A continent in search of a project

Image of Harry Eyres

In 1922 the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset published a collection of essays under the title Invertebrate Spain. The slim volume sold out in weeks, to its author’s surprise, and seems uncannily prescient nearly a century later. I read the book in the autumn of 1983 in Barcelona, when Spain was remaking itself after Franco. Central to that process was finding a constitutional settlement that allowed enough autonomy to satisfy Spain’s proud semi-independent nations or “nationalities”.

Without knowing it, I was being subversive; reading Ortega on a plane, I was told off by the serious young Catalan sitting next to me, who suggested I should read Manuel Azaña instead. Ortega is unpopular among many Catalans and Basques because of his dismissal of the sense of grievance, though not the sense of difference, felt by Catalan and Basque nationalists.

But observant readers will notice that Ortega was no friend to separatism, or old-fashioned nationalism, of any kind: his premonitory vision of Spain was of a land that had become an assemblage of watertight compartments, unable to feel sympathy for each other – not just Catalans and Basques, but also the workers, the Church, the aristocracy and, above all, the military. Writing in the aftermath of the crisis of 1917, which included the formation of military juntas, a general strike and the threat of secession by Catalonia and the Basque country, Ortega wrote that the army had become “a clenched fist, morally disposed towards attack”.

Behind all the particular demands and grievances felt by different groups – and it might be worth recalling this in the light of renewed calls for Catalan (or Scottish) independence – lay something deeper: Spain was disintegrating because it had forgotten the integrative force – the sense of a shared project – that forged it and bound it in the first place.

I think a contemporary Ortega would be more likely to write a book called Invertebrate Europe than one entitled Invertebrate Spain. Despite the recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU, which some saw as a triumph of irony only matched by the award of the same prize to the hammer of Cambodia, Henry Kissinger, Europe seems to have collapsed into a heap of squabbling factions. Northern nations blame southern ones for their profligacy; southern countries blame Germany for behaving like a dictator. Britain, as ever, seems determined to steam off, like the Titanic, into the middle of the Atlantic.

In all the media coverage of the recent failed EU budget talks, I hardly saw any discussion of what the EU budget might actually be for. David Cameron, desperate to appease Tory Eurosceptics and the resurgent UK Independence party, came up with a more charming version of Lady Thatcher’s famous handbag-waving “we want our money back” routine, promising “not to pay a penny more” in order to secure a good deal for British taxpayers. He won considerable praise, and support from the Swedes and the Dutch, but I felt he was reducing the whole exercise to a hunt for bargain white goods in a January sale.

Since no one could say what the purpose of the EU budget was in the first place, how could anyone tell what represented a good deal? If at least some of the money might be going to science or research and development projects where an initial investment might be paid back many times over, then cutting the budget for such projects would not be good for the taxpayer. Then there is the question of climate change and how we champion a kind of socially and ecologically responsible flourishing that provides reasonable prosperity without rampant despoliation.

The point where Ortega seems particularly pertinent is this: in his analysis of nation-building, of what made Spain great, he stresses the vital importance of project and purpose over identity and essence. Spain was not originally unified or unitary but diverse; what the clever nation-builder Ferdinand the Catholic saw, according to Machiavelli, the astutest political analyst of his time, was that different groups and ethnicities could be welded together in the pursuit of great projects.

Invertebrate Spain was a warning shot fired over the rusting bows of Ortega’s disintegrating home country. His most famous book, The Revolt of the Masses (1930), had a wider aim: its concluding section calls, decades before Jacques Delors, for a “United States of Europe”that “would reanimate the pulse of Europe”.

Ortega’s summons to European integration (issued just a few years before Europe tore itself apart) is not primarily economic but moral. Europe, he wrote, has been left “without a moral code”. Or to put it another, more positive, way, Europeans lack programmes and projects commensurate with the ideals of European culture. The reintegration of the eastern bloc countries cruelly cut off from the European mainstream after 1945 is of course one such project. Another is taking decisive action, rather than making pious promises, to reduce carbon emissions and halt biodiversity loss.


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