Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage, by Luuk van Middelaar

Second paragraph of third chapter (on the migration crisis):

The demand for action had a different character from that which accompanied previous crises. The Ukraine crisis of 2014–15 was a matter of war and peace; the Union itself had hardly any resources or powers to bring the conflict under control, so active intervention by the member states jointly was an obvious necessity. Moreover, application of the magnetic forces provided by the Brussels diplomatic toolkit, the showpiece being the association agreement with Kiev, had worked out badly. No one at that point, therefore, disputed the primacy of events-politics. In the fields of asylum and migration, by contrast, the Union had quite a few competences and regulations. The situation became unmanageable because the regulatory framework collapsed under divergent strategic interests and because of the disruptive impact of the situation on public opinion. For a long time Brussels was blind to the gap between what was administratively possible and what, in this exceptional situation, was politically required. Engagement by the highest political authority needed for events-politics was even actively hindered by some institutions, reinforcing the impression of a loss of control, of powerlessness.

This book came out only last month in English translation (originally published two years ago in Dutch as De nieuwe politiek van Europa, but clearly updated as it includes many references to events of late 2017 and 2018). I vaguely know the author, and tidying up the house at the weekend found an invitation to a dinner we both attended several years ago. He was the speechwriter for the first full-time President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, but apart from that is political scientist, a philosopher and a perceptive analyst of what is really going on – constructively critical of the stories that the EU tells itself. I drew very much on the book in preparing my own recent talk on Brexit. In March, the Irish Times published a nice précis of his views, especially as applied to Brexit.

Several years ago, a senior (and British) EU official quipped to me that the EU’s triumph is to convert difficult political issues into boring technical details. Van Middelaar dismantles this EU self-perception in forensic detail, first of all outlining several crucial recent cases where the politics was everything, and technical details held crucial political importance – the EU crisis, the Ukraine crisis, the refugee crisis, and the EU’s response to Trump and Brexit – and then delving deeper into the EU’s system of governance, showing that technocracy is not enough to satisfy the public’s requirements for accountability.

I found particularly useful his point that the EU system was not built to include internal constructive opposition. It was deliberately and politically constructed as a massive peace project, removing the incentives for future conflict in Europe through economic co-operation. The EU works by consensus, expertise, technocracy, and grand coalitions. Even though almost all decisions by member states in the Council of Ministers are theoretically taken by qualified majority, in fact there are very few votes; there is a strong incentive to find a consensus. The same is true in the European Parliament, where unlike in a national parliament there is no group of members representing a potential alternate government.

This is both a strength and a weakness. Van Middelaar looks at the failures of the European federalist model (Commission as sole executive, Parliament as sole legislature) and analyses where opposition actually does happen in the current system: among governments, from the European Parliament, from national parliaments, from groups of opposition parties and from maverick forces. The EU has not yet accommodated all of these voices in its own political order, and it will take a certain change of mind-set in its leadership for that to happen. Van Middelaar doesn’t say so directly, but it’s more likely than not that the EU will adapt to the reality it has created; that’s what has always happened before.

It’s a book which will be of more interest to those who support the EU project than to those who oppose it (and of very little interest to those who don’t much care one way or the other). Strongly recommended. You can get it here.

One thought on “Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage, by Luuk van Middelaar

  1. Does no one read the Musketeers any more?!!! I’m going to blame lackadaisical tagging 🙂

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