We’re still trying to make Europe add up

Gerard Howlin on a book that looks at the synergy of history, politics and the ideas that has brought the European Union to life and sustained it through succeeding crises.

The Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union

Luuk van Middelaar, translated by Liz Waters

Yale University Press, £25

LUUK VAN MIDDELAAR is a political philosopher-turned policy adviser and speech writer to the president of the European Council Herman Van Rumpoy.

He wrote his book from several perspectives. One is the history of ideas and another is his ringside seat as a highly placed EU apparatchik.

He has a command of European political ideas and their long genesis. He is at home too in the undergrowth of the overlapping spheres of influence of the European Council, Commission and Parliament. Perhaps his view is coloured by his experience in the sphere of the Council. There is at times a sense of this book being a Council-centric text. Alternatively it may be that our still institutionally emerging European Union is one where the Council is the truly dominant and permanent centre of gravity. It is the practical significance as well as ideological antecedents of these apparently dense bureaucratic issues that van Middelaar cogently teases out.

The result is a major academic analysis of the European Union, its origin and germination. Van Middelaar has a firm grasp on the philosophical antecedents of modern sovereignty from Hobbes and Locke in the 17th century and the practical political sense to know that just because it doesn’t work in theory doesn’t mean it won’t work in practice.

European union as distinct from the European Union has a centuries old gestation as a religious and political theory. The Roman Empire, the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire all gave substantive if ultimately unsatisfactory expression as a model of Europa, which if never fully realised, never went away. Indeed her reappearance in art often bearing a cornucopia of plenty is testament to an indefinable sense of, if not unity, at least shared identity across this continent, to an extent unknown in any other except Australia which, of course, is a single country.

The origins of what is now the European Union in the Coal and Steel Community is well known. Less well known perhaps, which van Middelaar highlights, is that as Napoleon’s empire collapsed the French philosopher Saint Simon produced a plan for a European parliamentary system and Victor Hugo coined the term ‘United States of Europe’ in 1849. In the landscape the author paints, Robert Schuman, Paul-Henri Spaak and Jean Monet and others who founded what we now call the EU did so not only from the rubble of a war-torn continent but out of a dense philosophical and historical hinterland stretching back centuries.

Their luck was in finding in the appalling circumstances of their time an idea whose time had come. Their genius is that unlike at Versailles in 1919, Vienna in 1815 or Westphalia in 1648 when the continent has been reshaped into concerts of power, the nascent union would be based not only on common interests but crucially on common institutions as well. The origins of these institutions of Commission, Council and Parliament are well explained by the author.

The so called ‘Luxemburg compromise’ in 1966 which ended the empty chair crisis caused by France ostensibly secured the intergovernmental nature of the union. In fact it was an agreement not to disagree on issues of vital interest. Unanimity as the basis of decision-making continued until the 1980s when the Single European Act made important progress in the direction of majority voting. Van Middelaar’s strength as a writer is that he both untangles the incredible density of these issues and places myriad events in a broader philosophical and historical context.

From an Irish perspective many of the key decisions and compromises that govern the EU were part of its recent history before we joined the then EEC in 1972. Apart from the cooperating and competing spheres of Council, Commission and Parliament is the very important European Court of Justice in Luxemburg.

It is part of the genius of the EU, and as van Middelaar points out of the early audacity of the Court, that the states effectively agreed in retrospect that they had in fact agreed in the foundational treaties, to subject not just interstate disputes but disputes between member states and their own citizens to the court. It was this retrospective empowering of the ‘spirit’ of the treaty as interpreted by the Court that created a decisive sphere of influence beyond governments, but within reach of citizens, that as much as anything gave the EU legitimacy among citizens as well as among states.

Van Middelaar’s telling of the Van Gend & Loos case in 1963 is a striking insight into how the EU’s institutions and their cohesion have been creatures of creative ambiguity as much as laboriously negotiated detail. The key point is that the European Court accepted jurisdiction in a case between a member state and one of its citizens. The states in turn accepted the jurisdiction of the court and a new judicial order came into being. That intra-national order was a reprise of something unseen in Europe since the Reformation ended the largely lame judicial pretensions of the papacy. It has since resulted in a slew of critically important cases, including the Norris case in Ireland.

In a sense it is the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which decisively overturns the plenitude of sovereignty established since by the Act of Supremacy in 1534 that so excites British and especially Tory Europhobia.

At 9.30pm local time on Nov 9, 1989, thousands of East Berliners began crossing the border with the West. In Van Middelaar’s telling this was a moment when history accelerated. The union of 12 was the mechanism by which via uncertainty and division yes, but ultimately success the European continent was more completely and profoundly reshaped than at any time since the fall of the Roman Empire. That this was done through negotiation, and largely but not exclusively existing institutions, is an astonishing feat that the complicated muddle of European politics is never properly credited with. The disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the horrors that attended it are both a black memory and a reminder of why in the late 1940s this extraordinary hybrid was called into being and is so necessary compared to any imaginable alternative.

In the moment of German unification also came effectively as a quid pro quo the beginnings of monetary union. First Maastricht, then Nice and then Lisbon gave their names to treaties by which, punctuated by crises, the institutional framework evolved to accommodate a Union of 27 states.

Reading this book is to enjoy a synergy both of this history, the politics and the history of ideas that have brought a hugely improbable project to life and sustained it through succeeding crises. This is an academic study that is clearly written and accessible. If it has a fault it is a relative lack of perspective on the role and more importantly the potential of the Parliament and to a lesser extent the Commission.

At a moment when we are living through another national debate about abortion in part created by a recent decision of the European Court of Justice, when workers at Waterford Glass have new hope for and the Irish State a likely liability for their insolvent pension fund arising from decision of the same court, we have a sense of how profoundly enmeshed we are in the European project.

Embedded in the domestic debate as we are, we might believe that we are a great power. In fact Ireland is hardly mentioned in this book. What is clear from Van Modular’s book is that Europe remains a great power game. The great achievement of the European Union in his telling is that in creating a union of mutual interest, there is a shared imperative interest in a process that ultimately serves the greatest good of the greatest number.


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