As a student during the 1980s, I gave the "European Union" section in the library a wide berth. The pall of soporific technocracy that hung over it made the adjacent shelves of books on law and political science enticing by comparison. A lot more has been written on the EU since then, most of it perpetuating that same "mortal dullness," to borrow a phrase from the historian Perry Anderson. Dullness, on the other hand, is one charge no one has ever levied at Anderson, whose new book, The New Old World, is as insightful, combative and invigorating as its illustrious predecessors. Given Anderson’s long and intimate engagement with Europe, both as an editor of the New Left Review and a regular contributor to the London Review of Books for the past two decades, one looks forward to what one gets–a bracing assault from somewhere on the left on the conventional Europieties, and new perspectives on the evolution, and likely future trajectory, of one of the most important political and cultural experiments of our time.
Anderson states the fundamental analytical difficulty of his project at the outset. Europe appears to be an "impossible object," constantly slipping among three quite distinct literatures. There are histories of the postwar continent, mostly written in the shadow of the cold war and paying little attention to the European Union; there is the vast outpouring of works, popular and scholarly, focusing not on Europe per se but on this or that European country. (The EU may be a polity of sorts, but the political and intellectual energies of most Europeans still flow at the national level.) Finally, there is what we might call professional EUrology: a series of interventions, chiefly by legal scholars and political scientists, on the technicalities of the integration process and its institutions. Given the amnesiac quality of much of this last in particular, Anderson’s ability to move fluently among the three literatures, and above all to evaluate the EU as an ideology, is necessary and timely.
Anderson takes as his starting point a series of reflections on the work of the historian Alan Milward, who in The Reconstruction of Western Europe, 1945-51 (1984), The European Rescue of the Nation-State (1992) and The Frontiers of National Sovereignty (1993) demonstrated the degree to which the politics of the nation-state remained vital in explaining the postwar drive toward European integration. Milward’s argument was that the revival of democracy in the nation-states of Western Europe, shaken by the experience of occupation and war, depended on the pursuit of prosperity through the rebuilding of cross-border economic networks. As this rebuilding took place, it became the motor of more permanent and far-reaching European cooperation. Accepting the basic insight, Anderson argues that Milward nevertheless exaggerates the degree to which this process was democratic; in fact, far from restoring and deepening democracy in Europe, as the EU’s founders wished, the institutions they built have eroded and weakened it. This tendency has reached an apogee in the creation of a single currency defended by a powerful centralized monetary authority that exerts deflationary pressure on wages in order to guard the rigid conditions of the Stability and Growth Pact. The lack of comparably powerful legislatures at the European level means that the voice of the popular will is silenced. (A rare exception was the rejection by French and Dutch voters of the EU’s constitutional treaty in 2005, a wrinkle ironed out by the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009.) Any democratic impulse in the integration process long ago withered away and has been replaced by an elitarian, even oligarchic form of consensus policy-making conducted behind closed doors and consummated in faits accomplis.