May 1, 2011 8:18 pm

Mixed messages on European unity

The End of the West: The Once and Future Europe
By David Marquand
Princeton University Press, $24.95 (£16.95)

David Marquand is a champion of democracy whose last book gave a lively account of its rise in 20th-century Britain. He is also a promoter of the European “project”, since his days as a Labour backbencher. He followed Roy Jenkins to Brussels when Jenkins became European Commission president in the 1970s. Through Marquand’s new book, The End of the West, runs a dark sense that his two enthusiasms – the European Union and democracy – no longer fit together logically. The EU’s governing institutions, he admits, are “only dubiously legitimate”.

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The EU, as Marquand sees it, is imperilled by paradoxes. It was launched by those who wanted Europe to reclaim “its rightful place as the chief custodian of ‘western’ values” – but there is no longer a “distinct, identifiable place called ‘the west’ ”. Marquand exaggerates, but puts his finger on a genuine problem. When Europe’s leaders act on the world stage, they are liable to the same criticisms that they have levelled at European nation-states – xeno­phobia, ethnocentrism, and the like. If Europe is not going to defend highly specific local things, then who would rather be a “European” than a citizen of the world?

A second paradox is that Europe sometimes betrays western values as it spreads them, especially democracy. Something went terribly wrong as the EU expanded from its “Carolingian” core of six countries into today’s 27-nation behemoth. The European constitutional referendum – overwhelmingly rejected by voters in 2005, then lightly edited into the “Lisbon treaty” and enacted behind their backs in 2007 – was an egregious piece of chicanery. Marquand shows that the EU’s ambitions have been at odds with its democratic principles. In its zeal to expand, it ignored “the democratic right of existing EU citizens to decide whether yet more new members should be admitted and yet more disruptive changes undergone”.

Marquand practises a double standard, because this is the logic according to which the European man in the street expresses his misgivings about immigration and multiculturalism. In that context, Marquand has zero tolerance for his line of reasoning. He worries about “Islamophobia”, which he calls the “true 21st-century equivalent” of the anti-Semitism that led to Nazi gas chambers. Those who worried about the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and those who disagreed with the Archbishop of Canterbury about codifying sharia are indulging in it. Those who call for “assimilating” immigrants are giving aid and comfort to it. “Two absolutisms were in conflict,” he writes of the Rushdie controversy, “the Islamic absolutism of the marchers and the secularist absolutism of the liberal intelligentsia, to which Rushdie himself belonged.” That is a fair description, but only as it is borne in mind that one of these “absolutisms” was calling for a novelist to be murdered for practising his craft, and the other was not.

Marquand opposes Turkey’s EU candidacy, but considers its Muslim faith a point in its favour. Admitting it to full membership would show “that Europe is the child of all three Abrahamic religions, and not just of two”. But how the experience of Muslim Spain and southern Italy more than half a millennium ago makes the UK, France, Germany and Scandinavia the “children” of Islam is left unexplained. (Disclosure: Marquand mentions my work in passing. He misrepresents a comparison I once made between Bolsheviks and Islamists as a comparison between Bolsheviks and Muslims, which is a different thing.)

A curious feature of this book is Marquand’s lack of concern that continuing political integration will threaten Europe’s cultural diversity – not because he welcomes the erosion of difference but because he thinks no such erosion is happening. “Europe has not become an American-style melting pot,” he writes. “As anyone travelling on a French high-speed train, drinking in an Irish pub, or eating Polish bigos will soon discover, its ancient diversity ... still survives.” Just four years after the latest EU expansion, Marquand’s confidence seems premature. Perhaps he has not been in an Irish pub since Ireland passed its no-smoking laws.

You could say that Marquand’s comfort with paradoxes makes him a good person to write about the EU. You could also say he likes to argue both sides of every issue, “For most of its history, the British state has been resolutely unitary,” he notes, but two pages later he adds: “Britain has always been a multinational state, not a nation-state of the classical kind.” At another point he describes the EU as “inspiring” and “dull” in the same sentence. We are left with a similarly ambiguous conclusion: that Europe has been an “astonishingly successful agent of democratisation”, but that the democratisation it has carried out has been neither especially worthwhile nor especially democratic.

The reviewer is an FT columnist

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