The book The Passage to Europe by Luuk Van Middelaar aims, as its subtitles clarify, at explaining how the continent became a union. However, the book does far more than that. Middelaar does not only provide a robust and insightful recollection of the intricate history of the European Union, enriched by his personal experience and insider’s knowledge. He also makes frequent reference to political thinkers to establish an interpretative framework for understanding the political meaning of these historical processes. Moreover, by explicitly rejecting the technical language of EU scholars, the volume is also easy and pleasant to read.

The book is divided in three parts, the first one tackles the theoretical question of how a political institution comes into existence, drawing from the historical precedent of the U.S. federation. In the second part, Middelaar investigates the history of the European Union to show how it came to be and to what degree we can say it exists today. The third and final part focuses on the Union’s sources of legitimacy, in order to investigate on what grounds it can continue to exist in the future.

A multi-sphere Europe

The book opens with the question of what Europe is for: “What drives the Union and why is it moving at all?”. The problem in answering this question is that we are not really sure what Europe is. Middelaar contends that the question is often framed in a false dichotomy. Either Europe is seen as a federation (or rather an on-going project directed towards fully fledged federation) or as a mere international institution, like the WTO or the UN, in which fully independent sovereign states play a game for advancing their individual interests. Both of these interpretations, he claims, are true, because they are not alternative views of the same thing, but different spheres that “encompass each other like concentric globes” (p. 12).

There is the external sphere, in which “Europe” is a geopolitical term that vaguely indicates a variegated assortment of sovereign states, vying for power and promoting their international interest. The only political space in this view is national, and national governments are the only political actors.

Middelaar provides a vivid representation of the different stages of evolution of the institution, showing at each stage how the interplay of the political forces from the three spheres shaped the institutional apparatus of the EU up to its present form.

Then there is the internal sphere of the “Community”, a legal entity created by the treaty of 1951, aiming at superseding member states. As founder Robert Schuman exemplified at the time of the signing: “there will be no confrontations between national interests that need arbitration or reconciliation; these organs are at the service of a supranational community with objectives and interests that are distinct from those of each of the participating nations”. In this sphere, the key political actors are the Parliament and the Commission.

According to Middelaar, both these interpretations are partial. Indeed, between the external and internal spheres, there is an intermediate one. This is the sphere of the Member States, when they discover that their independence is limited by a growing common interest, with the costs of opting out, and the viscosity of the legal bindings. Here, the main political actor is the European Council. It is in this intermediate space, created by the interplay of the forces in the internal and external spheres of Europe, that the political engine of the European Union resides.

Middelaar provides a vivid representation of the different stages of evolution of the institution, showing at each stage how the interplay of the political forces from the three spheres shaped the institutional apparatus of the EU up to its present form.

A leap of faith

This reconstruction of the history of the European Union is not particularly novel. However, while there are many books devoted to this task, the peculiarity of Middelaar’s is his personal perspective. He was the chief speechwriter of and a close advisor to the President of European Council Herman Van Rompuy (2010-2014). Thus, his account of the history of the EU is original because his historical knowledge is coupled with the point of view of the political agent. This is a political history of the EU, the focus of which is on political actors: what their intentions were and how they responded to the pressure of contingent events. Thus, the careful analysis of the historical acts that trace the actors’ intentions and political profiles is coupled with his personal reports of humorous institutional idiosyncrasies, or harsh judgments from key political actors which, though anecdotal, enrich the account and amuse the reader.

The premise of this historical account is a theoretical investigation of the question: “how does a state form?” (p. 36). Middelaar laments that this crucial question has not been sufficiently analysed by political philosophers who retreated from the empirical aspects to the abstraction of a hypothetical state of nature. Drawing on Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, he argues that the crucial element is a kind of political “leap of faith” (p. 81): the transition from unanimity to majority decision-making. Unanimity does not denote a genuinely political state, insofar as actors do not limit individual freedom with collective decisions. Rather, individuals have to obey only those decisions that they agree with; otherwise they can exercise their veto. This philosophical argument is strengthened by an illuminating account of the Constitutional Convention of the United States, which took place in Philadelphia in 1787. On that occasion, the states could not decide on how to change the constitution they agreed upon. Pennsylvania was in favour of simple majority, Virginia and Connecticut supported different qualified majorities, and Maryland required unanimity. A simple majority voting, selecting a qualified majority of 2/3 for constitutional amendment, settled the impasse. This simple decision, and the fact that no state protested against it, was the leap of faith that lead to the U.S federation.

Three strategies of legitimation

Finally, in the third part, the author considers different approaches through which the European union consolidated itself, and to what degree they were successful in the past, and could allow for potential progress in the future. Three general strategies are analyzed and discussed.
The German strategy consists in the creation of a demos, a common identity, without which any political system stands on unstable ground. The proposals of a common flag and anthem were primary examples of this. So is the attempt to publish a common history of Europe, and a single history book for all European schools. All these attempts have however been strongly opposed by the member states, jealous guardians of their respective national identities, and wary of any “European propaganda”.

The Roman strategy focused instead on the material benefits that the EU can provide to the European citizens: peace, safety, a common market, a flourishing economy, freedom of movement, freedom of work and many others. This approach is similar to what the academic literature calls “output legitimacy”, which makes the legitimacy of an institution conditional on the quality of its outcome. Middelaar here sharply observes that such strategies are only successful if the people actually perceive the outcome as good. In many cases, the positive output of European institutions is not detected, or is attributed to other factors.

The Greek strategy, finally, focuses on improving democratic accountability of European institutions, in the hope that this would increase popular participation and commitment. The original European project aimed at designing the European Parliament as a legislative chamber and the Commission as the executive power dependent on the parliament belongs to this strategy. This ambitious federal project however presented several problems. First, it was very hard for Member States to swallow, as it seems to imply an unprecedented loss of sovereignty. Secondly, whenever the powers of the European Parliament were increased, popular participation did not follow. Without a “German”identification, representation does not work effectively. Thirdly, asking for the people’s opinion incurs the risk of them denying their support. The project of a European constitution, for example, was stopped by national electorates.

While the three strategies present many difficulties, they are all useful. However, we need to accept that their effects can only be expected to ripen in the long term. The book indeed closes with the reminder that political institutions take time to develop, and are always open to unpredictable events.

Sometimes, in the public discourse, there is a tendency to depoliticize Europe’s past, and to present it as a streamlined necessary evolution, discounting the effects of external contingencies and unintended consequences, the many crises and reconciliations and the numerous progresses and regresses.

This is a healthy reminder. And indeed the whole book can be seen as a useful warning against the naïve optimism of the internal sphere, and the unyielding pessimism of the external sphere. They both are dangerous. Federal idealism might lead to self-deception or disenchantment. Skepticism may lead to inaction. Against both, Middelaar shows that there is a political locus of the EU, and it lies in the European Council. The potential of Europe rests instead in the productive forces of the intermediate sphere. There it is possible to find both the conflicts that can tear Europe apart and the potential to overcome these conflicts and become, with time, something more. This can also be seen as a weakness of Middelaar account: any intermediate account risks either unwillingly falling in either extremes, or being criticized by both. The intermediate sphere remains vague, in both theory and praxis, as it is difficult to neatly trace its borders.

Middelaar’s account advocates realism, but leaves room for hope. By recollecting the many bumps that the EU history encountered, one can get realistically hopeful for the future. Sometimes, in the public discourse, there is a tendency to depoliticize Europe’s past, and to present it as a streamlined necessary evolution, discounting the effects of external contingencies and unintended consequences, the many crises and reconciliations and the numerous progresses and regresses.

One may wonder whether the coming storms of the Euro crisis, Brexit, refugee crisis, Euroscepticism are as strong as the past ones, and whether more emphasis on the internal sphere would allow quicker and more effective responses. In a more recent article, Middelaar responds to these doubts by analyzing the resurgence of politics in the Greek and Ukrainian crisis. He observes that “notwithstanding calls for a big leap toward greater unity, the European Union also showed its dynamic in-between nature”, thus confirming his view that the only political engine is in the EU’s intermediate sphere, and that any constitutional reform would have to pass at the cry of “we the States”(p. 214).

Photo Credits CC: darkday

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Luuk van Middelaar, The Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union. Ithaca, NY: Yale University Press, 2013.




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