The Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union, by Luuk van Middelaar (Yale, 392 pp., $40)
On April 18, 1951, in the French foreign ministry’s Salon de l’Horloge, six men gathered to sign an accord unlike any other. The Treaty of Paris, which created the European Coal and Steel Community — the first direct ancestor of today’s European Union — did not just bind its members as states. Rather, it created a new legal order, superior to national jurisdictions.
The six signatories, scarred by the horrors through which their generation had passed, were looking forward to a time when it would be impossible to wage a European war because the materials needed to sustain one — coal and steel — would be under the control of a supranational bureaucracy.
When the time came for the formal signing, a problem arose. Last-minute negotiations and amendments meant that no official text had been prepared. The six ministers therefore signed an empty piece of paper, and left their officials to fill in the articles. As Luuk van Middelaar, the author of this history, neutrally puts it, “The spirit of the accord stood surety for the letter.”
To British (and, I hope, American) eyes, it is an almost perfect symbol for what has been wrong with the European project from the beginning. The politicians have left the bureaucrats with, figuratively if not always literally, a series of blank sheets. The bureaucrats have spent the past six decades filling in the blanks to suit themselves.
Van Middelaar, an academic philosopher and speechwriter for the EU’s president, Herman Van Rompuy, tells the story of those successive power grabs with surprising honesty. He records, with neither enthusiasm nor disapprobation, the way the EU institutions expanded their remit beyond any conceivable reading of the treaties. He coldly sets down the acts of judicial activism by which, in 1963 and 1964, the European Court of Justice proclaimed itself to have supremacy over the national constitutions of the member states, and declared its rulings to have direct effect on individuals and businesses rather than just governments. He recalls the way Eurocrats got around the rejection of their proposed constitution in national referendums by changing its name and imposing it anyway.
Again and again, we see the way Brussels functionaries elevated their project above the law. To give one minor but telling example: Euro-enthusiasts wanted the EU to acquire the trappings of nationhood — a national holiday, a national anthem, a flag, and so on. They knew that at least some of the member states would object to a Euro-flag, so they instead proposed that twelve gold stars on a blue background be adopted as an EU “logo.” Once the national leaders had agreed, they took to printing the “logo” on rectangular pieces of cloth attached to flagpoles.
A more consequential example: The euro-zone bailouts are unequivocally illegal under Article 125 of the treaty, which says that “the Union shall not be liable for, or assume the commitments of, central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law, or public undertakings of any Member State.” This clause was no mere technicality. It was on the basis of its promise that the Germans agreed to abandon the Deutsche Mark in the first place.
Yet, as soon as it became clear that the euro wouldn’t survive without cash transfusions, the treaty was set aside. Christine Lagarde, then France’s finance minister and now the director of the International Monetary Fund, boasted about what had happened: “We violated all the rules because we wanted to close ranks and really rescue the euro zone. The Treaty of Lisbon was very straightforward. No bailouts.”
That’s the EU for you. Rules are drawn up in the clearest language lawyers can devise; yet, the moment they became inconvenient, they are ignored. As a Portuguese colleague put it to me at the time, “the facts matter more than the legislation.”
Euroskeptics have long complained that the European project is controlled by a self-serving elite. What is unusual is to find a member of that elite — we may be certain that van Middelaar’s book will be favorably reviewed by the Euro-bigwigs and will pick up various prizes from Brussels-based foundations — telling the story so straightforwardly. Unlike most Euro-enthusiasts, he doesn’t try to pretend that there is public support for a United States of Europe, or that the voters are prey to some kind of false consciousness. He frankly uses such words as “coup” and “revolution” to describe the way Eurocrats have got to where they are today.
Here, in short, is a Machiavellian book. I am not using that word in its loose, derogatory sense. Van Middelaar is a fan of the Italian philosopher, and in particular of his view that statecraft resides in knowing how to take control of events. The EU got to where it is, he shows, by cleverly exploiting opportunities, often in defiance of the will of its peoples.
Do you remember a character in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four called Syme, a Newspeak philologist who, despite his cynicism about how the tyranny worked, supported it? There were moments, reading this book, when I was reminded of the cold-hearted Syme, who saw things “too clearly” — and who, in consequence, came to a nasty end.
Not that the EU is an Orwellian dictatorship. Its structures may be undemocratic, its bureaucracy powerful, its propaganda scary; but it doesn’t put us in gulags or confiscate our passports. Nor is van Middelaar any kind of apologist for autocracy. He is plainly a democrat who has written an honest and jargon-free — indeed, almost uniquely in this field, acronym-free — book, seeking to justify the ways of Brussels to man.
Nonetheless, you’re left with a feeling of smallness, almost of tawdriness. The spirit has gone out of the whole scheme. The men who met in the Salon de l’Horloge were idealists, or at least ideologues. They believed, wrongheadedly but sincerely, that merging Europe’s nations would forestall national animosities and bring greater prosperity.
Even at the time, their belief was flawed. For centuries, Europe had been economically successful because it was a diverse plurality of competing states rather than a single empire; and jamming different nationalities together without their consent tends to make them more quarrelsome as well as less wealthy. But there is no doubting the honesty of the founders’ motives.
Today, the idealists have given way to the employees. Not just the Eurocrats, but the legions around them who have learned how to turn the system to their advantage: the consultants and contractors, the corporates and lobbyists, the “Europe officers” who exist in every professional association, every municipality, every large charity.
No one, five years into the euro crisis, can keep a straight face while citing the original twin justifications for European integration, prosperity and peace. Far from making people wealthier, the euro has left Europe as the only continent on Earth whose economy is shrinking. Far from making countries get on better, it has stoked national antagonisms to a degree not seen since 1945: Read what Greek newspapers say about Germans and vice versa.
The truth is that the EU has now become an end in itself: a mechanism to redistribute wealth from the general population to a favored caste of bureaucrats and rent-seekers. Hence, for example, the delighted tone in which Eurocrats declare that “the euro crisis is over.” They don’t mean that the economy is recovering — as I write, Greece’s GDP is down 23 percent since 2008 and falling, unemployment is 28 percent and rising. They mean that the euro will survive. The single currency is not meant to make its users wealthier but to sustain the integrationist project. In order to hold the euro together, Brussels officials are prepared to pay any price — or rather, to inflict any price, since they personally are exempt from income tax.
Would any Western European democracy want to join the EU today? The three that haven’t — Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland — have lost any interest in accession, and small wonder: They are rich and getting richer, despite the catastrophe on their doorstep. Why, then, do the existing countries stay in? Because of what Milton Friedman brilliantly called “the tyranny of the status quo”: Too many powerful and articulate groups are doing too well out of the present dispensation.
Does this matter to Americans? Not much, on a geopolitical level. It’s true that a united Europe tends to be more anti-American than its individual member states, but no one seriously imagines relations breaking down to the point of open hostility. Where the EU might be of interest is as a cautionary tale. Its problems stem, ultimately, from a single design flaw, a flaw written into line 1 of Article 1 of the founding treaty — namely, the commitment to “an ever-closer union.”
A centralized government will be more remote, more self-serving, more corrupt, more arbitrary, and more expensive than a dispersed one. The American Founders understood this, and designed their Constitution around the maximum devolution of decision-making. Thomas Jefferson even applied his principles to the Old World, once writing that “it cannot be to our interest that all Europe should be reduced to a single monarchy.”
Barack Obama evidently knows better. It is surely no coincidence that the most Euro-integrationist of your 43 presidents is also the one keenest on importing elements of Euro-corporatism into the United States.
Centralization happens from the best of motives. Our Eurocrats, like your federal czars, genuinely believe that their expertise gives them a stronger mandate than the ballot box.
Their attitude would be reprehensible even if they actually were experts. But, as time passes, government agencies tend to be taken over by dullards and mediocrities. That’s why the EU is in the mess it’s in; and why, as the U.S. centralizes power, it is going in the same direction.
This book is as persuasive a defense of the Brussels racket as you’ll find, the better for being written clearly and frankly. But one must still ask what the purpose of the EU is. If it was to create a free market, it would have stopped in the 1990s, rather than lurching down the path to tax harmonization, eco-regulation, geographical wealth transfers, and debt pooling. If it was to make a fourth Franco–German war impossible, it would have retired with honor in the late 1960s. But no bureaucracy ever disbands voluntarily. To stay in business, the EU has had to keep extending its authority. The more powerful it becomes, paradoxically, the less it stands for anything. The machine hums on, but the ghost has departed.
– Mr. Hannan is a British Conservative member of the European Parliament. His next book, Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World, will be published in November.