Can Europe Make It?: Analysis

How the European Union has always preferred power grabs to democracy

A series of ‘coups’ across decades allowed European institutions to take more and more power, always undermining the role of nation states and voters

This article is a summary of the first of three lengthy essays about the European Union by the historian Perry Anderson, published in the London Review of Books.

David Elstein
28 February 2021, 8.00am
Bettino Craxi conducted “a secret coup disguised as a procedural decision”, says Perry Anderson
Pino Granata/Mondadori Portfolio/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The entry-point for Anderson’s first essay, ‘The European Coup’, is a book by the Dutch writer Luuk van Middelaar, ‘The Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union’, reviews of which, says Anderson, “ransack the lexicon of admiration”.

Born in 1973, van Middelaar read history and philosophy at university, studying under Frank Ankersmit, who was best known for admiring the “aesthetics” of finding the political compromises to solve conflicts. He joined the Dutch liberal party, VVD, went to Paris to write his master’s thesis, and then embarked on a study of EU pension systems. In 2001 he wrote an article for a Dutch newspaper supporting the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. Only a strong leader, he argued, can deliver human rights, taking up “the modern man’s burden”.

By then he had secured an internship with a Dutch EU commissioner, Frits Bolkestein, a leading VVD politician who tried to drive through a liberalisation of terms of employment. Van Middelaar took careful note of the constraints affecting activist politics and returned to the VVD to serve as political secretary for its leader, helping write the party’s 2005 manifesto. It was not a success, and van Middelaar left to write ‘The Passage to Europe’, which Anderson describes as “a work of impressive scholarship and historical imagination... unlike anything written about the EU before or since”.

Should a member state resist... pressure can be put upon it to conform by ‘other means’

Perry Anderson

In the book, van Middelaar tracks the progress from the six participants in the 1950 Schuman Plan and the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community to the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which created the European Economic Community. The treaty’s articles would be implemented by way of proposals from a permanent Commission based in Brussels to an inter-state Council of Ministers, whose decisions would require unanimity for the first eight years.

The first coup

Determined resistance by President Charles de Gaulle of France was designed to ensure that majority voting could not thereafter override the “important interest” of a member state: a principle enshrined in the Luxembourg Compromise of 1966. But by then the European Court of Justice had ruled that Community regulations must be enforced by national courts, something not envisaged by the treaty, yet hailed by van Middelaar as “a masterful move”. Anderson says:

The Court staged a coup on 5 February 1963 in the name of a new, autonomous legal order, while claiming that – although no-one had been aware of it – this order was as old as the treaty itself. So its infringement of the status quo was concealed.

The court went further a year later in allowing citizens to appeal to it against the states to which they belonged: another “coup”, further clearing the pathway to European “unity”.

Van Middelaar acutely observed that the national veto against majority views was rarely used, not least, in Anderson’s words, because “the alchemy of the Union is to achieve unanimity through the threat of majority” – “should a member state resist... pressure can be put upon it to conform by ‘other means’”.

The Craxi coup

When, in 1985, the Single European Act, designed to extend the common market for goods into services, reached the stage of requiring an amendment to the Treaty of Rome through the mechanism of an inter-governmental conference, Italy was hosting the decisive European Council meeting. The Italian premier, Bettino Craxi, sensing lack of consensus, decided to bypass the conference mechanism by going straight to a vote. The majority of seven could have been vetoed by the UK, Denmark or Greece in the minority, but none of the three chose to call Italy’s bluff. Van Middelaar “can scarcely contain his enthusiasm”, says Anderson, for what he calls “a secret coup disguised as a procedural decision”.

This then “unbarred the gate” to five further treaty revisions – “each a step,” says Anderson, “towards a compact European Union with juridical authority over its member states”. Now even formal revisions could be bypassed if the European Council issued a passerelle, or gangplank, to be implemented by default in the absence of any rejection by a national parliament.

Enlargement did little to bring coherence to the EU’s role on the world stage: witness the collapse of Yugoslavia

The European Council comprises the heads of state or government of member states – not to be confused with the Council of Ministers. It emerged, after the oil shock of 1973, from a French initiative to hold regular summits.

A further French project – the single currency – was endorsed by Berlin in exchange for Paris acceding to the unification of Germany after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and so – implicitly – to that enlarged state’s inevitable rise to economic dominance of the Union.

Two years later, the 1991 Maastricht treaty formally created the European Union, along with new agencies, including a foreign-policy arm. Rapid expansion of the EU to embrace Sweden, Austria and Finland, as well as ex-communist states in the east, was finessed by introducing weighted voting in the Council of Ministers. This enlargement did little to bring coherence to the EU’s role on the world stage: witness the collapse of Yugoslavia, which “descended into a series of civil wars”, says Anderson, and where “the new Union proved powerless to dam the tide of disaster”.

The Common Agricultural Policy recalls the corrupting clientelism of ancient Rome

Perry Anderson

The creation of a permanent president of the European Council helped focus responses to new crises. More cosmetic representations of unity came in the form of a European anthem – the ‘Ode to Joy’ – and the blue and gold flag, “lifted,” says Anderson, “from the (unrelated) Council of Europe of 1949, with its nearly fifty members”.

The court musician

Anderson acknowledges some tangible benefits of the Union – cross-border travel, cheap phone calls, access to hospitals – but is less persuaded by free movement of labour (“a boon for elites, less so for the masses”) and efforts at redistribution (“the Common Agricultural Policy recalls the corrupting clientelism of ancient Rome”). And he is wholly unimpressed by what van Middelaar calls “a huge effort to give the population a say in decision making”. The European Parliament “is not a tribune of the people: it acts like a court musician” – its relative impotence perhaps explaining why voters have shown only mild interest in its elections.

Every dynasty starts with a power grab

Luuk van Middelaar

In any event, “a say” is, in Anderson’s view, hopelessly feeble. The marginality of their role means that for MEPs there is, says Anderson, “no reality outside the chamber in which they sit, where a kind of permanent grand coalition – in effect, an institutional cartel – effaces even the formal distinctions between them”.

Van Middelaar sees the absence of engagement as a temporary problem: “every dynasty starts with a power grab” – the legitimacy of the “coup sequence” does not depend upon electorates. Nor is he interested in the economic impact of the European project on its citizens: “the acronym EEC is nowhere to be found” in his book, says Anderson. Likewise

the background of the judges in Luxembourg, whose decisions made European history, is left a complete blank… Other than extolling Craxi’s “brilliant bluff”, van Middelaar breathes not a word about him – the single most corrupt Italian politician of his time.

He puts the Council where it belongs, as not just the formal apex, but the overmastering instance of the EU... the vehicle of the true sense in which Europe has moved, towards ever greater union, as a club of states bound together by a common project that does not extinguish their identities as nations.

The long view

Anderson compares van Middelaar to Friedrich Gentz, a key collaborator of the Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich in shaping the counter-revolution in post-Napoleonic Europe. Gentz recognised that the Congress of Vienna was little more than a scheme where “the victors should share with one another the booty snatched from the vanquished”. Yet the EU echoes the Metternich system: in pursuit of collective security, it constrains the separate ambitions of the nation states.

Van Middelaar made his own 19th-century comparisons. The founders of the Union felt, he says, “a profound consciousness” of the “legacy of the Concert of Europe” – which was a shared understanding among European powers that kept the peace on the continent for decades in the first half of the century and again until the First World War. The European Council formed, he says, “a contemporary Vienna 1814-1815” – that being the time when the Congress of Vienna, held after the defeat of Napoleon, set up a system of meetings between powerful European countries to resolve their differences.

In our own time, the European project can deliver collective outcomes beyond the reach of individual states, but it is only the European Council that has the clout to deal with the biggest issues within the project’s structure.

By contrast, says Anderson, “van Middelaar leaves little doubt of the much lower regard in which he holds the Commission, a useful but humdrum factory of rules, and the Parliament, a windy cavern of words”. Moreover, all Council decisions are reached “behind closed doors, in deliberations of which no minutes are kept, that issue announcements under the seal of consensus reached far beyond any popular say”. As for the Court of Justice, this “also deliberates in secret and forbids publication of any dissenting judgment, delivering its rulings as unanimous edicts”.

Van Middelaar’s approval of this situation is underlined by his admiration for the series of coups that delivered it: “catching their victims unawares and confronting them with a fait accompli that cannot be reversed” – even though a coup is “not a term associated with any form of democratic politics”.

In this, van Middelaar was consciously following Gabriel Naudé and “his truly amazing book”, ‘Political Considerations on Coups d'Etat’, written in the century after Machiavelli, lauding sudden, secret and surprising actions, some like thunderbolts, some quite invisible, in support of state interests. In Naudé’s view, the “enlightened elite” must master the “excitable masses”.

‘Weak governments in southern Europe’

It was from a new perch as a special adviser to the first full-time president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, that van Middelaar could observe at close quarters the workings of the EU, producing, after four years in this vantage point, a new book, ‘Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage’.

Here van Middelaar – this time without calling them ‘coups’ – applauded the manoeuvres whereby measures to save the euro by-passed the Maastricht treaty and rode roughshod over “weak governments in Southern Europe”; as well as circumventing the UK’s opposition to the Fiscal Compact.

He praises the deal Angela Merkel brokered with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over refugees as politically vital, however “ethically and legally questionable”.


As for Brexit, the hard line pursued by Brussels, in support of Dublin and backed by Paris and Berlin, constituted a coming of age for the EU: “bluntly put, it would not be in the Union’s interests for things to go well in the post-Brexit UK”, while the Commission would show its value by revealing to the public “just how difficult it is to escape its clutches”.

Yet Anderson wonders how a failure to accommodate David Cameron’s minimal requests with regard to free movement can be described as “a triumph of European statecraft”, given how vague the statement of that principle actually is in the provisions of the Treaty of Rome.

Democratic systems have effective oppositions that may one day govern – the European Union is organised in such a way that it does not

Perry Anderson

As much a sin in wanting to leave the EU was the UK’s perceived succumbing to ‘populism’, the enemy of elite rule. Like referendum and election results in other countries, such as the ‘Danish calamity’– reversed or ignored by Brussels – the UK vote breached the principle of consensus. Van Middelaar wishes there were an element of opposition within the EU but only if it embraces “the conviction that what unites us as Europeans on this continent is bigger and stronger than anything that divides us” – so “trite”, says Anderson.

Simply put, says Anderson, “democratic systems have effective oppositions that may one day govern – the European Union is organised in such a way that it does not”. When van Middelaar looks to ancient Greece for the role of chorus that the EU public might play, Anderson responds: “the Assembly where all important issues were directly debated and determined by citizens, which was most famously what Athens actually invented, is never so much as mentioned”. Also unmentioned, he notes, is the severe hardship suffered by modern Greeks – the young, the old, the poor – after the austerity demands set out by the ‘troika’ (the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank) in defence of the Euro were reluctantly swallowed by the Greek government.

Van Middelaar is more diplomatic than Van Rompuy himself, who said: “I believe the Union is over-democratised – the performance of the troika may have taken place a little too much in the media spotlight”. “Better in a blackout,” comments Anderson bleakly.

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