The EU as conspiracy
Focusing on that triumph of opacity and elitist disdain for the people - the EU - Adam LeBor’s enjoyable conspiracy-theory thriller draws a little too closely on reality.
For a set of institutions notorious for their lack of transparency, the European Union makes curiously bland territory for the conspiracy theorist.
How can one imply sinister goings-on in a place which is so openly conspiratorial? As the French, Dutch and, most recently, the Irish have found out, the EU will shamelessly conspire against the democratic will of three nations. Add to that the fact that it’s more than happy to hold most of its meetings behind closed doors, and that one of its most recent top-official appointments was some unknown New Labour candidate called Lady Ashton of Upholland, and the EU seems almost too ripe with real elements of conspiracy.
For a good conspiracy theory to work it has to surprise: tell you something unexpected, or explain something previously mysterious. As Bruno Waterfield recently argued on spiked, however, there is nothing especially mysterious or hidden about the Brussels conspiracy against the people: it is simply the logical culmination of Western elites’ disdain for democracy and meaningful political contestation (1).
It is with this in mind that I approached Adam LeBor’s thriller The Budapest Protocol with some interest. It is a first-class piece of hokum, in which the EU is revealed as a conspiracy by Nazi industrialists to build a new Fourth Reich. Like all good thrillers it manages to tick all the boxes of its genre: the drifting hero who by uncovering the secret gives his own life meaning and focus, the beautiful girl with the tragic past, a disabled super-villain, and so on. While it might not be a literary classic, it is an entertaining ride.
Half the fun of a tall tale like this is seeing how it’s pulled off. The classic device of the Big Lie is first to prepare the reader with a smaller one. Early on in alternative history classics such as Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (the Nazis won the war) or Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration (the Reformation never happened), the reader is treated to various rejigged versions of our recognised reality. In the latter, for instance, we are told on the first page that Coverley, rather than Canterbury, is Britain’s ecclesiastical capital, and that Himmler is a renowned high churchman. If we’re prepared to accept those fantasies, then we give our consent to be told a whopper.
By the second chapter of The Budapest Protocol LeBor has informed us that the new post of European president ‘would be an unprecedented hybrid of executive, legislative and ceremonial powers’ with an ‘almost unimaginable’ influence and power to ‘veto new laws’. Furthermore, this president is to be directly elected by universal franchise in every member state. In European terms, this is the equivalent of the clock striking thirteen. If you can suspend your disbelief here then it really is only a very short leap to believing that the Manchurian candidate is really a Nazi, a lizard, Valery Giscard d’Estaing or a Blairite combination of all three.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with a good conspiracy theory in fiction, and The Budapest Protocol is a good attempt to create an entertainment out of the drab, bureaucratic behemoth of the EU. But LeBor, a Hungarian-based journalist, is clearly not satisfied with spinning us a good yarn. The novel includes appendices in which LeBor explains that the inspiration for The Budapest Protocol was a real US intelligence document detailing an alleged meeting of Nazi industrialists and financiers where they outlined their plans for a socio-economic takeover of Europe, which is interesting in a ‘what if’ sense. At an earlier point in the novel’s text, one of the Nazis quotes approvingly from d’Estaing’s vision of a Europe freed from the nation state, comparing it to Goebbels and Hitler. To emphasise this point, LeBor also gives us a serious report on the persecution and state-supported sterilisation of Roma gypsies in Eastern Europe, and the rise of the Hungarian far-right party Jobbik, which has a paramilitary wing dedicated to policing the Roma.
Unfortunately, the intermingling of the conspiratorial and the factual is a bit awkward. It is okay to realise a conspiracy theory involving Nazis in a work of fiction, where the reader should be entrusted with using their judgement, but these accompanying essays (and the way in which the themes are threaded into the book) go beyond playing a game with the reader: it makes The Budapest Protocol seem like an exercise in ‘raising awareness’.
LeBor, writing in Comment is Free after last week’s coronation, raised the question of new European Council president Herman van Rompuy’s recent meeting with everyone’s favourite secret cabal, the Bilderberg Group (2). The fun of imagining the Bilderbergers, of turning them into conspiracy-heavy fiction, is that we have no idea what they may be planning. But we don’t need to take it too seriously either. In EU enclaves, with the federalist dream all but over, the more depressing reality is that they don’t know what they’re planning.
The rise of far-right parties such as Hungary’s Jobbik might well be concerning. But more often, the relative success of these parties in European elections, like the BNP’s new far-right parliamentary grouping, the European Alliance of National Movements, is exploited by Europe’s elites both to morally posture and to dismiss any electoral dissent as potentially fascist. The publication last year of the EU Phrasebook memorably detailed how quickly the spectre of Auschwitz and Bosnian atrocities were raised after various ‘No’ votes, and how ‘No’ voters were dismissed as dangerous, populist racists. LeBor, too, invokes that shorthand image of liberal piety in the modern age: a war journalist motivated by his harrowing experiences in Bosnia. In parodying the EU as the new Reich, just as in the Eurosceptic fondness for depicting it as a Communist superstate, there is a danger of reinforcing the same contemptuous attitudes to the public which gives the EU its unique character today. The people of Europe want democracy? But look what they do with it!
Ultimately, The Budapest Protocol is a highly readable thriller, which is under no obligation to stay with us once the cover has closed. The real European conspiracy lies in the text of the Lisbon Treaty, mangled beyond comprehension to avoid putting it to democratic vote. Unfortunately we already know the plot; the question is how it will end.
David Bowden is a writer based in London and a co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum.
The Budapest Protocol, by Adam LeBor, is published by Reportage Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) Now all of Europe is governed by a Kremlin, by Bruno Waterfield, 24 November 2009
(2) The EU’s opaque transparency, Comment is free, 20 November 2009
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