On June 23, British voters struck what may be a deathblow to an age-old dream: a united Europe.
In about three decades, from 1914 to 1945, two world wars devastated Europe, from Britain in the west to the Ural mountains in the east, and from the Arctic Circle in Norway to the toe of the Italian boot. These wars laid waste to homes, farms, cities, and factories, virtually eliminating two generations of men and countless women and children. They destroyed priceless cathedrals, architectural wonders, and hundreds of irreplaceable works of art.
Desperate that this should never happen again, European leaders began planning what later became known as the European Union (EU). The idea was to unite under a common currency, common foreign policy, and common government, in the hopes that this political and economic union would prevent further conflict.
And for a time it seemed to be working. Indeed, there were many who refused to believe it could fail. But then came Brexit—Britain’s vote to exit the European Union (hence, “Brexit”). As late as the afternoon of the vote, many believed that Britain would remain part of the EU. The result of the Brexit vote this past June shocked most of the world. It occurred on a Thursday, and by Friday the financial markets around the world were registering the emotional trauma.
CNN Money reported that “the Dow slumped 261 points to the lowest level in over three months. That’s on top of Friday’s plunge that wiped out 610 points from the index. The combined loss of nearly 900 points makes the post-Brexit turmoil the worst two-day period for U.S. stocks since the August 2015 freakout [abnormal drop in the markets]. European stock markets came under heavier pressure, and the pound dropped to a fresh low on the Monday following the U.K.’s historic vote to leave the European Union. The pound sank 3.5% against the dollar to trade below $1.32, a fresh low and its weakest level in more than three decades.”
Financial markets dislike uncertainty, and the Brexit vote brought with it waves of uncertainty. Many other member states of the EU have experienced discontent with its increasing federalization, and now there are fears that Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia, as well as the Scandinavian countries, and even France, might vote to leave.
This political unrest within the EU follows several years of economic and financial conflict within the organization. Greece continues to be restive under the economic austerity imposed on it from Brussels, the headquarters of the EU. Italy, Portugal, Spain, and several other countries suffer under large loads of debt that are mainly owed to other EU nations.
Threatened with both economic and political instability, the European Parliament faces two contradictory impulses from within. Some, concerned that Brexit may serve as an excuse for other states to leave, counsel caution. Others press for even more political and economic integration. Many are reluctant to surrender the dream of a united Europe.
The demise of European unity
The last time anything approaching unity existed in Europe was during the period of the Roman Empire. When Rome fell, no great single imperial power replaced it. Instead, like a pack of dogs tearing at a carcass, the empire was torn to fragments by Germanic and other barbarian tribes who then turned against each other. Nevertheless, the memory of a united European empire lingered on, and the dream of bringing about this unity continued to fire men’s imaginations.
Perhaps the first person to seriously attempt it was Charlemagne, king of the Franks (now France), scarcely three centuries after Rome’s fall. He brought much of what today is central Europe under his rule and led an expedition into Muslim-dominated Spain. Pope Leo III crowned him “emperor of the Romans,” but everyone realized that, great as he was, Charlemagne fell well short of reestablishing an empire.
Seven hundred years passed before Charles V, duke of Burgundy and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, tried again. The defeat of the Muslims at the Alhambra in 1492 brought Spain back under European control, but wars with France, three major rebellions in Europe, and continued fighting with the Ottoman Turks in Austria and eastward, denied Charles the realization of his dream. Exhausted by the demands of rulership, he abdicated all his titles between 1554 and 1556, and he died in a monastery two years later.
Louis XIV of France, the great “Sun King,” also caught the dream, but even after 72 years as king, and having greatly concentrated power in himself, he fell short of unifying the continent.
Following the French Revolution, Napoléon Bonaparte came to power in France. A brilliant tactician, he led armies all across the continent. For a time, it appeared that he might finally realize the age-old dream of a united Europe. But it was not to be. Twice defeated and twice exiled, he died on a lonely island, another ambitious man having failed to reunite Europe.
When military conquest failed, the royal families of virtually all the states of Europe conspired to unite the continent through marriage. When World War I broke out, nearly all the European nations involved were ruled by descendants of Queen Victoria of England: King George V of England, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia were all cousins; George was first cousin to both Wilhelm and Nicholas; and Wilhelm and Nicholas were also third cousins.
Wilhelm again dreamed of uniting Europe under his rule, but ironically, his ambitions were thwarted by his cousins—thus strategies of military conquest and family consolidation, foiled each other.
And then there was Adolf Hitler. His dream of a “Thousand Year Reich” surely attempted to emulate the power and reach of ancient Rome. But he ended own life in a devastated Berlin, which he had hoped would be the capital of his united Europe.
For well over 1,000 years, every time the dream of a united Europe has appeared near to its fruition, something has always happened to derail it. How can it be that something that so many have desired always ends in futility and frustration? The answer may well be in another dream, a dream that came to an ancient king.
The dream came one night to Nebuchadnezzar, the emperor of Babylon, but interestingly, by morning he had forgotten it! However, even though he couldn’t remember the details, he did remember the sense of urgency and personal destiny he had felt. (You can read about Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in the second chapter of Daniel.)
This dream troubled the Babylonian king so much that he summoned his “magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and astrologers” (Daniel 2:2) to tell him the meaning of the dream. But since he could not tell them what he had dreamed, they were unable to help him.
“There is not a man on the earth who can do what the king asks!” they said. “No king, however great and mighty, has ever asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or astrologer. What the king asks is too difficult. No one can reveal it to the king except the gods, and they do not live among men” (verse 10). Furious, the king decreed that all of his wise men should be executed. Troubling dream indeed!
One of his wise men, a captive from Jerusalem named Daniel, heard of this death sentence. Reasoning that God would know what the king had dreamed, Daniel prayed that God would reveal the dream and its interpretation. God did—and what a dream it was!
Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a towering metallic statue. The head of this great image was made of gold, its shoulders and chest of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, and its legs of iron. The feet and toes were composed of iron and clay—an odd mixture, because these two substances don’t adhere to each other. Finally, in his dream Nebuchadnezzar saw a rock strike the image on its feet. The rock destroyed the image, then grew until it filled the entire earth.
What the king’s dream meant
Daniel described the statue to Nebuchadnezzar and supplied its meaning. He declared that the God of heaven had sent the dream to show the king the future.
“You,” Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar, “are that head of gold” (verse 38). In other words, the Babylonian Empire that Nebuchadnezzar embodied was the top of the statue—and the most glorious, since gold is one of the most valuable of all metals. However, Babylon eventually came to its demise. Another great power ruled the Middle Eastern world, but it would be less glorious, just as silver is less valuable than gold. A third great empire followed, again declining in glory, as represented by the belly and thighs of bronze. After that a fourth kingdom of iron would rule the entire Mediterranean world. When the fourth empire ended, its territory would be divided into numerous smaller states, but they would not be able to rule together, just as iron and clay cannot stick together. And in the time of this fragmented Europe a new power, unrelated to any of the previous empires represented in the metallic statue, would sweep away the entire structure, and it would grow until it ruled the entire earth.
If Babylon was the head of gold, who were the others? The silver represents Media-Persia, the power that conquered Babylon. Alexander the Great conquered the Persian empire, so the bronze represents Greece. Rome conquered the remnants of Alexander’s empire, and the iron of the legs aptly represents the absolute power and tyranny of Rome. As Tacitus, one of Rome’s greatest orators, described Roman rule, “They make a desert, and call it peace.”
But even the iron Roman Empire fell—not to another great empire but to a collection of primitive barbarian tribes. And, as we have already seen, the unstable mixture of iron and clay aptly describes Europe since that time. Great generals, ruthless despots, clever strategists—all have tried and failed to unite Europe, because when dreams collide, the one given by God as prophecy will always prevail.
Where we are today
Like the iron and the clay, no great imperial power will be able to forge a lasting rule over the lands of ancient empires. The European Union, whatever its lofty goals may be, was doomed from the beginning, because the dream of a united Europe contradicts the dream God gave Nebuchadnezzar. And it appears that Brexit was the beginning of the EU’s demise
We today live on the toes of the great image that Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream. We await the final act of that dream, the stone cut out without hands, which will topple the entire image, obliterating all traces of the ancient empires and their residue in the feet and toes.
Daniel explained what would happen next: “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (verse 44).
The stone cut out without hands represents Christ Himself, who will destroy all of earth’s kingdoms and set up His own new heaven and earth because the former things will have passed away. And we can depend upon this, for, as we have seen, Nebuchadnezzar’s dream has been confirmed again and again during the last 2,000-plus years. Daniel knew this would happen, for he told Nebuchadnezzar, “The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and the interpretation trustworthy” (verse 45).