Old world disorder

After The Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent, by Walter Laqueur, Thomas Dunne Books, RRP£18.99, 322 pages

The Future of Europe: Towards a Two-Speed EU?, by Jean-Claude Piris, Cambridge University Press, RRP£17.99, 176 pages

Brussels, the Gentle Monster: Or the Disenfranchisement of Europe, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, translated by Martin Chalmers, Seagull Books, RRP£6, 83 pages

From Brasília to New Delhi, from Beijing to Washington, Europe’s relative decline in global affairs is no longer a prediction but a process widely assumed to be already in motion. So many variables will condition the Old World’s descent in the international order that its ultimate extent is unknowable. For Europe’s rivals and partners alike, however, the downward trend is not seriously in dispute.

More in sorrow than anger, Kevin Rudd, Australia’s foreign minister, spoke at this month’s annual Munich security conference of the disagreeable future that may enfold Europe unless it gets its act together. “The danger that I see ... is Europe progressively becoming so introspective – and so preoccupied with its internal problems of the economy and of the eurozone in particular – that Europe runs the risk of talking itself into an early economic and, therefore, global political grave,” Rudd said.

Such warnings verge on the apocalyptic. Yet European politicians, business leaders and cultural luminaries are not oblivious to the risk Rudd discussed. The premise of all three books under review here – one by a German-born American and one each by a Frenchman and a German – is that the European Union and Europe more generally are in deep trouble.

All this forms a striking contrast to the confidence of many EU policymakers in the 1990s and the opening years of this century that Europe would be a model to humanity, a beacon shining the path to a higher form of global civilisation. Something changed in the course of the past decade. Perhaps it was the shock of the 2005 referendums in which French and Dutch voters rejected the EU’s draft constitutional treaty. Perhaps it was the incontrovertible evidence of low economic growth rates and the gathering crisis of the European welfare state.

Whatever the causes, David Miliband, then the UK foreign secretary, caught the mood well in a speech in Warsaw in June 2009: “The question for all Europeans is whether we want to be players or spectators in the new world order ... or stand aside and let others shape our 21st century for us.”

In After the Fall, Walter Laqueur, the distinguished US historian and essayist, refers fleetingly to Miliband’s speech. He omits to mention that some months later Miliband turned down the chance to run EU foreign policy to pursue his domestic political ambitions. The EU job went instead – to her manifest surprise – to Lady Catherine Ashton, a former chairman of Hertfordshire’s health authority who had briefly served as EU trade commissioner. She had almost no prior foreign policy experience and has struggled in her job from day one.

These events were symptomatic of a wider problem. Neither Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, nor Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, would dream of departing their national political arenas for a job in Europe. The full-time presidency of the European Council, which groups EU government leaders, was a post they deemed suitable for Herman Van Rompuy, a competent but obscure former Belgian prime minister. All the high-minded chatter about how Europeans must shape their 21st-century destiny together counts for little when political leaders make career choices that underline how they regard the EU as an inadequate stage for their talents.

Fervent believers in closer European union blame the EU’s shortcomings on the persistence of selfish nationalism in influential member states. But Laqueur says the fundamental question facing the EU goes well beyond “whether nationalism in Europe will wither sufficiently to make a united Europe possible”. It is whether, given its economic, social, demographic and military weaknesses, even a united Europe would be able to play a substantially greater role in world affairs than it does at present.

On that score Laqueur is doubtful. But he is not entirely pessimistic about Europe’s future. If its leaders and people could cast off their listlessness and summon the will for far-reaching reform, some version of European unity might emerge that “could make the difference between collapse and a soft landing”.

Still a prolific author at the age of 90, Laqueur, a former Georgetown University professor, has spent a lifetime thinking about Europe. His specialist fields are Germany and Russia but he has also written well-received works on the Middle East and international terrorism. His range of expertise renders his book an important contribution to the debate about Europe’s future.

Laqueur is too wise to buy the notion that China will have everything its own way as this century unfolds. “The history of the great powers teaches that there are an unlimited number of possibilities of how things may go wrong,” he observes.

Nevertheless, the EU can no longer imagine for itself a serene future as a prosperous, postmodern, semi-demilitarised entity whose main functions would be to fight climate change, assist economic progress in developing countries and preach morality in international relations. Laqueur recalls the anti-US demonstrations that erupted in European cities before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a French politician cast into the wilderness last year after a sex scandal, penned a fatuous article in Le Monde after the protests that celebrated them as a sign that “a nation has been born on the streets – the European nation”.

Europeans seem peculiarly prone to such hubris. Jacques Poos is the only foreign minister of Luxembourg whose name appears in history books because, at the start of the wars of the Yugoslav succession in 1991, he pompously described the EU’s peacemaking efforts as proof that “the hour of Europe has dawned”. Notoriously, the Europeans proved incapable of halting the wars and preventing atrocities such as the 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica.

Laqueur is interested in the big themes of Europe’s decline: the looming demographic crunch, the surge in non-European immigration and the feeble growth that, even if there were no eurozone crisis, would threaten the affordability of Europe’s state-funded welfare systems. He writes with insight about Europe’s diverse Muslim communities and convincingly dismisses the alarmist notion, popularised by Oriana Fallaci, the late Italian author, that Muslim immigration will turn the continent into some dystopian “Eurabia”.

It is by no means certain, in Laqueur’s opinion, that future Muslim generations will resist integration into Europe’s societies. Rather, he says, “the next cultural war will not be between [Islamic] believers and infidels but within the camp of the believers, where erosion of religious belief will proceed not so much in open defiance [as] in stealth”.

Even so, Laqueur foresees a potential clash of generations as young Europeans, increasingly outnumbered by the old, are condemned to more expensive education, more precarious jobs and less generous pensions. “Depriving citizens of services that were taken for granted could lead sooner or later to a political earthquake, and even a lethargic Europe could witness violence,” he forecasts grimly. “No one can predict what form protests will take – probably a populist reaction that could turn left as well as towards the authoritarian right and that could see the end of the political parties and the parliamentary system as Europe has known it since the second world war.”

Unlike Laqueur, Jean-Claude Piris is interested primarily in the EU as a complex, supranational organisation whose deficiencies have left it “slow, heavy, not flexible enough, not able to adapt and decide rapidly”. In The Future of Europe, he identifies three main challenges facing the bloc (which, with Croatia’s entry next year, will have 28 member states): the euro crisis, the European public’s diminishing trust in the EU, and the ineffectiveness of EU institutions.

Few understand the EU’s mysterious workings as well as Piris: until his retirement in 2010, he ran the European Council’s legal service for 22 years, and he was intimately involved in preparing the bloc’s 2009 Lisbon treaty and its predecessors. No topic bores Europeans and baffles non-Europeans more than EU institutional reform but Piris knows the issues from the inside. He deserves a serious hearing for his argument that the EU’s institutions require a radical redesign.

An EU composed of 27 heterogeneous member states is “not able to function effectively within its present legal framework”, he warns. At the same time, “the EU will not become a state, which neither its member states nor its citizens want”.

For Piris, the solution lies in the emergence of an avant-garde group of countries – broadly speaking, the 17 that share the euro. They should embrace closer integration, while keeping the door open to others that wish to join them later. For the former communist states of central and eastern Europe, which entered the EU in 2004-07, the latter point is crucial because most would not be part of the avant-garde. Piris quotes with approval from a landmark speech in May 2000 by Joschka Fischer, then Germany’s foreign minister: “It would be historically absurd and utterly stupid if Europe, at the very time when it is at long last reunited, were to be divided again.”

Piris is sure to stir controversy with his proposal that the avant-garde should be free to run its affairs with new organs such as a council for heads of government, a parliamentary body and an administrative authority distinct from the European Commission. Such arrangements might make the avant-garde think and behave increasingly like a permanent breakaway group; the strains on the wider EU’s unity might prove too much.

Nonetheless, Piris is correct that the EU has operated in practice as a “multispeed” union for much of its history. Some countries are in the eurozone; some are not. Some participate in the Schengen border-free travel regime; others do not. Some have opt-outs: in its 1994 accession treaty, Sweden won the right to continue consuming snus (a kind of snuff), which was illegal elsewhere in the EU. The best point Piris makes, though, is that the longer the EU offers its citizens economic austerity and welfare cuts but no inspiring political project, the bleaker its future will become.

National and regional diversity is one of Europe’s most attractive features but the EU’s Brussels-based institutions are less well-loved – for reasons that Hans Magnus Enzensberger captures nicely in his short and elegant book. “Its originality is that it proceeds without force. It treads softly. Its pose is pitilessly benevolent. It only wants what is best for us,” the 82-year-old German poet and essayist writes of the EU. In other words, it is the “gentle monster” of his book’s title. In his lifetime, Enzensberger has surely observed systems of government more monstrous than those of the EU. Yet he is on to something. The EU is difficult to attack as wicked or sinister, but – as Piris, too, notes – its democratic credentials do not convince the public.

At times Enzensberger overstates his case, grumbling that the debt crisis has transformed the eurozone into “a transfer union in which every member is liable for all the others without limit”. However, he touches on a profoundly important point when he criticises eurozone policymakers for insisting that their proposals for solving the crisis are the only way forward. “The notion of a lack of alternatives offends human reason, because it amounts to a ban on thought. It is a statement of capitulation, not an argument.”

He ends on a fatalistic note: “All the empires of history flourished for no more than a limited half-life, before they foundered on over-expansion and internal contradictions.” The EU is hardly an empire, but its internal contradictions are becoming more acute with every passing year.

Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor

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