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The best books on Europe

recommended by Philippe Legrain

European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess and How to Put Them Right

European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess and How to Put Them Right


Europe should be run for all Europeans and not just the French and German banks, argues the author of European Spring, Philippe Legrain. He recommends the best books on Europe.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess and How to Put Them Right

European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess and How to Put Them Right

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I’m a huge fan of Europe and of the Euro — my only sadness about the Euro being that Britain is not a member. But I get the feeling I’m in a minority…

I’m pro-Europe and pro-Euro too, but that’s precisely why I’m so critical — because if you want Europe to succeed you have to be unflinchingly honest about the terrible mistakes that have been made in recent years and then try to put them right. As the European elections show, voters are extremely angry with the direction the EU has taken. Some of them, obviously, were angry even before the crisis, but it’s become a full-on political crisis, and it ought to be a wake up call.

Some of the anger on the part of pro-Europeans definitely precedes the crisis. My own brother-in-law set up a political party in the Netherlands that successfully campaigned “No” during the Dutch referendum on the European Constitution in 2005 — not because he opposed Europe but because he thought it could be done a lot better. My question is, is there any consensus among critics about what needs to be done to put Europe on the right track? And if so, are the goals realistic?

The notion that pro-European means supporting whatever decisions are taken in Brussels is misconceived at the best of times and completely wrong now, given the terrible mistakes made in recent years. What we need is a genuine debate about the future direction that Europe should take. The recent European parliament elections ought to have been the starting point for that. Clearly there will be a diversity of views about how best to move forward. Some people would like to break up the European Union, others want to move together much more closely. But there’s a whole variety of opinions in the middle about what the best form is that it should take. Trying to shut down the debate and basically say, “You’re either for us or against us,” is, I think, a terrible mistake. Obviously in Britain this is complicated by the looming referendum, which narrows the debate into “Are you in favour of in or out?” But certainly in other countries — and I would hope in Britain too — one ought to be able to have a debate saying, “What kind of Europe do we want?” in the same way that we would say “What kind of Britain do we want?” or “What kind of France do we want?” And if we can’t have that kind of debate, then what are we doing cooperating in the first place?

Isn’t a large part of the problem that there are tons of people who while mildly critical of Europe are basically indifferent? How do you make it a more popular subject to think about?

Particularly within the Eurozone, under instructions from Berlin, the EU has imposed catastrophic policies — excessive collective austerity that has caused terrible recession, a failure to tackle the banks and opposition to debt write-downs — that has led to a plunge in support for the EU. You see this in a country like Spain, which used to be the most pro-European country of all. Now the EU is almost as unpopular there as it is in Britain. At the same time, there are new centralized fiscal rules which mean that whenever voters turf out a government —as they have on nearly every occasion since the crisis — EU Economic Commissioner Olli Rehn pops up on the television insisting that the new government follow the same failed policies pursued by the previous one that voters have just rejected. Understandably, if you tell voters that whoever you vote for, you get the same policies because the EU says so, then many will reject the EU and eventually they will be driven to vote for the extreme since voting for mainstream parties hasn’t delivered change. Particularly within the Eurozone there are fundamental issues with the way decisions are taken. Britain, obviously, is different. The same constraints don’t apply there. I would say Nigel Farage’s success is largely due to him fusing the backlash against immigration with his old anti-EU views.

So when you talk about the big mistakes the EU has made, you’re basically talking about decisions made in the wake of the financial crisis. Are we talking about bad policies or structural issues with the EU?

It’s both. It’s bad policies which are imposed undemocratically. If you look at southern Europe, those under an EU-IMF programme have been governed by diktat from the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF. As a result, support for the main traditional governing parties in those countries has collapsed. In Greece that has led to a rise in support for the far left, which won the elections. The neo-Nazis came third. In Spain and Portugal, where there is a recent memory of fascist dictatorship, the backlash manifested itself with a swing towards leftwing and regional parties. In Ireland it manifested itself with a rise in support for Sinn Fein and independents, who won the election. The underlying issue is a collapse in support for the EU. If you look at European polls, support for the EU is at all time lows. Most people now associate it with austerity and recession and German domination. It’s about constraints on what they can do, rather than on how we can achieve more together. That’s unsustainable.

Is the answer to make the EU more democratic and, if so, how? What’s your solution?

The solution is that you need a change of economic policies and you need to make the EU more open, accountable and democratic. Europeans should have a much greater say over what direction the EU takes and have the right to change course.

How do you do that though?

In terms of the fiscal rules, you need to give elected national governments much greater scope to take budget decisions. In terms of the EU as a whole, we need to recognize that decisions taken at an EU level, by the Commission, in conjunction with the European Council, are not technocratic. They’re inherently political, and therefore there needs to be a much greater democratic say. That can be, first of all, through the election of the President to the European Commission. There can be a greater involvement of national parliaments, and expansion of the role of citizens’ initiatives, it can be through use of deliberative democracy, citizen’s assemblies, and much greater consultation. These are all ways to burst the “Brussels bubble.”

But again, aren’t these problems that predate the crisis?

You’re absolutely right that the EU was unpopular even before the crisis. But it is much more unpopular than ever before and much more unpopular in a much greater number of countries. So if you look, for example, in France, support for the EU in France is now lower than in Britain, which was not true before the crisis. In Spain and Greece it is extremely low whereas before it was extremely high.

Let’s talk about the books, and what light they shed on some of these issues. Norman Davies’s Europe: A History is your first choice. This book has had some excellent reviews, including from AC Grayling: “This is a book everyone should read.” What’s so great about it?

For me, this book was an eye-opener. We’re normally told the history of Europe from a nationalist perspective or from the perspective of the various kings or monarchs. It’s all an inevitable progression to the countries we have now. This tells a completely different history. It’s about a rich tapestry of peoples and regions and different forces which are much more messy and certainly don’t inevitably lead to where we are now. For example, it corrects the misperception that the Hundred Years’ War was a war between England and France because those nations didn’t exist at the time, and so on. So it’s a helpful corrective in terms of understanding our history and therefore understanding Europe today.

Yes, what insight would you say it gives on the present?

The insight it gives is that the nations that exist today are not some kind of enduring reality. They are partly the product of chance and they are ever-changing. One of the conclusions one can draw from that is that one shouldn’t assume that 50 or 100 years now, it will just be a linear progression of the nations that happen to exist today. There’s likely to be more mixing, and more changing, then we like to think.

I’m already in the post-nationalist phase myself. When people ask me what country I’m from I say Europe. My background is too confused to have an allegiance to a specific country. Is this quite common now?

Yes – there’s that and the backlash. There are some people who are more and more international and there are other people who are intensely local. And the people who are intensely local sometimes feel threatened by that change. The other thing about this book is that Norman Davies started off as a historian of Poland. Again, our sense of Europe tends to be very much western European focused, especially in Britain. We tend to think of Europe as Western Europe and that was exacerbated by the Cold War. This again reframes us, and makes us realize how Central and Eastern Europe are just as important and influence the continent’s direction too.

Europe: A History is quite a long book, isn’t it? Not something to embark on for a quick evening read…

It’s 1365 pages, so it’s longer even than Piketty! But you can dip in and out of it, you don’t have to read it sequentially. Also it’s got all these boxes on a variety of topics that don’t fit into the main narrative. It’s fascinating. If you haven’t read it, I really highly recommend it.

Your next book, In Europe, is by a Dutchman, Geert Mak. The reviews describe it as “part travelogue, part history.”

This is a fantastic book. It’s by a Dutch journalist and writer who spent a whole year — 1999 — travelling around Europe. He weaves together the history of Europe with modern cultural observations. It’s fascinating, both in terms of how Europe’s history remains alive today, but also how much has changed. So he starts off in Amsterdam, which is his native city, and then goes off to Paris, which is where the World Fair of 1900 captured the excitement of the new century. At the end of his journey, he ends up in Sarajevo, which played a crucial role in 1914, but at the time, in 1999, had just come out of the terrible Bosnian war.

So, when he’s in, say, Srebrenica, is he interviewing and talking to people about what happened?

Yes he’s partly describing and then talking to people who are there now. He’s almost like an artist, in the sense that he just paints pictures and he brings the past alive through people speaking now, which is a rare gift. It’s like the best of documentary television. It’s hard to do justice to it. Again, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It’s another doorstopper: this book is 876 pages. If your readers are inspired by my selection they’re going to have a whole summer’s reading. Or maybe even several summers’ reading…

Let’s go on to Unhappy Union which is by two Economist journalists. The subtitle is How the Euro Crisis Can Be Fixed.

Having had two historical culture books, this is fast forward to today’s economic and political crisis. As befits Economist journalists, it’s a very perceptive, crunchy, and, mercifully, short book. If you omit the notes and appendices, you can actually, in 180 pages, get an overview and perceptive analysis of what’s gone wrong and how to put it right. Their conclusions overlap quite a lot with mine, so I’m particularly keen on the book.

So their number one solution, in terms of solving the crisis, is…

They argue that Germany needs to play its part in resolving the crisis, which is something about which Germany is in denial. Like me, they believe that you need to resolve the issues in the banking sector and to write down unbearable debt. Germany needs to play its part in the adjustment within the Eurozone, and the democratic deficit needs to be narrowed.

But aren’t the Germans right that some of these southern European countries need to get their act together? Weren’t the Greeks not collecting taxes? It seems a bit unfair to blame it all on the Germans.

Undeniably many southern European countries were badly governed in the pre-crisis years, and, as a result of that, they would have suffered in any case, once the bubble was burst. But my argument — and indeed that of John Peet and Anton La Guardia — is that the financial panic was largely caused by policy mistakes in Berlin and Brussels. Therefore, the misery inflicted on those countries has been unnecessarily great and they remain crushed by unsustainable debt burdens. Yes, of course, they need to reform, but the false notion that this is all their fault and that this has nothing to do with decisions taken in Brussels and Berlin these two authors, like me, are trying to correct.

Has the crisis not revealed some fundamental problem with the Euro — that you can’t have all these countries with very different economies run by one central bank? Some of my Greek friends seem to think that the only solution would be to devalue their way out of the crisis, but since they are attached to what is essentially a German currency, they can’t do it. Greece no longer has the tools it needs to get out of trouble.

Greece’s main problem is an unbearable burden of public debt. That debt should have been written down in 2010, as IMF officials advised. Instead, in order to avoid losses for French and German banks, EU policymakers decided to pretend that Greece’s debts were sustainable. They lent Greece still more money to bail out those banks and then imposed barbaric austerity in order to try and get as much of that money back as possible. As a result, Greece has suffered a longer and deeper recession than Germany in the 1930s. Yes, of course Greece has very serious problems which are the fault of domestic policymakers and, indirectly, the voters that voted for them. But German and EU institutions must take a huge share of the blame.

So you’re happy with having countries at different levels of development sharing the same currency?

One can argue, with hindsight, that Greece shouldn’t have joined. But now it is in there. Even now, most Greeks want to stay in the Euro. Then the onus should be on trying to make the Euro work — and work for all its citizens, not just for the banks in France and Germany.

When you constantly read in the media about “Euro woes” it is a bit confusing, in the sense that it is an incredibly strong currency. Last time I tried to change money from pounds to Euro I got the shock of my life, they were almost at parity, it seemed.

Yes it’s slipped a bit back, but the Euro itself, its external value remains strong — which is a problem for southern Europe because it makes it harder to export. But the fact you have more than 25% unemployment in Greece and Spain, nearly 3 out of 5 young people, the fact you have stagnant economies and so on, actually I think is a bigger sign of failure of a currency than its external value.

Your fourth book is by Hugo Dixon, The In/Out Question. This book is focused on the UK, which always has a somewhat different perspective on Europe.

This book is good because Hugo Dixon is making a case for Britain to stay in the European Union from a liberal conservative perspective — and in Britain Euroscepticism, or even anti-EU feeling, is mostly on the right. That’s really, really important because David Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum on Europe in 2016. A book such as this is essential reading for anyone casting a vote. Most of these books tend to preach to the converted, whereas Hugo Dixon is actually trying to reach out to those people who might, currently, be persuaded by anti-EU arguments.

Yes, I noticed one of the reviewers said the book had persuaded him to reconsider. What’s it actually arguing? Is there a specific argument that stands out?

First of all, he argues that the single market, and EU membership more generally, is economically beneficial to Britain. It would be crazy to deny ourselves the right to trade with Europe on anything else but the best possible terms — which is what the single market gives us. He argues that outside the EU we wouldn’t be freer — we would just have less sway in the world. He also makes the case that by staying in, Britain has a strong chance to reform the European Union, in particular to complete the single market in a way that would please market-minded people in the Conservative Party. So it’s very much directed at that cross-section of the population. It’s brilliant because it’s targeted at exactly the people who need to listen to those arguments. There are lots of talented pro-Europeans who would have written a different book which might persuade you or me, but wouldn’t reach those people. I should add that the book is also a lot about the benefit of freedom of movement within Europe – which is an important part of the backlash here in the UK.

Some of the reviews say it’s witty and readable.

Yes, he used to be at the FT, then he set up Breaking Views, so he’s a very talented financial journalist. He really knows his stuff and writes concisely and wittily. It’s also a very short book.

And he touches on some of these classic examples of European wastage that the British media like to make fun of, like the European Parliament moving between Brussels and Strasbourg

Yes, he’s clear-eyed in terms of criticising the flaws of the European Union, which I think you need to do if you’re going to defend it. You need to say “There are things wrong with it, but overall the benefits outweigh the costs and here’s how we can reform it for the better.” I think that is the right way. Those pro-Europeans who try to defend the EU warts and all aren’t particularly credible.

Are they going to do anything about the European parliament moving to and fro?

No. France has a veto on changing that. It’s a unanimity decision. So unless such time as you could offer France something that it really wanted in exchange…

Your last book is Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence, which isn’t about Europe specifically. How does it fit in?

This book is an antidote to the nationalist backlash and the temptation, which we thought we had buried, to put people into nationalist boxes and say that nations are homogeneous and national identity is what uniquely defines us and sets us apart from others. Amartya Sen argues that that is an easy and extremely dangerous trap to fall into. Actually, we all have multiple overlapping identities — so that you can be both British, a Londoner, a husband, an Arsenal fan, a Christian, a liberal and so on. These rich overlapping identities are something to treasure. So while this book is not specifically about Europe, given firstly, Europe’s history and secondly, the current nationalist backlash I think it’s a really, really important book.

He gives a lot of examples in the book, doesn’t he?

Yes. The danger is, if you start defining someone in a certain way, that provokes a counter-reaction which in turn can reinforce that. So say you label someone as Moroccan and set them apart from the rest of Dutch society. Then even someone who wants to fit in feels rejected and may then start to define themselves as more Moroccan than Dutch. You can bring about that polarization that didn’t exist before. That’s the real danger of it. Ultimately, if you push it too far, you can end up in violence.

So an important book to read in general.

Yes it’s a book everyone should read. But it’s particularly relevant now for Europe. The model for the future ought to be a diverse global city like London where part of what makes people proud to be a Londoner is the very diversity there. So diversity is not seen as in opposition to local identity, diversity is seen as part of local identity. I think that’s the wave of the future.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

June 23, 2014

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Philippe Legrain

Philippe Legrain

Philippe Legrain was economic adviser to the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, from 2011 to February 2014, and head of the team that provides the president with strategic policy advice. His earlier career spanned academia, policy advice (as special adviser to World Trade Organisation director-general Mike Moore), journalism, political campaigning (at Britain in Europe, the pro-European campaign) and independent commentating, consultancy and advocacy. He is the founder of OPEN: the Open Political Economy Network, a new kind of think-tank functioning as an international platform for ideas, advocacy and debate on international political economy and openness issues in particular. His most recent book is European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess — and How to Put Them Right

Philippe Legrain

Philippe Legrain

Philippe Legrain was economic adviser to the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, from 2011 to February 2014, and head of the team that provides the president with strategic policy advice. His earlier career spanned academia, policy advice (as special adviser to World Trade Organisation director-general Mike Moore), journalism, political campaigning (at Britain in Europe, the pro-European campaign) and independent commentating, consultancy and advocacy. He is the founder of OPEN: the Open Political Economy Network, a new kind of think-tank functioning as an international platform for ideas, advocacy and debate on international political economy and openness issues in particular. His most recent book is European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess — and How to Put Them Right