The EU started life as a small trading bloc but now spans 28 (soon to be 27) countries with half a billion people. What can be done to help its institutions catch up with the new reality? Giles Merritt, author of Slippery Slope: Brexit and Europe's Troubled Future, has some ideas.
Fractured Continent: Europe's Crises and the Fate of the West
by William Drozdiak
The Future of Europe: Towards a Two-Speed EU?
by Jean-Claude Piris
by David Marsh
The Pro-European Reader
by Dick Leonard and Mark Leonard (eds)
Rethinking Europe's Future
by David Calleo
The EU started life as a small trading bloc but now spans 28 (soon to be 27) countries with half a billion people. What can be done to help its institutions catch up with the new reality? Giles Merritt, author of Slippery Slope: Brexit and Europe's Troubled Future, has some ideas.
Giles Merritt is the founder and chairman of the Friends of Europe think tank and its policy journal, Europe’s World. He is the author of Slippery Slope: Brexit and Europe's Troubled Future.
It’s a monster. It grows and grows like Topsy, so it’s not what it was originally. It started small and compact with a clear and simple raison d’être: of creating free trade between six very similar, though different-sized, economies. That trading arrangement between six neighbours in continental Europe has grown over 60 years. Now it’s 28—soon to be 27—very different countries, a third of which are former Communist countries.
Its political character is very different to what it was, because it now reaches into just about every level of society—environmental issues, fruit quality and labelling, farm trade, diplomatic relations, and so on.
But it hasn’t caught up in terms of its political structures. It still has no identifiable, legitimate, democratic basis. The European parliament isn’t a real parliament. It can’t raise taxes, or declare war, for instance, which is one of the key things that parliaments can do.
In fact, the EU has delivered a great deal in terms of people’s living standards and cooperation between countries. But, at the same time, it’s very unclear in people’s minds what ‘Europe’ actually means. I think that’s probably the greatest failing on the part of Brussels and the European civil service, that it hasn’t painted a clear picture in people’s minds of what it stands for, what it delivers.
Is there anything to be done? You’re a long-time watcher of the EU. You live in Brussels. Do you wish it hadn’t gone down the enlargement route? Or just that it had been done better?
I think it had to go down the enlargement route. I don’t think you could have let the former Soviet satellites just mill around. We had to bring them in. We didn’t have to give them quite the same blank cheque that we have. We now clearly have quite a lot of tension between eastern and central Europe, and western Europe.
What to do about it? Well, there are a whole series of reform ideas that should be looked at. The problem is that we’re on a bit of an ebb tide. There are the criticisms of the European Union and the effects of populism—much of which has nothing to do with Europe, but everything to do with the economic crisis that started in 2008. All that, I think, is making it very, very difficult to look at reform, because to enact reforms, governments need to have political security, political capital, if you like.
At the moment, very few of the 27 (soon to be) governments actually have the political courage to fix what is wrong with the European Union. Instead, they’re more inclined to criticise it. That, of course, creates a vicious circle.
One of the things I found interesting in your book is that, as a result of populism, the attitude on certain issues is completely topsy-turvy. The example you start with is immigration. We need people because we’ve got an ageing population, but all the rhetoric is, ‘Oh we can’t let them all in.’
It so happens that’s the topic of a book I’m now writing, which is basically to say, ‘Look, for a whole variety of reasons, we are shrinking and ageing in Europe, and that’s going to create a huge economic problem. The only way to fix that problem is to bring in more young blood, whatever the colour of their skins.’ But, as you say, this has become a toxic issue in European politics.
The book I’m trying to write now says, firstly, we need many more immigrants than we already bring in. Secondly, they’re going to come here anyway.
“At the moment, very few of the 27 (soon to be) governments actually have the political courage to fix what is wrong with the European Union. Instead, they’re more inclined to criticise it. That, of course, creates a vicious circle.”
Thirdly, we’re so bad at integrating them. We’ve been trying to find the magic answer to that for 30, 40 years in some countries, notably in Scandinavia. But we haven’t cracked it. So we’re finding ourselves in an impossible situation where we cling to the idea of a white, Christian Europe. That would basically be our own death notice.
Let’s talk about some of these issues in a bit more detail as we go through the books you’ve recommended. The first one on the list is Fractured Continent, which is by an American journalist, William Drozdiak, who’s got a long experience of reporting around Europe. It’s quite sensationalist, isn’t it? I mean, after reading it, I’m ready to pack my bags and leave for South America.
It’s true. Bill Drozdiak, formerly of the Washington Post, is a journalist I’ve known and been friendly with for…longer than I care to say. But like most journalists, he has an eye for the crisis. He manages to find a crisis in each of the twelve chapters the book is made up of.
And indeed, there are crises. He starts with Berlin. Well, we now have an even bigger crisis in Berlin than when Bill wrote his book. London, we need not even discuss. Paris, we’re a bit out of the woods with Mr. Macron. Catalonia we’re still in the middle of a crisis with. Rome is just around the corner. Warsaw, we’ve got a real problem with the Poles, thanks to Mr. Kaczyński. And so it goes on …
But I think it’s a very good survey of what the European experiment is for and why we need to have an integrated Europe, both economically and politically.
At the same time, it’s sharp reporting on where we actually are now. My feeling about Fractured Continent is that it’s very much a newsman’s book, and that’s its strength and also its weakness.
“I often think that European politics is like three-dimensional chess. There are so many different levels.”
We’re in the most volatile period of European politics since I started writing about Europe at the beginning of the 1970s, when I was sent to Paris by the Financial Times. I don’t think I’ve ever seen things moving so fast and so uncertainly as now.
Now, I’ve always said to Bill, ‘I think you’re going to have to update that book, and call it Fractured Continent 2 or something.’
Even More Fractured Continent?
I should ask him what’s next. It’s Broken Bones, I suppose.
I liked the book because it’s quite an easy read, but it introduces a lot of new information. You go into the politics of Latvia. You go into the politics of Denmark. If you don’t live in these countries, you probably don’t know much about the problems that are going on there.
Yes, I found a whole lot of detail at the national level that I found myself making notes about to use in my own work. He has first-class analysis and also puts in the historical context. He’s really writing for an American readership and, in a way, that makes it a better book than a European might write because we tend to assume knowledge about European affairs, certainly in my business. It’s always a mistake to assume knowledge. You need to tell the reader what the context is, what the history was.
Where he might fall a bit short is on policy proposals, policy solutions. But he’s more of a journalist than an analyst. I’m sure he would turn around and say to me, ‘That’s not a reporter’s job.’
You said that it’s a good survey of why we need Europe.
Very much so.
Could you expand on what you mean by that?
Bill Drozdiak starts off by telling us that Europe’s unity is an essential part of the way international relationships are going to develop in the 21st century. What he’s getting at is that there are no problems that can be fixed by a single European country on its own. The shrinkage of Europe in relation to other emerging powers—notably the Chinese, but the Indians too, Asia as a bloc—means that no country in Europe has enough clout on the global stage any longer. With America currently turning on its heel under the Trump administration—and saying, ‘America first. We withdraw from international responsibilities’—it drives home the point Drozdiak makes even more.
Right now, the population of Europe is around what? Is it constantly going up? What’s net migration?
There are some rather frightening figures. The population at the moment is just a shade over 500 million, so there are a half-billion Europeans. But it’s plateauing and will start to shrink. By mid-century, we’ll more likely be around 470, possibly even the 450-million mark.
But that’s less important than the ageing. The figure I have constantly in the back of my mind is that right now, we have an active labour force in Europe of 240 million people. If we keep immigration at our current level—and there are a lot of people trying to reduce it—by 2050 there will only be 207 million people in the labour force. Now, if you take 33 million people out of the economy, you’re taking away a huge amount of tax revenue for governments and a huge amount of consumption.
“What is required is a total rethink, a hugely ambitious and radical change. Now I personally have solutions, but nobody is listening”
We’ve already got a labour shortage in Europe. Although everybody talks about unemployment, the reality is that there aren’t enough people to do the work. There are four workers per pensioner at the moment. It comes down to two workers per pensioner by mid-century. Now, if we can’t afford the pensions now, what on earth are we going to do by mid-century?
We need more people. We need to bring in immigrants, but we need to train them and we need to get them into work. At the moment, it’s a terrible muddle. In some countries, immigrants are allowed to work straight away. In other countries, refugees are told they can’t work, not until they’ve been processed.
We Europeans need to get our act together on this. But first of all, we have to recognise the reality that we are ageing and shrinking at a very, very fast rate.
Okay, let’s talk about the next book on your list, which is The Future of Europe by Jean-Claude Piris. He was, until recently, the EU’s top lawyer, so he really knows what he’s talking about.
He really does, and he is still referred to. People ask his advice on Brexit and just about anything you can name, because he has an accumulated 30 years of being at the sharp end of all the legal tangles that dominate European politics.
It’s a little book, published by Cambridge University Press. In a way, it’s more of a booklet, but the reason I chose it is that it puts its finger right on the big problem: what are we going to do about these very different countries that have been brought into what was a homogenous organisation or structure, and is now very heterogeneous?
The message Jean-Claude is trying to get over is that we need a two-speed arrangement. We need much more flexibility. He thinks that the EU’s problems are becoming very acute, and the only way to face them, the only way to address reform, is by having a core of countries—probably with France and Germany at the head—and streamlining the way the EU works.
He thinks that trying to do it all in one go, with all 27 countries, even with the British going, won’t resolve the problem. He thinks it’s unrealistic to imagine that you can have a sweeping reform of all those countries.
So he says, ‘Let’s first of all reduce some of the EU’s ambitions. Secondly, let’s have an inner core of continental, western European countries working together.’ This isn’t new, of course. Jean-Claude Piris wrote his book five years ago, in fact.
Although he is a very influential voice, it has to be said that in five years it hasn’t made a lot of difference to the debate. The Euro-populist pressures that we now see didn’t even exist five years ago. The idea of splitting the EU into two or even three speeds hasn’t gained much traction.
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The reason for that is that it is difficult with so much volatility in national politics. It is as difficult to get people to agree to a two-speed Europe as it is to agree to an overall reform package. The awful truth of it is that European governments—because of the way their electorates have become so Eurosceptic— are in no mood to take any real decisions. All possibilities look like bad news for governments that are in office.
It’s the old saying, ‘When in doubt, say nowt.’ Nothing happens at the moment, so we’re into an awful stasis of European politics. His book is very cogent, very well thought out, better informed on what’s going on than anybody else I can think of. But it’s not moving forward and we’re not moving forward with his ideas.
Is there consensus that this would be the way to reform? Say people were in the mood for reform, would they say, ‘Right. This is the way to do it.’ Or is it just one idea among many? Everybody will say, ‘No, it’s better to do it this way’ or, ‘No, it’s better to do it that way,’ and we have 27+ arguments for different kinds of reforms?
That’s exactly the right question. I often think that European politics is like three-dimensional chess. There are so many different levels. The first problem is that we continue to have two sides: the converted and the infidel (or the heathen). The converted believe no matter what, European unity and European progress is the only solution. We need more Europe. Then there are the doubters who say, ‘No, look, it’s the people of Europe. The voters don’t want it. It’s useless to pursue it, so forget it.’
“The British civil service is famous amongst the Europeans for what is known as ‘gold plating.’ They take something that’s been agreed at a European level and make it bigger and more prominent than it was ever meant to be.”
Brussels is made up of officials who are true believers, the high priests of European integration. But like for so many priests, the congregation is a bit restless. So that’s one level.
The second level is the governments themselves. Different countries have different priorities: northern Europe worries, in security terms, about Russia. Southern Europe worries about the Arab world and Africa. And so on and so forth. Then, there are the ex-communists who believe that they only escaped the shackles of the Soviet Empire to be free, and now Brussels is coming with a new set of handcuffs.
It’s very difficult to find any sort of consensus in this array of different priorities, different political motivations. So the short answer is no, there is no consensus at all, and it’s very hard to see one emerging.
The only catalyst I can see is a real shock to the system; something that will bang heads together so we can say, ‘We’re squabbling about minor details. The big issue is our place in the world, how we handle China and India in 10, 15, 20 years’ time.’
Now, what that shock might be, I don’t know. I thought that the economic crisis was going to be a catalyst. I even thought that Brexit was going to be a catalyst. But right now, I can’t see what a shock would be that would get people to realise that they’re arguing over details, not fundamentals.
Brexit wasn’t enough?
It’s turned out to be counterproductive. The Brexiteers thought that once Great Britain left the EU, others would follow suit. In fact, what’s happened is the others have looked at the incredible tangle that EU membership creates over time and have all decided, ‘No, we don’t want to do that.’ In some sense, there’s great solidarity, much more than the Brexiteers thought. But, at the same time, the consensus still eludes them. Somehow we’re stuck between those extremes.
Your next book is David Marsh’s book about the Euro, which I think takes a historical approach to where the Euro came from. Tell me a bit about this book and why you like it.
First of all, he’s a former colleague, and he’s long been seen as the go-to guy on anything to do with the Euro. I was fascinated to see that there is a small introduction by Paul Volcker, who was the chairman of the Federal Reserve in the US for a long time; a grand old man of global monetary policy. He says that David Marsh has been amongst the most respected and influential analysts of international monetary affairs for many years. When Volcker says something like that, it actually means something.
This is actually a 2011 update of his 2009 book, which was written in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-8, and the ensuing economic crisis of 2009. It hasn’t been updated, but I hope it will be to take into account the sovereign debt crises, especially of Greece and to some extent Italy. I hope the next time he returns to it that he looks at where we take it from where we are now—which is that it works OK, but that the Euro as a single currency defies gravity because it has no agreed political basis.
“If you think that Brexit is taking up a lot of futile and useless time when we should be working on other things, the collapse of the Euro would be a hundred times worse.”
That’s what the row with the Greeks was all about. Who controls how much credit people can use without having the collateral to go with it?
My reason for choosing this book is that it is the most meticulous picture of how this great experiment of a single currency was embarked upon. David manages to report in minute detail and yet make it a cracking read. It’s all there: the personalities, the colour, who would talk to whom in public, and then what they said in private. It’s written in such a smooth way that you never feel lost or snowed under by complicated economics and too much detail.
Perhaps part of my reason for choosing it is that it’s a masterpiece of the journalist’s craft: getting into a subject, getting people to talk, and then presenting it in a way that makes total sense to the reader. I also liked some of the jokes in it, like the one about the German central bank, the Bundesbank, which was the model for the European Central Bank we now have. He says, ‘The Bundesbank is like whipped cream. The more you beat it, the stiffer it gets.’ I thought that was terrific.
At the end of the book, does one feel very pro-Euro and excited about it?
I think so. When he starts his book, he reminds the reader—‘reminds’ is probably a polite way of saying he’s telling you something you don’t know—that the principal purpose of the Euro when it was launched was not to bring Europe closer together. It was actually to protect Europeans against the dollar, and the way that American monetary policy had yo-yoed the value of the dollar to suit American domestic politics. It left Europeans quite often as victims—basing a lot of business on the dollar, but having no control over whether it was a hard dollar or a soft dollar. That has been very disruptive to the management of European economies.
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If the Euro were to collapse, it would create appalling chaos in Europe. It would not only be a political disaster, it would also be so complicated—deciding what to do with long-term debt that was negotiated and denominated in Euros, and would have to be rethought and re-valued. If you think that Brexit is taking up a lot of futile and useless time when we should be working on other things, the collapse of the Euro would be a hundred times worse.
So I think David’s book reminds us how important the single currency is. He also makes it pretty plain that we made it up as we were going along, and that that’s really no way to run a currency. As I say, I’m really looking forward to his update of this book or, at any rate, his next book on the Euro.
From my point of view, well, my family’s Dutch but lived in Italy so I’ve spent quite a bit of time just south of Rome. I’m very much pro-Euro, just from a convenience point of view, as well as loving Europe. But they’ve got a real problem in southern Italy, don’t they? They need to devalue to get their economy going, but that’s impossible if you’ve got a single currency. Is there any way of dealing with that?
Well, Mr. Berlusconi thinks of going back to the lira. As far as I understand his ideas, which is not very well, he thinks it would be a good idea to have a dual-currency system, where you have the lira inside Italy and the Euro for dealing with the rest of the world. It sounds a bit half-baked to me.
We have a big problem with the Euro in the sense that when it was first presented, we were all told it was going to encourage the convergence of national economies. Italy was going to become as rich as Germany, and so on and so forth. In fact, what it’s done is the opposite. It’s actually pushed economies apart. We’ve now got a divergence that is in a large part due to the Euro, or to the pressures that the Euro creates—one size doesn’t fit all.
But let’s take the problems of the Mezzogiorno. I don’t think you can actually blame the Mezzogiorno’s problems on the Euro. They were always there. It’s the domestic problems, and the North-South divide, just like the North-South divide in the whole of Europe itself. These are longstanding problems. They require much more sophisticated policies than just plonking a single currency on top of them.
That said, what you said, Sophie, about the convenience and the sense of pride for Europeans to have a major currency, like the dollar in terms of standing, that has been an enormously important step forward in the way that people think about Europe. As somebody like yourself, who travels quite a lot in Europe, I find it enormously helpful that I don’t have to think about going and finding the local currency in most EU countries. I just travel with the money I’ve already got in my pocket.
And presumably businesses must be experiencing that on a much bigger scale. Everything’s a lot more convenient and transaction costs much lower, if they don’t have to do complicated treasury operations to make sure that things don’t go up and down too much.
Yes, it’s better for business-to-business dealings when you can denominate things in a single currency. That you don’t have to take currency fluctuations into account has done a lot to stimulate intra-European trade. No doubt about it.
“Now we’re in the middle of a digital revolution, or perhaps the middle of the start of one. The need for updated regulations is actually increasing and accelerating.”
But it does need a political solution, and it needs it really quite fast. I don’t think we can go on forever. It’s defying gravity. If you’re going to ask the Germans to finance other countries, you’ve got to have some kind of political mechanism, there has to be some sort of oversight, some sort of control over how the country that is being supported spends the money. That’s where the Greek crisis started. The Greeks used what was, in effect, almost a blank cheque in terms of the borrowings they could run up—and nobody knew where the money was going. It has to be said that, to this day, we don’t know where an awful lot of that money actually went.
What is the solution, do you think? You say we need a political solution. What does that involve?
In a way we’re looping back to what we were talking about earlier, that what you need is a single, European democracy that somehow allows you to operate a single currency; that works a bit like the American system where, through federal mechanisms, the northern states subsidise the poorer, southern states. We need something similar in Europe.
The trouble is that the European Union is ramshackle. It was created out of a free trade arrangement and then grew a bit here and a bit there. Every ten years or so, we would tack on a new bit. We moved from having a delegated European parliament to an elected one. We changed the way that votes are done in the council of ministers, which is basically a form of legislature.
But none of them are a coherent system of the sort we all have nationally. What is required is a total rethink, a hugely ambitious and radical change.
“The principal purpose of the Euro when it was launched was not to bring Europe closer together. It was actually to protect Europeans against the dollar”
Now I personally have solutions, but nobody is listening. My solutions are, in the first place, yes, you have to have a European government. You can make the commission the executive, but you need to have a commission that is empowered and allowed to be in office, or can be kicked out of office by parliament, just as we have in any parliamentary democracy.
I think you actually need to have European-level political parties, which is a huge leap.
And I think you also have to have a bicameral parliament, which most national arrangements have. You need to create another house, a senate, in which I personally would put regional representatives, because we’ve got this growing problem of Scotland and Catalonia and so on. The regions need to feel that they’re close to decisions and have a hand in them.
You need to cut the Gordian knot of complicated national democracies and add a European dimension. We’re talking about a huge change in the way we would run our affairs. But without that, it’s hard to see how a single currency could be acceptable to one and all—and especially to the creditor nations.
I keep saying to people in Germany, ‘Look, you know as well as I do: you can’t get away from your neighbours and having poor neighbours is very dangerous. You need to make your neighbours rich. That way we all benefit.’ Having a zero-sum, winners-and-losers approach to European politics isn’t clever. You actually need to make sure that all Europeans are converging economically, becoming part of the same political culture and so on.
But as I listen to myself, I can hear people saying, ‘There he goes again, the Euro loony speaks.’
Okay, so let’s talk about your next book. Just as we’re getting depressed, we can read The Pro-European Reader and feel better about everything. These are some very rousing snippets about Europe. There’s Winston Churchill and his United States of Europe. There’s something by George Orwell. That has some fantastic quotes, doesn’t it?
I chose this as light reading but it’s a wonderful book. George Orwell must have written his little-known article in this at exactly the time he was working on 1984. He wrote it for an anti-Communist, left-wing American magazine. In it, he envisages this very Orwellian dream—actually, ‘Orwellian’ is not the word to use about George Orwell himself—of a united, socialist Europe. Of course, it probably wasn’t going to happen. But I liked the way he sets out possibilities.
First, there was going to be a nuclear war and the Americans wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation of using a Hiroshima bomb on the Russians. Then, he had the idea of there being a trans-Atlantic standoff between socialist Europe and capitalist America.
“They think of sovereignty like virginity: either you have it or you don’t. He’s saying sovereignty is much more complicated than that.”
The third possibility—which he said was the one he liked least of all—was that the bomb would so frighten people that it would never be used. Can you imagine? That would lead to the emergence of three world blocs: Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania—the three that he outlines in 1984.
I loved that article by George Orwell because it’s such a historical oddity.
The other ones I liked for a variety of different reasons. I liked the Neil Kinnock article because it reminded me that although he later became a European Commissioner back in 1975, when we had just joined the European Union and there was a referendum to approve membership, he campaigned against it. He then recanted a bit, in the article in this book, because he feared the consequences of the United Kingdom’s isolation from Europe. He hit that nail neatly on the head, in my opinion.
Another article in the book that rang bells with me is by somebody who I’ve worked with on and off over the years: a British political scientist called Robert Cooper. He wrote the European security doctrine when he was working in Brussels.
He argues that when the Berlin Wall fell, it was one of the most significant events in European history—more significant than 1789, 1815, or 1919 (presumably he’s talking about the Versailles Treaty). He said that it marked the end of balance of power politics in Europe, which is an interesting view.
The other article I liked is by Geoffrey Howe. He’s the former foreign secretary, the one who rebelled against Margaret Thatcher. He writes about sovereignty. He says it causes huge confusion in people’s minds. They think of sovereignty like virginity: either you have it or you don’t. He’s saying sovereignty is much more complicated than that.
Yes, that’s important because when you talk to Brexiteers here they tend to talk about sovereignty. That seems to be their main reason for supporting Brexit.
That’s the button they push all the time, taking back control and all that stuff. Howe is pointing out that it’s complicated. It was written in 1991 and he’s also saying, ‘Look, it’s total nonsense to think that the British, through policies or by being inside or outside the EU, can veto European policies, especially not greater integration.’ Of course in 1991 the tide was moving strongly in favour of integration.
The last article I wanted to point out is by Hugo Young, who used to work for the Guardian for a long time. Sadly, he died far too young. He’d written a very good book, called This Blessed Plot, about how the British establishment managed to get into the EU and be influential there, despite the grassroots refusal to be drawn into continental affairs. He talks about the ‘anti-Europe cave’, and how it’s claustrophobic. He headlined his article, “Why I’m Glad To Be European“. I warmed to the sentiments in that.
Another issue the Brits make a huge fuss about is the regulations coming out of the EU. Now, I know there are a lot of regulations coming out of the EU. But I’ve lived overseas quite a bit and a lot of the regulations I come across in England I don’t come across in Italy or Holland. It’s particularly health and safety, but also some of the privacy stuff. This idea—that Brussels is regulation and England isn’t—just isn’t accurate.
The first thing to say about that is that the British civil service is famous amongst the Europeans for what is known as ‘gold plating.’ They take something that’s been agreed at a European level and make it bigger and more prominent than it was ever meant to be. Somehow, one is more aware of EU-level rules because of this gold plating than is the case in other countries.
The other thing is that there are two ways of looking at the European-level regulation. One is to say, ‘Right, this is Brussels: heavy-handed, unelected, faceless bureaucrats imposing rules on us.’ That’s one way of looking at it, and I think it’s totally wrong.
“The European parliament isn’t a real parliament. It can’t raise taxes, or declare war, for instance, which is one of the key things that parliaments can do.”
The other way, which I’m more sympathetic to, is to say, ‘Look, you’ve created a single market. The idea is that anybody can sell anything, anywhere in Europe, or buy it or whatever. That means you have to be very wary of non-tariff barriers, where different EU governments introduce sly rules on different things as a way of keeping neighbours’ goods or services out.’
That’s really what EU regulation—most of which comes from the European parliament—is about. As I said, it’s not a real parliament—but it’s an incredibly sophisticated machine for representing and reconciling different views, different needs, in areas you and I know nothing about: how you dip sheep in different countries to ensure that you can sell mutton across Europe, and so on and so forth. These are also having to be constantly updated. Now we’re in the middle of a digital revolution, or perhaps the middle of the start of one. The need for updated regulations is actually increasing and accelerating.
My view tends to be that, yes, a lot is made of EU regulation. But the reality is that it’s the only way to have common rules that allow you to have common business practices and access to markets right across Europe. I think it’s a shame that this regulatory mechanism gets branded as heavy-handed. I think it would be much better if it were fairly invisible because, frankly, most of it’s pretty banal.
So let’s talk about the last book, Rethinking Europe’s Future, which is, again, by an American.
I’ve chosen rather a lot of American authors, and I think the reason is that most books on Europe—and this is especially true of British ones—tend to have a very national prism. The Americans take the overall view much more than we do ourselves. Rethinking Europe’s Future is by the grand old man of American academic analysts of Europe, David Calleo. He’s been operating at something called SAIS—which is Johns Hopkins University ‘School of Advanced International Studies’—for as long as I can remember. In fact, I have to admit that he was a friend of my late mother’s, so he must be getting on a bit.
But David—who I always go and talk to whenever I’m in Washington because he has such a good overview of the big shifts in European thinking and policy—wrote this book around the turn of the century. It really is the long view from the high ground.
He takes an enormously positive view of EU integration. He knows everything I’ve been saying about how troubled it is and how difficult it is to reconcile the different views, the lack of consensus and so on. But his overall view is that EU integration, ever since World War II, has built structures that respect national sovereignties. Somehow it ‘ferrets out’ common interests.
He also thinks that Europe is vitally important as a brake on American power. He takes the view that all power corrupts, and that if you can dilute American power with European power, in what we used to talk about as ‘the West,’ that is much more preferable to Washington being a hyperpower. I agree with him totally on that.
In the opening, he talks about the 20th century being quite a rollercoaster. Everything started well at the beginning and then it went pretty badly in the middle, and now it’s good again. But he’s worried about what the 21st century could bring…
Absolutely. It seems to me that he correctly identified not now, but more than a quarter of a century back, at the time of the Maastricht Treaty—which ushered in the Euro and enlargement and so on—that if we didn’t keep pushing hard enough there was a tendency for European politicians, however pro-Europe they might be, to fall back and rest on their laurels. That in fact the very ambitious scenario I was sketching out a moment ago, about a total rethink of a European-level democracy, should have been the follow-up to Maastricht. But we didn’t do it. We hesitated. There were a few problems at the time, as I remember. There was first a Danish referendum that said no and then the French and so on. The momentum was checked.
But that was a great shame because while people were open to new ideas, that was the moment for an ambitious opening up from what had gone before—a divided Europe, the Iron Curtain. That was the time we should have said, ‘Now, let’s sit down and go forward.’ We did try, of course. There was the European Convention. I remember, because I was writing quite a lot about it at the time, that it was a bit of a muddle. We allowed the lawyers to get involved. I think one should always only bring them in at the last moment.
We had the Germans saying we needed a new basic law. Well, a basic law is a constitution, and the moment you said ‘European Constitution’ heckles rose all over Europe. We backed into the next phase of European integration in a very clumsy, maladroit way, and somehow lost momentum. It’s a pity, really. I wrote Slippery Slope as a rather plaintive appeal that we Europeans must strive to regain that momentum. Europe’s difficulties multiply the longer we wait.
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