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Book Review: Anderson's Europe

The European Union may very well be stumbling into recession with Germany and the UK to the fore as they savage public spending. But there are also long-term political problems that the EU’s political classes choose to ignore.

Perry Anderson, The New Old World, Verso £24.99

The European Union is the most successful of experiments in supranational governance. It has made greater progress towards genuine sovereignty sharing than any other equivalent body; and has spawned would-be imitators in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America. But it has problems as we have seen in recent months with the crisis of sovereign debt across member states.

Perry Anderson’s book, a collection of essays which appeared between 1996 and 2009, deals with longer-term political problems.  The first part considers the foundation and development of the Union to the present; the second the ‘core’ participants in the integration project, France, Germany and Italy; the third, the ‘Eastern Question’, discussing Cyprus and Turkey. Part four is a conclusion.

In the early 1970s, Anderson played a leading role, from his then-position as editor of New Left Review, in promoting a left view that saw potential in the European integration project and supported UK membership. In this book, Anderson insists that “my admiration for [the Union’s] original architects remains undiminished. Their enterprise had no historical precedent, and its grandeur continues to haunt what it has since become.”

However, his central thesis here is that the EU is now run by self-satisfied elites, promoting it as a “paragon for the rest of the world”, while “it becomes steadily less capable of winning the confidence of its citizens, and more and more openly flouts the popular will.”

The purpose of the EU, Anderson holds, has become obscure. In the “heroic phase of European integration”, the objectives were clear: “to assure peace to the west of the Iron Curtain, by binding France and Germany into a common legal framework, and prosperity in the Six by creating a semi-continental market”. This coherence is now lacking. As it has evolved, the EU has become closer to the values of Friedrich Hayek than Jean Monnet - that is to say, more a way of removing barriers to free trade than of bringing about macro-economic intervention and social redistribution. Differences in levels of welfare provision between the EU and US are not as great as is often imagined. The Union is defined, Anderson argues, by conflict between Islamic migrants and the longer-standing inhabitants, while potential class-conflict is given no expression because of the disappearance of socialism. The EU is now preparing for the role of “deputy empire” to the US, contemplating Turkish membership, but reluctant to do the same for the Ukraine.

Rather than condense any further the arguments of this large, closely argued book, I would recommend that anyone with an interest in a subject largely ignored on any serious level in the UK media and political discourse read it for themselves. It suffers from some over-generalisation – for instance about the nature of European social democratic parties. But it makes up for this weakness through its display of the obvious depth of research that has gone into it. There is a valuable willingness take on board and adapt ideas from the political right, including a convincing passage about the doomed projects of ‘inter-faith dialogue’ favoured by liberals of no religious commitment themselves.

If I was going to suggest any ways of dealing with the problems Anderson highlights, one would be to attempt to build up genuine European political parties that can offer the European electorate a meaningful choice at elections to the European Parliament, with the outcomes genuinely impacting upon the course of the Union. Such a change would hopefully be coupled with and contributing to a genuine European demos – although these objectives are easier to state than achieve.

Anderson deliberately does not give specific consideration to the UK, “whose history since the fall of Thatcher has been of little moment”. In the sense that there has been no significant shift away from the economic model adopted during 1979-90 he is correct. But since the 1990s, particularly from 1997, the UK has undergone dramatic constitutional change. This process is set to continue under the new coalition government. It is not clear where it will end, but viewed from the perspective of its operational political structures, the UK already looks significantly different from the way it did when Margaret Thatcher left No.10 in 1990.

We are edging towards a codified constitution, with the Human Rights Act possibly acting as an embryonic Bill of Rights. Despite its limitations the Freedom of Information Act has increased levels of openness around government, with more openness now being introduced under the coalition.  Devolution of political power – particularly to Scotland and Wales – has challenged the centralised nature of the UK state and the concept of parliamentary sovereignty, and could contribute to the break-up of the UK itself.

Another change has been the rise of the referendum as a means of political decision-making. Here the development of the UK interlocks with the future of the EU. The coalition is committed to holding referendums on any further extensions in the remit of the EU. Given the eurosceptic leanings of the British electorate this stipulation could act as a break not only further integration for the UK, but on the future development of the EU as a whole. Alternatively it could be that the states within the Eurozone will continue to integrate at an accelerated rate, prompted in particular by the ongoing financial crisis, while the UK holds back, hardening its semi-detached European status. Such an outcome is suggested by David Cameron’s recent announcement that he will not oppose measures to give the EU greater involvment in the budgets of member states, provided they do not affect the UK.

Andrew Blick is Senior Research Fellow at Democratic Audit and joint author with George Jones of the recently published Premiership: the development, nature and power of the office of the British Prime Minister

About the author

Andrew Blick is the author of People who Live in the Dark: The History of the Special Adviser in British Politics (Politicos, 2004 ) and How to Go to War (Politicos, 2005).


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