June 17, 2024

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"The EU is not the heaven its founders dreamed of, but neither is it the hell of Europe's eternal civil wars. The EU is a purgatory that manages, if you will, our decadence, but it is a very habitable purgatory".

Victor Pou, 7 February 2022

The Flemish historian and political scientist Luuk van Middelaar, born in Eindhoven in 1973, professor at the Dutch University of Leiden and the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, is one of the foremost analysts of the European integration process.

“The EU is not the heaven its founders dreamed of, but neither is it the hell of Europe’s eternal civil wars. The EU is a purgatory that manages, if you will, our decadence, but it is a very habitable purgatory”.

He was speechwriter to the first full-time president of the European Council, the Belgian Herman Van Rompuy, between 2009 and 2014. He knows the EU institutions inside out, dealing regularly with their leaders and officials, who always read what he writes with attention, as do many followers of the European integration process.

A decade ago, he published a book entitled “The Passage to Europe. History of a beginning” (El Pasaje a Europa. Historia de un comienzo) (Galaxia Gutenberg, 2010), in which he explained the history of the EU, as well as its institutional complexities and political vicissitudes, and it was a great publishing success. In 2017 he published “When Europe improvises. Ten years of political crises” (Gallimard, 2017). At the end of 2021 he has published another under the title “Pandemonium. Saving Europe” (Agenda Publishing, 2021), which at the beginning of the year is recommended reading for anyone interested in the future of Europe.

Middelaar’s central thesis, set out in the first chapters of the book, is that the European Union (formerly the European Community) experienced a few quiet and successful founding decades. These are the decades from the end of the Second World War to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Specifically, from 1951, the founding year of the European Community, until 1989. Those decades were characterised in the EU by the development of “a politics of rules” or “a politics of norms”. The EU was a new platform that had been created for its member states to relate to each other in an environment of peace and prosperity, with external security guaranteed by the great promoter and protector of the project: the United States of America. One prevailing slogan was shared by all: “never again war between us”.

Most of the EU’s early political energies were devoted to building a framework of rules and standards, which soon led to the creation of a continental market, through a customs union and a common market. This was a success in itself, not only because of the liberalisation of trade, much applauded by the economic and business world, but also because of the political proximity it generated, which was the “glue” that held the states together.

But, according to Van Middelaar, things changed radically, from a geopolitical point of view, after 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the subsequent disappearance of the USSR (1991) and the democratisation of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which immediately knocked on the door of the EU to ask for full membership. And again, things changed radically from 2005 onwards, with the sudden onset of a concatenation of political, economic and social crises – both internal and external – each one of them unforeseen and of major dimensions, to date.

We are talking about the failure of the EU constitutional treaty (2005), the Great Recession (2007), the euro crisis (2010), the Crimean crisis (2014), the refugee crisis (2015), Brexit (2016), Trump (2016) and the pandemic (2020). This “concatenation of crises”, “multi-crisis” or “hydra crisis”, according to different analysts, has provoked a true “existential crisis” of the EU, in the words of the former president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker from Luxembourg. All around them, prophets of apocalypse repeatedly announced the end of the Union, but this was not the case. Economists as renowned as the American Paul Krugman said in 2010 that the euro “will die, it’s a matter of months”. Famous colleagues of his had claimed in the 1990s that the birth of the euro was “simply impossible”, and they also had to admit that they had been wrong.

From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the present day (1989-2022), the EU has been characterised by a “policy of events”, as opposed to the previous policy of “rules” or “norms” experienced during its first decades of life (1951-1989). The EU has had to devote practically all its energies to trying to assimilate and overcome the “events”, veritable crises, which were knocking at its doors, all of them new and all of them calling for novo treatment. Little or nothing had been prepared with foresight about the remedies to overcome them. They were not foreseen. As a result, a great deal of improvisation was required (hence the title of Van Middleaar’s second book, “When Europe improvises”, mentioned above) and it was necessary to work very quickly and against the tide, running great risks that could at any moment cause the wreck of the Community ship.

The former president of the European Commission, the Frenchman Jacques Delors, spoke several times during this dangerous voyage of the “risk of death” of the EU. The EU is not dead and is still alive. But today it is fighting the pandemic and is still suffering the after-effects of the geopolitical tectonic shifts of 1989 and the effects of the concatenation of ‘major crises’ that began in 2005.

The author thus identifies three clearly differentiated periods in the process of European integration.

The first period is the founding period from 1945 onwards, with its characteristic policy of rules and norms. The impetus was provided by the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1951. The “founding fathers” proclaimed a new era, with the end of the war and Europe as a promise. Jean Monnet’s pragmatic prescriptions: creation of common economic interests and the “Community method” of political decision-making. A permanent cry for the future. People liked to talk about the “European project”. People lived “on credit”. In Brussels every “no” was a “not yet”. The movement was towards “more Europe”. It was the period of the Promise. The British entered 1973 and discovered that Europe was a movement forward, towards “ever stronger union”, three famous words. One taboo was to appeal to national interest. A second taboo was to talk in terms of differences between member states. A third taboo was to ask about the location of the Union’s government. A fourth taboo was to talk about borders. The post-World War II European dream of a new era prevailed.

The second period is the period of re-foundation from 1989 onwards. The metamorphosis from a Europe of rules to a Europe of events began. The “mother of all shocks”, the “Bing bang”, is the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which forces a fundamental re-evaluation of the European states. Comparable to the Schuman Declaration of 1951, the Berlin shock of 9 November 1989 (I was in Brussels, in my office at the European Commission, my son David calls me and tells me that he is watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on TV) will result in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 and the creation of the EU. A New Beginning (see my EU history booklet: there are two phases in EU history, before Maastricht and after Maastricht). A New Beginning led to fascinating skirmishes between Promise and historical reality, a period of confusion in which old and new forms, Community and Union, existed together independently and in mixed forms.

New paths were devised.

First, the EU would be about security. At France’s insistence, against British opinion, the Maastricht Treaty included a common foreign and security policy. The newly reunified Germany pushed for the entry of the eastern countries.

The second path was the creation of a common currency, a direct consequence of the fall of the Berlin Wall. French President Mitterrand tested Germany’s membership of the club. German Chancellor Kohl understood French pressure. The euro was presented as an extension of the single market, according to the old policy of rules. After Paris forced the big concession that there should be a common currency (goodbye to the mark, goodbye to the dominant Bundesbank, which France wanted above all), Bonn was allowed to determine what that common currency would look like. The euro should be as stable as the mark, the new central bank as politically independent as the Bundesbank, and so on. Hence the European Central Bank was born, and so on. The British said no to the euro. For London it was a step that went far beyond the old policy of rules. With Maastricht, the exceptions, opt-outs, and opt-ins began. This recognition of differences already heralded something very important: the fall of the Promise.

Third path: the politicisation of institutions, with stronger relations with citizens and voters. Europe’s institutional structure is the fruit of teamwork and rivalry between France and Germany, between small states and large states, between national capitals and central institutions. There has never been agreement on an optimal structure.

If we look at politics as a theatre, we see three dramaturgical styles developed: depoliticization (1945-1989), parliamentarization and cimmerianism (from 1989 onwards).

First style: depoliticised community. Three institutions organise affairs. The Commission in Brussels makes proposals, administers, and acts as “guardian of the treaties”. The Court of Justice in Luxembourg monitors the Treaty and defends the emerging legal order. The Council of Ministers negotiates and determines the rules. Officials, things go slowly and out of public view. Work goes on behind the scenes, behind the scenes. Public support is not the result of democratic participation, but of practical results.

From 1960 onwards, two dramaturgical interventions are used in an effort to put the public and the citizen in the theatre, resulting in the European Parliament and the European Council of heads of state and government. There was a disagreement: 1) a group led by (West) Germany, Italy, Belgium and Luxembourg, starting from the Pledge, wanted to create a direct relationship between Parliament and voters and endow the Commission with the legitimacy of a government; 2) a second group led by France, to present national voters, government leaders and central figures in the theatre.

Years without agreement. Until 1974 with Giscard d’Estaing: European Council and direct elections in the European Parliament. Member States brought this compromise to Maastricht. In 1991. The EP was given legislative power together with the Council. With these decisions, leaders recognised that a Union that engages in political developments needs the support and voices of voters. It was the era of politicisation without government.

The public is aware that Europe has changed after 1989. During the ratification process of the Maastricht Treaty, there was great resistance. In June 1992, the Danish voted against the Treaty, rejected it (Viva Dinamarca, writes Rafael Termes) (I in an article: the garbage of Maastricht, Salmurri gets angry), and opposed the innovations of Maastricht, such as the euro. This rejection was a novelty and a shock. In France, it was only by the skin of their teeth that it was not approved. Jacques Delors was very disappointed. The Commission and Parliament were angry that the sacred “Community method” was being violated. Angela Merkel spoke of the “Union method”. She had violated a taboo. She toned down the words.

Third period: crisis from 2005 until now. Concatenation of events. 2008 war between Georgia and Russia. 2008 Great Recession, etc. EU improvises. To date. Responsibility and accountability are needed. And answers. People are demanding answers. What is Brussels doing? No passive consensus.

Van Middelaard warns that the danger is not over, that there will be more crises in the coming years, and that we must perfect “the politics of events” until it becomes a conventional policy. Moreover, each and every solution to overcome current and future crises will have to convince citizens, as has already had to be done since 2005, in a very different way from the first decades of the integration process (1951-1989), where a “passive consensus” reigned among citizens.

Before 1989, politics in Europe was done behind the scenes, out of public view, with diplomats, civil servants, negotiators. It was a very powerful asset and often the only way to reach top-down agreements, from the “elites” downwards, towards the ordinary citizen, who accepted the proposals made “from above” with complacency, with confidence, and without intervening too much or not at all. Everything seemed fine, in the name of Europe. The economy was on its side. The European integration project was very seductive, it was the great novelty. The citizen was happy to see peace and prosperity reigning in Europe (only in Western Europe, of course). They were living “the thirty glorious years” after the Second World War, which are remembered by many in Europe with great nostalgia.

Van Middelaar’s latest book carries, as is customary with all his books, a title, and a subtitle. The title is “Pandemonium”. He explains that it is a word invented by the English poet and essayist John Milton (1608-1674), appearing at the end of the first book of his famous book “Paradise Lost” (1667), meaning the capital of hell, “the high capital of Satan and his acolytes”, built by the fallen angels at the behest of the evil Mammon. In common parlance, a “pandemonium” is a place or situation where great confusion reigns with shouting, noise, agitation, and distress. Van Middelaar’s latest book is a metaphor for situations in Brussels, the EU capital, during the years of great challenges or events. The subtitle of the book is “Saving Europe”. Here the author wants to show us that, after great suffering, salvation can come. It can come, of course, provided it is fought with courage.

According to Van Middelaar, “Europe is a special continent which has achieved a certain unity, and which combines enormous diversity and immense plurality. A continent that will not easily, nor soon, create a kind of superstate, a kind of United States of Europe, but it will have to move towards an ever-greater unity, elaborated in its own style, without copying external models”. He believes that “if we have overcome existential crises, it is likely that we will be able to survive other challenges”. He reminds us that “democracy is at the heart of European society; it is political freedoms, the right to vote, to organise, political opposition, the right to freedom of expression, all of this is part of our political identity”. He warns that “the ability to overcome future challenging developments will require more strategic thinking on the part of Europe’s institutional mechanisms”.

The penultimate two chapters of the book are devoted to the last major crisis of the coronavirus and the EU’s turn towards the openness, visibility and transparency demanded by European citizens.

On the coronavirus he writes: “It is the latest crisis in a long series. Each crisis paints a magnificent picture of the EU’s strengths and weaknesses. This latest coronavirus crisis pushes Europe to become a community of destiny that faces events as a unified whole”.

On the claims of European citizens, Van Middelaar states: “The fundamental principle of my book is to point out the importance of the revolution that has been taking place before our very eyes over the last thirty years. This revolution is not only about who makes decisions and how they are made, but about the way the EU is perceived, the way people look at European politics, and because now more than ever the people of Europe are asking to have a say in a shared political life. The politics of events entails the participation of citizens, it means the end of the “passive consensus” of citizens on the European integration process, characteristic of the first thirty years of its history. The pandemic has accelerated all these changes”. “For the first thirty years of its history, the EU was a factory for producing rules, but since 1989, and up to the present day, it has become a European community of destiny”.

The last chapter of the book is crucial.

It is where the author argues the need for Europe to adopt “strategic thinking and action” to meet the challenge of a completely transformed geopolitical world today with declining American leadership, the great re-emergence of China and the re-emergence of old threatening empires such as Russia, the Ottoman, and Iranian empires. Without such “strategic thinking and action”, Europe’s future is severely compromised.

The book ends with these words: “The era of security, prosperity and freedom without cost is over for Europe. The politics of events, not rules, will force the European citizen and his or her politicians to recognise and consider difficult and perhaps tragic choices, as well as forcing the EU to begin to operate strategically. Ultimately, the salvation of Europe is at stake”.

Van Middelaar’s last words in an interview with a Barcelona media outlet in 2013 were the following: “The EU is not the heaven its founders dreamed of, but neither is it the hell of eternal European civil wars. The EU is a purgatory that manages, if you like, our decadence, but it is a very habitable purgatory. I would argue that the forces of European construction have prevailed and will continue to prevail over the forces of destruction”.


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