Does a political Europe exist, with a capacity to decide its own destiny? In the age of Voltaire, there was more than a mere foreshadowing of a united Europe, as a theater for elite communication. The Europeans - true, only a few thousand - peopled aristocratic salons from Paris to St Petersburg, and corresponded in French. Almost three centuries later, the Europeans - all those who feel themselves to be of European nationality, whatever their passport says - may number as many as a million.
Within their narrow circuit, however, the Voltairean elites could create their own Europe, which was far more real to them than the one being built by the bureaucrats of Brussels - those "first Europeans" on a continent where people are now citizens, not subjects, but ask only what Europe can do for them, not they for Europe.
This Europe, now in the grip of a crisis that is much more than economic, is still imagined by its middle classes in their national languages. The English language, for all its ubiquity, will never be a modern Latin, a language that belonged to everyone and thus to no one. Nowadays we all speak English, but few think in it - if only because it serves not to think of Europe, but just the contrary. Amid this babel there is only one common language: economics, instrumentalized for national self-interest. In the EU there is no force to prevail over this particularism. Great Britain is of no use - too averse to abstraction. Germany hesitates to pull the cart. There remains only France, with as many assets as grave drawbacks. Among the first, its vigorous institutions; among the second, the chronic wondering of the French about their national decadence, oddly combined with an excess of testosterone concerning their national sovereignty. For De Gaulle in the 1960s, the Common Market was ce machin (that contrivance), and 20 years later for Jacques Delors, "an unidentified flying object."
In 2000 the American political scientist Larry Siedentop wrote that the EU "did not possess the social stratum or unity of belief" on which to build a coherent political apparatus, and prophetically spoke of "the inexorable forces of the markets, and the elites who have escaped from any democratic control." The same democratic controls that were unwilling or unable to stave off the devastating financial catastrophe.
Amid the drought of ideology in the Western world, European integration has been substituted by an ersatz product: intergovernmental cooperation. The result has been an arid economicism, as if only market forces mattered. The failure of the elites, and of their national parishes, is strictly comparable.
But is there any feeling that unites most of the European peoples? For the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu it was "the nostalgia of empire," which would only be applicable to France, Spain, Portugal, perhaps the Netherlands, and not at all to Great Britain, which has chosen the Atlantic link. And if we look to the east, with the relative exceptions of Poland and the Czech Republic, the Byzantine stamp prevails, including in Greece, which is much closer to the Third Rome (Moscow) than to the first one. The EU's enlargement to the east, surely inevitable, nevertheless exposed the geopolitical fault line that divides the two Europes.
It has been argued that Europe lacks a civil religion - as was clear in the rejection, notably in France, of a European Constitution, in a referendum where both sides, wanting less union or more, joined hands in ignoring the existence of a Europe that, as it stands, is halfway between. Europe, or Europa, is still an idea, and it is difficult to say if its hour has come. But today Voltaire would say that it seems to have lost most of its attraction.