Book Review: The Passage to Europe

Luuk van Middelaar’s eloquent study of the EU is a gripping narrative of personalities and events that reads like a Bildungsroman

TVR Books | Allan Janik | December 2013 / January 2014

Luuk van Middelaar has produced a superb, eloquent study of the European Union that is essential reading for anyone endeavouring to fathom how the EU’s labyrinthine structures and convoluted politics have, despite all appearances, permitted it to develop into a positive force. 

As an adviser and speechwriter to European Council President Herman van Rompuy as well as a political philosopher, van Middelaar is eminently qualified to shed light upon its Byzantine dynamics.

With empirical precision and conceptual sophistication, he subtly entwines the interplay between personalities, institutions and imponderable "events".

The result is a gripping historical narrative interlacing politics and law woven into a Bildungsroman.

The genesis perspective permits van Middelaar clearly to explain step-by-step how the Commission, the Council and the Parliament grew out of the Coal and Steel Community’s High Authority, Council of Ministers and Common Assembly, meticulously noting how changes in nomenclature reflected shifts, sometime subtle but very real, in the EU’s distribution of authority and responsibility.

Today’s result is a dynamic tension between the Union’s formally constituted, legally institutionalised "inner sphere", an "outer sphere" of existing European national states and a more nebulous "intermediate sphere" of member nations vying for influence in coping with the particularly fickle finger of European fate.


The politics of language

Sensitivity to language and rhetoric is an essential aspect of the EU’s political life. The unreflective use of seemingly innocent expressions such as "community," "democracy deficit," "integration" etc. implicitly distorts the sociology and correspondingly dubious political options.

Van Middelaar knows this all too well: Controlling the narrative of "events" is itself a highly political activity, one that spills over from the political arena into academic discourse, which in turn mirrors basic political differences about the nature of the Union. Briefly, European politics at every level has an irreducibly conceptual character, whereas even academic descriptions of what transpires on the European political stage are anything but politically neutral.

This is what makes philosophy profoundly relevant to any discussion of European politics – all the more from a political insider. Without a penetrating analysis of a series of basic philosophical questions about, say, the nature of conflict or identity, or even "What is politics?", Van Middelaar insists we cannot really illuminate what is troubling about Europe today.


Principles turned into practice

That is the message of the first two parts of the book. In the first section, "The Secret of the Table: The Transition to Majority", he explains how Europe has managed to "square the circle" (beginning with coping successfully with Charles de Gaulle’s "empty chair" tactics in 1965) by transforming the legal principle of unanimity into sophisticated and subtly majoritarian practice.

In the second section, "Vicissitudes of Fortune: In the River of Time", he deals with the frustrations of striving for an elusive "ever closer union" on the basis of treaties, failing with its attempt at a constitution, while continually gaining ground in unspectacular but very real ways.

Legal milestones such as the Van Gend & Loos Case that established the primacy of European law over national laws are underscored with laudable clarity.

The third section, "The Quest for a Public: Winning Applause" surveys the three largely unsuccessful strategies for creating a European public sphere of common cultural heritage, common benefits (transport, education etc.) and common political action.

Since both the first and the second have largely failed to stimulate a common political identity, the answer must then be common political action.

But here the Union has been an abysmal failure as for example, declining voter participation in European elections indicates – which would be enough for most commentators to throw in the towel. But that is just what van Middelaar does not do.

His stance is entirely consistent, namely, that the Union has often appeared stymied in the past yet has repeatedly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with patience and persistence; it can here as well. The result is stunningly persuasive, yet problematic.

There are few indications that "business as usual" can create a European public sphere and many speak directly against it.

Research on the growing cleft between the parliamentary and the representative functions in the traditional European parties, for example, the former at the cost of the latter, is a solid indicator that van Middelaar’s "intermediate sphere" is not up to the task that he claims for it.

The demand for European politics to jump over its own shadow rests with the least discussed, because least developed, Union organ, parliament.

It is an open question if that sleeping giant can create the missing link to the people it is supposed to represent.

That in turn would mean creating an open public forum for critical discourse with an impact upon European policy; i.e., something that many European leaders today positively fear.

But that would be the subject for another book. Meanwhile, everyone interested in Europe owes Luuk van Middelaar thanks for a lucid and penetrating study that enriches our understanding and provokes intelligent response. If you read just one book on the EU this should be it.


The Passage to Europe: 

How a Continent Became a Union 

by Luuk van Middelaar 

Trans. by Liz Waters 

Yale University Press 

New Haven and London: 2013 

pp. 372


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