A very European coup

Perry Anderson’s Ever Closer Union? reveals how the EU carved out a new, anti-democratic political order.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Books Brexit Politics

Perry Anderson’s Ever Closer Union?, comprising four essays first published in the New Left Review and the London Review of Books, provides an elegantly savage critique of the European Union. Many of the arguments and themes may be familiar – years of rowing over Brexit will do that to an audience – but few deliver the lines with the poise of Anderson.

What ultimately emerges from the pages of Ever Closer Union? is the EU not as its defenders imagine it to be, but as it really is: an oligarchic institution, built over and against the peoples of Europe.

Ever Closer Union? is a slow burner, however. Its first chapter, originally published in the New Left Review, sits slightly apart from the subsequent three (all published in the London Review of Books). Posed as a critique of the work of Adam Tooze, the first chapter is aimed less at Europe than at a certain European idolatry of the United States as a force for good in the world. Tooze, writes Anderson, is ‘star-struck by America’. Hence he heroises the interventions of the Federal Reserve in response to the 2008 crash, and lambasts the European Central Bank for not doing something similar earlier.

It is here though – where Anderson examines Tooze’s hailing of state interventions in the banking system – that one of the key themes of Ever Closer Union? emerges. Anderson argues that the adulation of such state intervention easily turns into an adulation of technocracy per se. Or as Tooze himself tellingly puts it, ‘it is all too obvious today how important it is to be able to identify matters of potential technical agreement beyond politics’. The anti-democratic implications of such a position are the focus of much of the rest of Ever Closer Union?.

It is in the second essay, looking at the formation and increasing integration of the EU, that Ever Closer Union? really comes into its own. This focuses on the work of Dutch political philosopher Luuk van Middelaar, especially his widely praised 2009 opus, The Passage to Europe.

Middelaar is not simply an academic. He has also been very close to centres of power in the EU, interning under EU commissioner Frits Bolkestein in the 2000s, then working for a time in the Hague, and, after the publication of The Passage to Europe, serving as a speechwriter and special adviser to European Council president Herman Van Rompuy. As Anderson puts it, Middelaar is ‘the one significant theorist of Europe to marry long-range thought with proximity to power’.

Anderson comes to praise – and then to bury – Middelaar. He uses The Passage to Europe against Middelaar’s intentions – to expose the EU’s deeply anti-democratic genesis.

For Middelaar the EU is a triumph of statecraft, the ingenious product of several small ‘coups’ in which brilliant lawyers and politicians forced through a new political order through their own virtuoso decision-making. This was clear, he argues, when the European Court of Justice ‘ruled’, without justification, that national legislation was subordinate to European Community regulations. And it was clear again in 1985, when the Single European Act extended the Common Market from goods to services – ‘a coup disguised as a procedural decision’.

But what Anderson sees in this ‘sublime’ work of statecraft is less than magical. It is the product of oligarchic force, driven initially by a motley crew of erstwhile fascists, Nazis and Vichy apologists in the ECJ – a gradual imposition of a political and legal order to which no demos has been able to consent.

He contrasts the formation of the European Union with the foundation of that other union, in America, to which European federalists so often appeal. The United States, argues Anderson, emerged on the back of the rebel colonists’ popular struggle against the British and the subsequent Declaration of Independence – a people united in prospect of continental expansion under a near-enough single language. Crucially, the US Constitution drew on and centralised the democracy already being practised in the hitherto independent states in a federation.

‘The EU of today’, counters Anderson, ‘was neither the creation of a revolution, nor enjoys any homogeneity of culture or language, nor is united by the intoxicating prospect of any expansion. Moreover, and decisively, what degree of federation it has achieved has been bought by crippling rather than enhancing what democracy its constituent nations possess.’

In the third and penultimate essay, Anderson provides a thorough-going critique of the component parts of the European Union. As we have alluded to, he shows how the ECJ’s assertion, in the 1960s, of the supremacy of community law over nation-state law had no basis in the Treaty of Rome. Secretive and situated high above the political fray, the ECJ is unique among supreme and constitutional courts in any democracy – in that its rulings are entirely resistant to abrogation or alteration on the part of an elected legislature. ‘The truth is’, concludes Anderson, ‘it would be difficult to conceive of a judicial institution in the West that, from its tenebrous outset onwards, was purer of any trace of democratic accountability’.

Indeed, the defiance of any democratic accountability characterises the European Union. The European Commission is the bureaucratic, legislative head, ruling with, well, the rule book – the wilfully impenetrable 90,000-page aquis communitaire, ‘the longest and most formidable written monument of bureaucratic expansion in human history’. The European Central Bank, established in 1999, is as secretive and as without scrutiny as the ECJ. And the European Council, comprising the elected heads of the member states, again operates entirely behind closed doors. This is not a council of equals, but a hierarchy, headed by the powerful duoply of France and Germany.

Even the European Parliament, which looks a bit like something you would find in a democracy is nothing of the sort. ‘It does not possess the rights to elect a government, to initiate legislation, to levy taxes, to shape welfare or determine a foeign policy’, writes Anderson. ‘In short, it is the semblance of a parliament, as ordinarily understood, that falls far short of the reality of one.’ And voters have long known this, hence turnout in European Parliament elections has fallen steadily across four decades.

In Anderson’s telling, the European Union does not suffer a ‘democratic deficit’ – this is not a snag that can be fixed with a bit of bureaucratic fiddling. Developed through Middelaar’s so-called ‘coups’, the EU is intrinsically and structurally opposed to democracy. You can no more make the EU more democratic than you can make a tree less woody – it would go against its nature.

This insight is arguably what lends the final chapter on Brexit and its pre-history its force. Anderson sees pro-EU sentiment and ‘Remainer passion’ as essentially modes of delusion. For the EU’s champions, especially in the UK, cling to an idea of the EU – tolerant, democratic and peaceable – that simply doesn’t exist. (He ruthlessly explodes the myths of the EU’s virtue, pointing out, for example, that it was NATO and the Cold War, not the European Community, that brought an end to military conflict within Europe.)

He turns on one-time Tories turned anti-Brexiters, like Peter Oborne and Ferdinand Mount, and notes that none pay any ‘sustained attention to the institutions of the EU’, largely because they’re only really interested in the affairs of ‘Blighty’. He also points out the hollowness of Remainers’ ‘internationalism’, exposed by the growing dearth of foreign-language students and increasing monolingualism of the pro-EU young.

Anderson understands the vote for Brexit for what it was – an attempt on the part of disempowered, working-class voters to gain ‘control over their own, and their country’s destiny’.

He is under no illusions about the condition of Britain’s parliamentary democracy, lumbered as it is with an antique first-past-the-post system and an unelected upper chamber stuffed to the gills with ‘flunkies and friends of the two dominant parties’. Yet even this, he notes, ‘is vastly superior’ to the ‘lacquered synarchy’ of the EU, a ‘simulacrum of a sentient democracy’.

The EU is not short of critiques, of course. But few are as compelling as Ever Closer Union?.

Tim Black is a columnist at spiked.

Ever Closer Union? Europe in the West, by Perry Anderson, is published by Verso. (Order this book here.)

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Books Brexit Politics


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