Magazine article The Spectator

Tensions in the European Union

Magazine article The Spectator

Tensions in the European Union

Article excerpt


by Perry Anderson Verso, £24.99, pp. 561, ISBN 9781844673124

£19.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Perry Anderson was an editor of the New Left Review in the days when there was a New Left, and a proEuropean Marxist at a time when this seemed a contradiction in terms.

Since then, the opinions of this characteristically English rebel have been softened by years passed in the sociology departments of American universities. He has learned to love the values of American liberal capitalism, albeit with large qualifications.

Disappointed idealism has soured his former adulation of French intellectual elites. But some things have not changed. Anderson's contempt for the English political and intellectual tradition is as sharp as ever, and peppers the pages of this book. The influence of the United Kingdom in Europe has taken a knock lately, but Anderson writes as if it had never really had any. This is engaging, but eccentric.

Even more eccentric is the structure of the book. Ostensibly an account of the history and ideology of the European Union, The New Old World is in fact a collection of essays and lectures written at different times over the past 15 years, most of which originally appeared in the London Review of Books. They have been only slightly revised for publication in book form.

This lends a certain incoherence to the volume. Some chapters were written before the single currency and enlargement of the Union to the east, and treat both of them as speculative projects. Others discuss them as problems resolved or insoluble. As for the financial crisis of 2008-9, by shifting opinion towards a more intensive style of economic regulation this seminal event may well prove to be a turning point in the European Union's history.

But apart from a nod in the last chapter (entitled 'Prognoses') it is largely ignored here. Perhaps this is inevitable. All learning about an institution as protean, directionless and accident-prone as the European Union is bound to be ephemeral. Yet Anderson's insights should not be brushed aside, even if they seemed more impressive at the time of their first appearance in print. Separated from Europe by an ocean and a continent, and from mainstream opinion in his own country by a visceral antipathy, Anderson sees some things more clearly than the rest of us.

Like most serious writers on the subject, he is much exercised by the so-called 'democratic deficit' at the heart of the Union's affairs. Anderson is perceptive, and scathing, about this. It is not simply that major areas of policy have been removed from the control of national legislatures, without any corresponding empowerment of the European Parliament. As Anderson shows with a wealth of argument and illustration, the Union is governed by an idealistic administrative elite which is profoundly suspicious of popular control, because it correctly perceives that electorates identify with local and national communities rather than with transnational enterprises like the European Union.

Large numbers of Frenchmen should have rejected the European Constitution because qof their low opinion of President Mitterrand and a fair number of Irishmen voted out the treaty of Lisbon because of their views about contraception, neutrality or euthanasia. …

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