European Affairs

“The Passage to Europe, How a Continent Became a Union,” by Luuk van Middelaar. Yale University Press, 372 Pages.     Print

billRobert Hunter, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, is fond of saying, “No one ever made money betting against the European Union or the euro.” Luuk van Middelaar, the Dutch author of the important recently translated book, “The Passage To Europe,” would agree, and in fact, claims that traders who bet on the break-up of the euro in 2012 lost “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Van Middelaar, is a philosopher, who since 2010, has advised and written speeches for Herman van Rompuy, the first, permanent President of the European Council.   The book is a powerful rebuttal to Euro-skeptics, who have been in full throat during the slow motion “Euro-crisis” over the past several years. Unlike many treatments of the EU, this book has not a single graph, chart or timeline, and eschews acronyms and jargon.

It provides an excellent account of the integration of Europe since World War II, but does so in the context of stimulating and erudite philosophical/historical analysis. Van Middelaar quotes Machiavelli, Locke, Montesquieu and de Tocqueville along with such key statesmen in the development of an integrated Europe like Robert Schuman and Jacques Delors. Aspiring to the notion that “narrative is the highest form of analysis, ” van Middelaar’s book has won the Socrates Prize for the best Dutch philosophy book, as well as the European Book Prize last year. It has been superbly translated into English from the Dutch by Liz Waters.

The author puts European integration into “big picture” analysis, by asking questions like “how does a state originate?” And then he proceeds to answer with a combination of history/philosophy combined with an insider’s command of the tangled and sometimes confusing facts of EU development. He notes that increasingly the word “Europe” is used to describe a political entity as opposed to a geographical mass. Although the political integration story of this “club of volatile democracies” is hardly over, he says.   It will proceed not in leaps but in small, sometimes imperceptible, steps.

Central to the development of the EU has been the slow transition from unanimity, where each member state must approve each and every decision, to a majority or qualified majority system. Van Middelaar says that today’s “geopolitical jungle” of sovereign states might be compared to that hypothetical Hobbesian state of nature “in which individuals wandered the earth before nations came into being.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, he speculates, would say that as long as each of the European states has a veto, they do not comprise a single political body. “Discord and impotence lurk in wait.”

Today in Europe, says van Middelaar, the issue of unanimity versus majority is not black and white. The system of voting differs from topic to topic and “the union find itself between two extremes—half in a state of nature and half out.”

Van Middelaar makes a fascinating analysis of the transition in the United States from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution. For the transition from many to one, “even the Americans needed time,” he says.   Transition takes time, he continues, but the interim is not wasteful delay, but “essential to what will follow.”   Europe, he says, is in search of its own “Philadelphia moment,” in reference to the creation of the U.S. Constitution in 1789.

The book’s detailed analysis of the impact of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall is a highlight. “The geopolitical shock of 1989 gave new charge to the word ‘Europe,’” he writes. “The continent, so long divided between America and Russia, became aware once more of its unity.”

Appearing at a D.C. conference recently, van Middelaar spoke about the “euro crisis,” and said that the “existential threat” posed by possible departure of Greece from the euro, was over. Political leaders united to “avoid Grexit.” Had the issue been solely a question of finance, the decision might well have been different, said van Middelaar. The shadow of a referendum on the UK’s membership in the EU, however, does raise the possibility of an existential reprise.

The book’s treatment of the UK role in the EU is another highlight and provides excellent background to the current state of play. “The UK pretends that interdependence does not exist,” says van Middelaar at the conference. He adds, “The difficulties of exit should not be underestimated, not unlike a 40 year marriage.” Interdependence does exist between the UK and the rest of Europe as well as throughout the continent. Recognition of interdependence, which the book documents, is one of the key rebuttals van Middelaar makes to skeptics.

Instructive is van Middelaar’s discussion of the expansion of the European Union from the original six, to the nine, and on to the current 28 states. He states that an eventual Union of thirty five is “probable,” with forty “not unthinkable.”

Van Middelaar is brilliant when he tackles, at length, the question: “What is Europe, and who speaks for Europe?” He quotes Bismarck writing in 1876, “Whoever speaks for Europe is wrong.” This conundrum of who speaks for Europe and what is Europe, has dogged EU integration from the very beginning, and van Middelaar grapples with this question with verve and erudition.

While certainly a believer in the value and reality of an integrated Europe, Van Middelaar is not uncritical. The book emphasizes the importance of gaining public buy-in for the idea of an united Europe.   He recalls working in The Hague where “the prevailing tendency of Dutch parliamentarians was to see the European Union as an occupying power, strengthening my conviction that in any account of European politics, the battle for the public should be placed center stage.” At the recent conference van Middelaar added “Union must be more than a shriek from Brussels.”

In short, van Middelaar makes a strong case for the ongoing European integration process, and that crisis creates opportunity. What does not kill you makes you stronger. In van Middelaar’s words: “The power of the European telos [purpose] is such that it is revived by every crisis. In the face of confusion the hope of redemption gives way to an ever more fundamental desire: to face the future together.”