This book is just what I hoped it would be, and just what I needed. In Britain, we have been having a long debate about Europe and the EU, but always from the British point of view. I have been frustrated to hear a number of British people, ordinary folk and leading politicians, saying that we joined a common market, and we were never told that the EU involved closer political and economic union. I knew that this was simply not true, but I needed to learn much more about the EU, how it came into being, and how it has developed. After all, Britain came late to the EU: at first, we were not interested, and when we got interested we were for a time blocked from entry. So this Dutch author, coming from one of the founding countries, looked like a good guide. Coming from a small country, he does not represent any of the 'big beasts' in the EU. He is a political philosopher, and he lays out the details of the formation and development of a unique political, social and economic experiment, based on his own deep knowledge. It represents such a different perspective on the EU from what we are accustomed to getting in half-baked sound-bites on radio, TV and in the press. It's fascinating stuff, but don't expect it to be a simple and straightforward story. It's convoluted and complicated, because the governments and politicians who have contributed to the building of the EU have found it difficult, and they have not all been of one mind. But the book does what its title flags up - charts how the EU has come to be what it currently is.
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.
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.
This is a well-written story of how co-operation between nation-states in Europe has evolved over the last sixty-five years. The careful dissection of actions behind the scenes makes it clear how complicated the evolution has been, how small the individual steps of progress have been but also how persistent has been the momentum as events along the way have to be dealt with. It is encouraging to be reminded just how much has been achieved in two-thirds of a century.