John Lichfield: European unity is an ideal that is being crushed by crude nationalism

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RIP, the European Dream. Born in Rome March 1957; died at the unlovely Franco-Italian border railway station of Ventimiglia, April 2011. OK, d'accord, ist ja gut, bene, the demise of the European adventure has been forecast many times before.

The European Union as an institution will, doubtless, stumble and rumble on for a little while yet.

But the Great European Idea – the proposition that 400,000,000 Europeans will be safer, happier and more prosperous if they work together rather than against each other – has never faced so many overlapping threats to its survival.

And the greatest of these threats may be indifference. To be passionate about "Europe" these days, you have to detest the whole idea. The voice of pragmatic, moderate support for the European project is scarcely heard. Even the countries that invented the idea of "ever closer union" between the peoples of Europe are now sticking it to each other gleefully like kids in a playground.

France halted all rail travel between Ventimiglia and Menton on the Côte d'Azur for six hours on Sunday to prevent a "dignity train" of Italian left-wing activists and a few score Tunisians from entering France. Paris is also imposing systematic checks on all Tunisians crossing the French land border with Italy. More than 1,700 have already been sent back.

This shatters the spirit, but not, apparently, the confused and arcane letter of the Schengen agreement which removed all document checks at continental EU borders in 1995. The passport-free "Schengen area", one of the greatest achievements of the EU, has since extended to 25 countries (but not Britain or Ireland).

More than 25,000, mostly Tunisian, refugees have fled the turmoil in North Africa. The Italian, Cypriot and Maltese governments complain that they have been unfairly abandoned by their EU partners to deal with this influx alone. They have a point. Is this what European solidarity is supposed to be about?

In retaliation, Italy has written thousands of temporary travel papers for the refugees, which, it says, give them the right to travel anywhere within the Schengen area. France, Belgium and Germany complain that this amounts to a crude invitation to the refugees to push off to France, Belgium and Germany and vanish, illegally, into the local Tunisian communities. They also have a point.

President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, opportunistic showmen both, will doubtless find a form of words to "solve" the crisis when they meet in Rome on Tuesday. In the meantime, the Italian interior minister, Roberto Maroni, is even suggesting that Italy should consider leaving the EU.

Mr Maroni is a member of the populist, xenophobic Northern League, with which Mr Berlusconi is allied. The Northern League's brand of middle-class intolerance can now be found, in various guises, all over Europe. (Its nearest British equivalent is Ukip.)

Marine Le Pen leads some presidential polls in France with a programme that would, de facto, force her country to leave the EU. The Hungarian government has drawn up a crudely nationalist constitution, broadly incompatible with EU membership.

The harmless and traditionally consensual Finns this week became the latest nation to flirt with smartly packaged populism and gut euro-hostility. One-fifth of electors voted for a hard right, anti-EU party, the "Real Finns". Meanwhile, the euro, the most ambitious of all symbols of European unity, stumbles from crisis to crisis.

Assistance, with painful strings, has been given to debt-choked Greece, Ireland and Portugal. Such "handouts" have angered the middle-class populists of northern Europe, from the Daily Mail to the Real Finns.

In truth, the doleful route imposed by the EU, and the IMF, to "save the euro" and to "help" the debt-afflicted nations seems suspiciously influenced by a desire to save the bad loans of German, French and, yes, British banks. Solidarity? Yes, but calculating solidarity.

The crisis in euroland may or may not be more intractable than the "Schengen" crisis. Both are, symbolically and practically, very dangerous for the EU.

These are not the usual EU quarrels over arcane procedures or financing. The euro and Schengen are two of the most visible achievements of the EU. To unwind either or both would be an admission that the whole European project has failed.

All these crises are subtexts of a deeper, more existential crisis of faith in the European idea. That crisis has generated, or been compounded by, a crisis of European leadership.

No one – not Angela Merkel, not Nicolas Sarkozy, certainly not Silvio Berlusconi, not yet at any rate David Cameron, seems to want to do more than float on the tide of events.

The old federal European dream has been dead for years, whatever Ukip might say. The idea of a remote bureaucracy which imposes even a limited "Europe" from above is no longer acceptable. On the other hand, the old British idea of a looser, inter-governmental Europe – now the broad direction of travel – cannot replace all the EU treaties and institutions. Without a legal core, the project would fall apart.

The EU evidently needs to "renewed". It needs a new sense of purpose and more direct democracy to bring it closer to the people it serves. But any attempt to make the EU more democratic would rapidly collide with the bedrock contradictions and hypocrisies at the heart of all European arguments – pro and anti.

Direct democracy would confer a new level of legitimacy and power on the EU. National governments, and public opinion, have no appetite for such a step change. Without legitimacy, the EU will remain remote and disliked.

Muddle and ambivalence are the way of life in the EU because that is the way we choose to have it. Some form of renewal of European faith, and legitimacy, is vital all the same. Does it matter if the EU unravels? Yes it does.

It is sometimes argued that the surge of nationalism and populism in Europe is the fault of the EU. By trying to impose the abstract schemes of a remote elite, it is suggested, the EU has alienated ordinary Europeans. Far from bringing Europe's peoples closer together, the EU is pushing them apart.

This is a dishonest argument. It is truer to say that the EU is a victim of constant disinformation and its achievements are rarely recognised. How would the transition to democracy and open markets in Eastern Europe (flawed as it has been) have been managed without the EU to provide the framework? How low would low air fares be without the EU?

The rise of a new hard nationalism and populism in Europe has many causes: globalisation; middle-class economic insecurity; immigration; fear of Islam. The suggestion that the EU is somehow responsible for a revival of nationalism should be stood on its head. The EU is a child of postwar Europe.

It was created out of the immediate memory of two European wars, both driven by ancient national hatreds and ambitions.

The rise of a nasty, new, well-spoken, plausible, xenophobic nationalism is reason not to abandon the EU but to remember why it was created in the first place.

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