1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 25 August 2014
Luuk van Middelaar is a political philosopher, but he's impatient with scholarly solitude. His hero is Machiavelli, not just because he's a good writer but because he understands that politics is about how events shape our political systems - and not the other way round.
This remarkable book uses all the tricks of the writer's trade to tell the extraordinary story of the European Union. Van Middelaar's approach combines lucidity with a knack for metaphor; as a result, the tale he tells is clear and - shout it loud - deeply enjoyable.
We need, says van Middelaar, a new vocabulary for Europe. The fights in the Union have always been about words. De Gaulle and Thatcher, for example, both resisted the translation of Assembly into Parliament, a word that threatened their sacred notion of sovereign states. They lost.
Since then, says van Middelaar, the European project has been described in terms of what he calls 'two spheres': an outer sphere (the club of nation states) and an inner sphere (the unified community). Van Middelaar draws our attention to a third sphere: `the intermediate space' between the ambitions of the federalists and the scaremongering of the eurosceptics. This third sphere - visible most obviously as the European Council - is potentially the most creative of the three. Van Middelaar knows this intermediate space well: since December 2009, van Middelaar has been a member of the cabinet of Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council's first permanent president.
This middle space is deeply paradoxical. The European Council has no legislative power, but it's charged under the Lisbon treaty with defining "the general political directions and priorities" of the Union. Prime ministers and national presidents can enter this space only if they're members of the Union; but their conversation is not bound by the treaty of membership.
This curious space, van Middelaar suggests, is where new hybrid European institutions and agreements can be made. It's where European and national interests meet; the place - perhaps the only place - where European leaders can rise above the rule-bound institutionalism of the community and their own local agendas.
Van Middelaar detects a kind of invisible glue holding Europe together; a glue manufactured by the language of deliberation and debate, carefully spread by the European Council. And it seems, sometimes, to work; witness the Union's survival of the euro crisis in the last year or so.
"Reinforce the intermediate sphere": that is what van Middelaar has tried to do in his four years at the Council.
Europe's most urgent task currently is to engage with its citizens, for whom the Union remains distant, monolithic and irrelevant. We need a vision for Europe. Many are now calling for a new language to conjure that vision; something more than platitudes, brochures and directives.
If anyone can help us find the words we need, it is Luuk van Middelaar.
A longer version of this review appears at:
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
There are lots of dry tomes on European politics: this one reminds me of of Larry Siedentop's Democracy in Europe because it's well-written and, on occasions, playful. It's a detailed history of where we've got to with the European Union, and also a philosophical musing on what binds us together.
Van Middelaar explains the 'Roman', 'Greek' and 'German' strategies to build a collective identity, but concludes it's a project 'in progress'. We don't seem to have created anything that has the same grandeur of the 'Founding Fathers' but something has evolved over the years which many of us think is worth cherishing.
If you want to understand what the European Union is about and converse knowledgeably about its future, you need to read this book.