The European Union as the New Tower of Babel

Reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.[1]

Thus wrote Charles Mackay in 1852. We might add that, at a later age in the annals of Europe, its population lost their wits, financial credibility and any potential for liberal, progressive, democratic development over the illusion of ever-closer European Union.

As the conservative historian Niall Ferguson observed in 2017, the EU richly deserved Brexit. Warnings about the problem of currency union in the 1990s have come to fruition. [2] The dire debt situation of the weaker member states has been exacerbated by the central bank response to Covid and the inflation and shortages that now beset Europe, amplified of course by the current Ukraine crisis, itself a product of European inertia.

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Like its fiscal policy, Europe’s foreign policy has been an exercise in managerialism rather than realism and the consequences have been failure in both Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Over the last decade, responses to migration and Islamism have merely exacerbated both problems, whilst in Ukraine, EU policy, with US help, overreached without making the sustained commitment to deter Russia and the slow-motion revenge of Putin’s revisionist power.


Brexit and the disorder of Europe

The West, if it is not to enter the decline that Oswald Spengler anticipated at the end of the First World War,[3] needs a foreign policy geared to long-term interests in a rapidly changing world no longer en route to a liberal-democratic end of history. This has become a more urgent task since the UK left the European Union in 2020 and US foreign and economic policy since Trump has demonstrated a disturbing propensity for capricious unilateral behaviour.

European policy must not only consider the economic dimension of Brexit and the war in Ukraine, but also how economics and geopolitics are linked in an interconnected but by no means integrated world. In this context, a common European defence force, proposed as its “compass” for security at its most recent EU summit in May, without the UK or an enhanced commitment to NATO seems wishful. With a proposed rapid-response force of 5000 in the next decade it would be to conduct diplomacy without a serious military capacity, resembling, as Frederick the Great wrote during the partition of Poland, an orchestra without instruments.

This has evident consequences for Russia’s near abroad and why one suspects the Eastern European and Baltic states will need to function more coherently as a bloc in the future. This will become even more crucial as the European Union under its own centrifugal pressure begins to fragment. Populists in France and Italy see no need for the current regime of sanctions against Russia.

Meanwhile, the constant incantation of a return of the Cold War rhetoric regarding Russian irredentism offers only a lazy anachronism and demonstrates the fallacy of conducting current conflict according to the last, albeit colder, war. As the British historian J.M. Roberts wrote, “it is always disappointing when intelligent people seriously talk nonsense … The hardest thing to understand about much of the past is its errors and delusions”.[4]

Errors and delusions, as recent Russian actions in Ukraine demonstrate, have implications. In this troubled context of the apparent fraying of the European body politic it is perhaps the task of sceptical conservatives to identify what has occurred rather than propose specific remedies.

Rationalism and the Body Politic

The current wave of geopolitical and economic uncertainty troubling Europe and its political institutions at both the state and the regional level is nothing new. The British historian Norman Davies has shown in a number of books and articles how European principalities, republics and monarchies often collapse or mutate into new forms. In Vanished Kingdoms, Davies traced the rise and fall of various European political forms from the end of the Roman empire in the West, to the “ultimate vanishing act” the Soviet Union performed in 1991.[5] Davies’s history of half-forgotten Europe concludes with a chapter examining “How States Die” and assesses whether “discernible patterns of causation” can account for this demise. Davies’s historical analysis coincides with a developing field in political science research analysing the manner in which state systems and, more particularly, liberal democracies, fail, break down, wither, disintegrate, end, or die. [6]

This current enthusiasm for comparing and categorising failing states and their political breakdown draws without acknowledgment on a long-standing European tradition of political thought which, since Plato and Aristotle first identified the phenomenon, has evaluated the factors that explain state dissolution, stasis or disintegration.[7] Greek reflection on the failure of Athens during the Peloponnesian War influenced a large and varied literature in the Greco-Roman and Medieval Christian, as well as the Abbasid and Ottoman Muslim traditions of statecraft. The great Muslim thinkers Ibn Khaldun and Kateb Celibi devoted treatises to the relationship between the various organs in the body and the means of correcting their defects. Civilisations, these writers discerned, proceed inexorably through stages of growth, maturity and luxury and once corrupted decline into increasing senility and inevitable death.[8]

Similarly, during the disintegration of Christendom over the long sixteenth century and the emergence of a European state system after 1648, the idea of the political body, the stages of its growth and development and the reasons for its death offered writers and thinkers a potent analogy for capturing their experience.

Seventeenth-century English political philosophers, like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, attempting to understand the course of the English Civil War and its aftermath, sought to disclose, from different perspectives, the internal “diseases that tend to the dissolution of a commonwealth”. The most common intestinal problem they identified was internal and external war, leading to the disintegration of a political commonwealth, whether in England or Europe. In referring to the decay of commonwealths, Hobbes particularly drew upon and revised the enduring metaphor of the body politic. States and unions, Hobbes wrote, could dissolve from a number of “distempers” or diseases.

If we consider our current predicament from this analogical perspective it is evident that body politics like the European Union come and go with far more frequency than we like to admit. From his careful examination of vanished kingdoms, Davies contends that apart from the internal and external factors affecting state development and decay, involuntary and voluntary factors also play their part. In Europe’s modern history five mechanisms may be identified: implosion, conquest, merger, liquidation and infant mortality.

Thus, the Polish Lithuanian commonwealth that vanished in the course of the eighteenth century, as a result of a series of partitions enforced by its stronger neighbours, died from unnatural causes. By contrast, other political arrangements start life through an amalgamation of pre-existing units. The degree of amalgamation differs widely. Spain and the UK offer obvious contemporary examples—best described in the corporate language of merger and demerger. A recent example of demerger would be Czechoslovakia which split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Meanwhile other mergers like those leading to the evolution of the Soviet Union after 1917 were essentially coercive.

Given their own difficult histories, the states of Eastern Europe with their variable geographies should be aware of this, far more perhaps than the Western European community of states they joined at the end of the Cold War. The terms of membership by which one more successful body incorporates others is always a source of tension. It is no wonder perhaps that the remarkable document signed at Horodlo that created a Polish Lithuanian estate was more successful than the Treaty of Lisbon (2007). The preamble to the Act of Horodlo (1413) noted that “whoever is unsupported by the mystery of love shall not achieve the grace of salvation … For by love laws are made, kingdoms governed, cities ordered and the state is brought to its proper goal. Whoever casts love aside shall lose everything.”[9] Compare this with the bureaucratese of the Lisbon Treaty and the current absence of love displayed, whether between Brussels and the UK or Brussels and Hungary.

In this brief history of political bodies merging and demerging, it is evident the USSR imploded. The party state had the equivalent of a heart attack and died from natural causes. A similar fate after Brexit could be reserved for the European Union unless some radical surgery takes place.

 Mythology and Statecraft.

Despite its current weakness and potential for implosion, demerger or death from natural causes, it is nevertheless worth bearing in mind Europe’s promethean capacity to reinvent itself. The Old Testament myth of the Tower of Babel which expressed an unchanging, human, yet peculiarly Western disposition might in these troubled times shed an interesting if neglected light upon the all-too-human yearning for integration and unanimity. [10]

In its Old Testament version, after the flood, God, man and nature were reconciled, in a covenant made between God and Abraham. Abraham’s grand-nephew Nimrod, however, found the terms unacceptable and launched his followers on a project to conquer heaven, building a tower to reach it. Rather than let loose another flood, Abraham persuaded God to solve the threat by “confounding the tongues” of Nimrod and his fellows. Thus not by a flood, but in a deluge of meaningless words, was the empire of Nimrod destroyed. Babel, which originally meant the city of liberation, acquired its mythic significance as the city of confusion.

Two major thinkers and writers of the twentieth century—the Austro-Hungarian liberal novelist Stefan Zweig and the English conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott—both adapted the Babel legend to the historical evolution of the modern European political project. They address the myth in very different, but from the perspective of ever-closer union and the potential for catastrophic fragmentation, equally prescient ways.

Zweig wrote that the symbols found in origin myths harbour a “wonderful poetic force”, suggesting “great moments of a later history in which peoples renew themselves” and the most significant epochs have their roots.[11] For Zweig the Babel myth intimates a desire for unity—humans find themselves in a foreign place with no means of escape, a place that seems uncertain and filled with danger, but high above them they see the sky and pool their resources in an attempt to reach it. This “communal work brings them together”.[12]

Their endeavours are remarkably successful, but a cruel and fearful God, concerned by this human drive for a unity only the Godhead achieves, sows dissension through the Babel of different languages, ensuring they do not understand each other. God’s “dark resolution” smote “the spirit of unity and dedication”.[13] The project collapsed, “centuries … passed and men lived in the isolation of their languages”, but the dream did not die. After millennia the abandoned project of community and the longing to come together again reasserts itself. [14]

As a result, the Tower of Babel once more “began to rise gradually from the soil of Europe, the monument … to mankind’s solidarity. But it was no longer raw materials that went into this tower’s construction … The new tower was built with a more delicate and yet more indestructible substance which they discovered on earth” in the long era of division and separation, “that of spirituality and experience, the most sublime material of the soul”.[15]

However, a cruel God, horrified at their endeavour, caused confusion to break out amongst them. “This is the monstrous moment we are living through today,” Zweig wrote in 1916.[16] He returned to the theme again in 1930 and 1932, observing, “The new Tower of Babel, the great monument to the spiritual unity of Europe, lies in decay, its workers have lost their way.” Zweig would no doubt see contemporary Europe’s predicament as the response of a vengeful God who has sown dissension amongst Europeans who, indifferent to the union’s collapse, “believe their contribution can be withdrawn from the magnificent construction”.

Nevertheless, Zweig would maintain that Babel’s “battlements stand, still its invisible blocks loom over a world in disarray”.[17] Moreover, some exist who believe that never can a single people, a single nation achieve what a collective of European nations could, which “must be brought to completion in our Europe”.[18]

Zweig’s optimistic paean to the “heroic” European “endeavour” to overcome national attachments contrasts with Oakeshott’s pessimism towards what he understood as an exercise in rationalism. Oakeshott tells the tale somewhat differently. The modern-day Nimrod inspires his Babelian subjects with a vision of “forcing open the gates of heaven”, dislodging the “miserly deity from his estate and appropriating for the enjoyment of all Babelians the limitless profusion of paradise”.[19] Ultimately, the motivation for such an endeavour stemmed from greed and a “profound feeling of being alike deprived: allowed to have wishes but denied their immediate satisfaction”.[20]As a consequence of the joint endeavour the city of freedom acquired over time “a new communal identity in place of their former distinct individualities”.[21] All conduct was recognised only in relation to the enterprise. Proverbial gaiety gave way to a spurious gravity.

Moreover, as the endeavour proceeded with no apparent end in sight, supported only by a precarious vision of limitless satisfaction, and marked by no interim satisfactions to break the monotony, it took its toll in emotional stress. Suspicion and distrust concerning Nimrod and his managerial elite’s intentions led to the alienated masses launching a catastrophic assault on the tower, precipitating its collapse. “What had been designed as a stairway to paradise” became “the tomb of an entire people, not perished in a confusion of tongues, but the victims of a delusion and confounded by the distrust which dogs those who engage in titanic exploits”. Ultimately, as Oakeshott noted, “those who in Elysian fields would dwell, do but extend the boundaries of hell”.[22]

The conscious endeavour to instrumentalise a morality of ideals, in this case a European ideal, is ultimately hubristic. The attempt to build a European Union represents the antithesis of a creative moral or, we also might add, a political project.

Properly understood, as Oakeshott wrote:

the situations of a normal life are met, not by consciously applying to ourselves a rule of behaviour, nor by conduct recognised as the expression of a moral ideal, but by acting in accordance with a certain habit of behaviour. The moral life, or for that matter a political condition, in this form does not spring from the consciousness of possible alternative ways of behaving and a choice, determined by an opinion, a rule or an ideal, from among these alternatives. [23]

Conduct, instead, is as nearly as possible without reflection. And consequently, most of the current situations of life do not appear as occasions calling for judgment, or as problems requiring solution. There is, on the occasion, nothing more than the unreflective following of a tradition of conduct in which we have been educated or more precisely habituated.

This is evidently not our current condition. Indeed, this form of moral or political behaviour constituted in terms of the pursuit of a moral ideal or an abstract set of moral rules might, for an individual, be “a gamble which may have its rewards”. However, as Oakeshott concluded, “when undertaken in a society not itself engaged in the gamble, it is mere folly”.[24]


The project of finding a short cut to heaven is as old as the human race, and conduct that orients itself by ideology or rules is precisely an attempt at this kind of short cut. As with the attempt to build a tower to heaven, people mistakenly believe that they may avoid the difficulties of life by engaging in a project in which the ends have been determined for them.

In our current European predicament, these rules are set by a Commission pursuing ever-closer union. It explicitly pursues a future state of perfection, all the while neglecting the joys and sorrows of our present temporality. It substitutes the illusions of affairs for self-understanding. The truth is that a morality and a political project in this form, whatever the quality of its ideals, breeds nothing but distraction and moral and ultimately political instability.[25]

Chagrin ultimately awaits all those who embark upon such an endeavour.

David Martin Jones is a visiting professor in the War Studies Department, King’s College London, visiting professor in the Institute of Humanities Research, University of Buckingham and Honorary Professor at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia. He is the author of History’s Fools: The Pursuit of Idealism and the Revenge of History (OUP 2020)

[1] Charles Mackay Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (London: National Illustrated Library, 1852), preface Vol. 1.

[2] Niall Ferguson, ‘Sorry, I was wrong to fight Brexit’, The Times 18 December, 2017

[3] Oswald Spengler Der Untergang des Abendlandes vol1 1918, vol 2 1922. Translated into English as The Decline of the West London, 1926.

[4] In R.L. Moore The War on Heresy Faith and Power in Medieval Europe (London: Profile Books, 2014) p.1.

[5] Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms The History of half-forgotten Europe (London: Allen and Lane,2012) p.687.

[6] Ibid pp.731-2. Recent political science examples of the genre include Anne Applebaum, The Twilight of Democracy (2020); Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, and David Runciman How Democracy Ends (2018).

[7] Aristotle, The Politics (London: Allen and Lane, 1979) see particularly Book 5, p.189; Plato ‘The Republic’ in The Portable Plato (London: Penguin, 1979) especially Book 8.

[8] Ibn Khaldun The Muqaddimah An Introduction to History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015) pp.244-61.

[9] Norman Davies, Vanished Kingdoms p.258

[10] Michael Oakeshott, The Tower of Babel’, in On History and Other Essays (Oxford:Blackwell, 1985) p.165

[11] Stefan Zweig, Messages from a lost world. Europe on the brink (London: Pushkin Press, 2016) p. 53.

[12] Ibid p.53

[13] Ibid p.54

[14] Ibid p.54

[15] Ibid p.56

[16] Ibid p.58. See John Gray ‘Foreword’ .pp27-28.

[17] Ibid p.58

[18] Ibid p.58

[19] Oakeshott pp.179-180

[20] Ibid.p.181

[21] Ibid p.182

[22] Ibid p.194

[23] M. Oakeshott, ‘The Tower of Babel’, (1948) in Rationalism in Politics and other essays (London:Methuen, 1962) p.61

[24] Ibid p.60.

[25] Ibid p.74.

5 thoughts on “The European Union as the New Tower of Babel

  • Andrew Campbell says:

    An interesting analysis of the significance of the Babel story. However, in the Old Testament, the Babel story, in Genesis 11, has a minimal connection with Nimrod (before Babel; Genesis 10) and no connection with Abraham (after Babel; Genesis 12). However, this doesn’t negate the general thrust of the article.

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    November 4, 2022
    I stopped reading this piece soon after the place in which part of the Word of God is referred to as, “The Old Testament myth of the Tower of Babel.” This is not a myth; it is history.
    As Andrew Campbell pointed out, Abraham had nothing to do with this event. God’s covenant after the flood was made with Noah and his family–his wife, their three sons, and their wives. It could hardly have been made with Abraham–Noah’s great, great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, since he was not born until 2,263 years AFTER the flood! It is obvious that he also lived well after the time of the Tower of Babel, since by his day there were established nations.
    Nimrod, far from being Abraham’s “grand-nephew,” was from many generations before him. Abraham was ten generations removed from Noah, in the family of Noah’s son Shem; Nimrod was Noah’s great-grandson, in the family of Noah’s son Ham. I do not know exactly what relation that makes Nimrod and Abraham to each other, but it is scarcely what the author has claimed!
    The Lord needed no one, Abraham or anyone else, to tell Him how to deal with rebellious man; He made that decision, Himself. (The wording “Let us” is one of the Old Testament evidences for the truth of the Trinity–God is one, and yet three).
    David Martin Jones closes his piece with an impressive array of footnotes, but I see that he gives none for his torturing of the biblical account that he chooses to call a myth. Had he actually consulted Genesis 10 and 11, perhaps he would not have made these egregious errors.

  • Michael Waugh says:

    Thanks Rebekah and Andrew.

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