August 22, 2019

The EU’s New Face

When writing about the new book by Luuk van Middelaar, a Dutch political scientist and speechwriter for the European Council’s former president Herman van Rompuy, one cannot escape the fact that its original Dutch title was simply De nieuwe politiek van Europa (Europe’s New Policy). In English, however, the title became sexier, adding drama. This is of course apt when we speak of the EU in recent years, which to date has been the epitome of boredom for journalists, at least.

Luuk van Middelaar. Alarums & Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage. Agenda Publishing, 2019. 320 pp.

Dramatic terminology is also employed by van Middelaar himself. He notes that the traditional axis of supranationalism versus intergovernmentalism is not sufficient for an analysis of the EU. This is where drama comes in. Van Middelaar says the EU’s activities can be analysed by using the language of drama—behind-the-scenes depoliticisation (i.e. decisions are made somewhere by officials) and on-stage parliamentarism (i.e. the European Commission should become a government, appointed by the European Parliament) and meetings between leaders of member states (summitry). All three axes compete with each other for power and it is far from clear which of them will prevail.

In the context of the EU, van Middelaar also writes about J.G.A. Pocock, a political theorist from New Zealand who introduced the term “Machiavellian moment” to political science. This moment occurs when a republic faces a threat to its ideals and the stability of its institutions for the first time. In the case of the EU, that moment arrived with the economic and financial crisis, the migration crisis, Brexit and Donald Trump becoming the president of the United States. The question is: how is the EU going to proceed?

Bringing in Machiavelli is most welcome. The governance of the EU has mostly been depicted as something happening behind glass, where European officials have no idea what is going on in the real world, and as a large-scale bureaucratic exercise taking place outside power mechanisms. In reality, power play also takes place behind closed doors and van Middelaar is good at describing this game, having been part of it himself.

Henry Kissinger wrote in his book World Order that the EU’s belief in governing via administrative means is dysfunctional. After all, history is made by personalities rather than bureaucratic institutions. Van Middelaar’s book is living proof of Kissinger’s claim, because the EU’s current bureaucratic machinery turned out to be powerless in the face of the euro and migration crises, the Ukraine crisis, Brexit and Donald Trump becoming the president. This called for improvisation.

Of the events listed, van Middelaar is perhaps best at describing the euro crisis. This is a particularly interesting read for Estonians; in 2010, when Estonia’s accession to the eurozone was only a few days away, the eurozone itself was on the brink of collapse (or at least this is what van Middelaar hints at). It was entirely possible that by 2011, when Estonia joined the eurozone, it would have ceased to exist. However, in order to overcome the crisis, the EU needed something that would remain outside the laws of the EU. It succeeded by creating a mechanism for helping countries in distress.

The most vivid example of the Machiavellian moment occurred in relation to the Ukraine crisis, which began in 2014 and is still going on. It is widely known that the EU had no foreign policy par excellence and up to that point it had implemented its policy through enlargement—countries wanted to be on good terms with the EU because they hoped to become part of it someday. Russia rebutted this idea and made it very clear to the EU that such an approach would not work. Van Middelaar’s treatment partly relies on the fact that, despite the earlier war in Georgia, Brussels was dominated by the Fukuyamanian understanding of the world as the end of history.

It was the same with Brexit. While denying that there was a plan to create a United States of Europe, van Middelaar coolly admits that the current EU integration model came down to the term “not yet”. Instead of saying that something “does not exist”, the EU jargon uses expressions such as “does not exist yet” and “not yet”, as if hinting at moving towards a shared goal. Brexit put an end to this way of thinking. The UK’s decision to leave the EU was final, but it also raised the question of how to avoid the domino effect and hold the Union together.

At the end of the book, van Middelaar returns to the initial analytical model and admits that the EU has lacked a government like those of its member states. The European Commission has been seen as the EU’s government up to a point, but it does not receive its authority directly from the European Parliament. Van Middelaar also suggests that the Commission could also be treated as the second chamber of the Parliament—a place where all member states are equally represented—while, at the same time, the current complexity of the decision-making mechanism and authorisations does not make the European Commission comparable to the US Senate.

Nevertheless, van Middelaar also makes the very interesting observation that, since the EU lacks a proper government, there is also no proper opposition. One can oppose something that exists in reality, but from the very beginning the EU has been built to be a bureaucratic exercise that has no place for political opposition. In other words, part of the EU has been seriously depoliticised. However, the moment of truth has now arrived: a political process cannot exist without opposition, because political tension creates new possibilities and the struggle for power—Machiavelli!—is a natural part of this process. It is no wonder that the opposition has directed itself against the governments of member states, who are almost held hostage by their domestic audience.

Van Middelaar is perhaps too optimistic in saying that the EU has made it through the current crises. The one in Ukraine continues, the one over migration has subsided but is still there, and the cracks between member states are quite deep at times. Moreover, according to van Middelaar, it seems that the opposition should still be pro-European, but there is little talk of what to do with people who want to see the EU dismantled.

Nevertheless, van Middelaar’s book is a recommended read. Although an inside account, it is able to analyse the EU from an outsider’s perspective.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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