sovereignties - was and is the peculiar vaulting horse upon which Europa's crotch has now painfully descended.

For myself, I had always been an enthusiastic pro-European and an unashamed believer in a federal European state. Like many English people of my tastes and proclivities, I rather fancied myself propping up zinc bars, sipping pastis and listening to the musical chink-clank of petanque.

I viewed an increasingly united Europe as a necessary counterweight to US world hegemony and Russian idiocy, while also being a handy cosmopolitan stick with which to beat the backs of uptight Little Englanders.

But times and opinions change: the continent's sixty year double-thinking reverie has turned the European dream into something of a nightmare: the quadriga's remaining obstinately faced to the East has resulted in an unfeasible extension of the EU in that direction also, while the attempt to reconcile national sovereignty with a single European economy has resulted in a bloated bureaucracy full of the wind of its own democratic deficit.

But perhaps most significant of all have been those events the quadriga's twisted tale tells. Just as states issue currencies, so they come into being as a result either of violent external or internal existential threats.

In the Balkan wars of the early 1990s the nascent European state faced just such a climactic moment: Yugoslavia had fallen apart into warring ethnicities, and quasi-concentration camps were being pitched in what had formerly been Western Europeans' holiday destinations.

Could an end to the EU lead to a new European dawn?

But instead of seizing the opportunity to constitute its authority in its own backyard, the European Union wimped out and eventually called on Uncle Sam and Brother Bill to do their dirty bombing for them.

The rest, as they rightly say, is history. The single currency foundered on the inability of not just the Greeks to tell the truth about their economy, but other big players - step forward La Belle Marianne - to balance their budgets to the same standards as those thrifty Teutons.

And you know, perhaps they - and we - should give up trying; an end to the European Union in its current banjaxed form might allow all of us to experience a new dawn, drawn by a new charioteer.

Possibly some nations - mentioning no names - who have sacrificed all decency in the scrabble for American-style, freedom-fries-with-everything, super-sized growth might begin to reflect on the consequences for their social cohesion and moral health.

Possibly other nations would consider the true worth of their own long-cherished institutions: are they fit for purpose, or rather dusty heirlooms that should be tucked away in the attic?

Three consequences of a general slackening of the European ties would be inevitable: Germany's difficult gestalt-therapy with its traumatic past will continue unabated, the confused quadriga will remain caught in mid-gallop, and the European neigh-sayers will finally, and horsily, have their day.