Skip to Content


Tensions in the European Union

The New Old World, by Perry Anderson

13 January 2010

12:00 AM

13 January 2010

12:00 AM

The New Old World Perry Anderson

Verso, pp.561, 24.99

Perry Anderson was an editor of the New Left Review in the days when there was a New Left, and a pro-European Marxist at a time when this seemed a contradiction in terms. Since then, the opinions of this characteristically English rebel have been softened by years passed in the sociology departments of American universities. He has learned to love the values of American liberal capitalism, albeit with large qualifications. Disappointed idealism has soured his former adulation of French intellectual elites. But some things have not changed. Anderson’s contempt for the English political and intellectual tradition is as sharp as ever, and peppers the pages of this book. The influence of the United Kingdom in Europe has taken a knock lately, but Anderson writes as if it had never really had any. This is engaging, but eccentric.

Even more eccentric is the structure of the book. Ostensibly an account of the history and ideology of the European Union, The New Old World is in fact a collection of essays and lectures written at different times over the past 15 years, most of which originally appeared in the London Review of Books. They have been only slightly revised for publication in book form.

This lends a certain incoherence to the volume. Some chapters were written before the single currency and enlargement of the Union to the east, and treat both of them as speculative projects. Others discuss them as problems resolved or insoluble. As for the financial crisis of 2008-9, by shifting opinion towards a more intensive style of economic regulation this seminal event may well prove to be a turning point in the European Union’s history.

But apart from a nod in the last chapter (entitled ‘Prognoses’) it is largely ignored here. Perhaps this is inevitable. All learning about an institution as protean, directionless and accident-prone as the European Union is bound to be ephemeral. Yet Anderson’s insights should not be brushed aside, even if they seemed more impressive at the time of their first appearance in print. Separated from Europe by an ocean and a continent, and from mainstream opinion in his own country by a visceral antipathy, Anderson sees some things more clearly than the rest of us.

Like most serious writers on the subject, he is much exercised by the so-called ‘democratic deficit’ at the heart of the Union’s affairs. Anderson is perceptive, and scathing, about this. It is not simply that major areas of policy have been removed from the control of national legislatures, without any corresponding empowerment of the European Parliament. As Anderson shows with a wealth of argument and illustration, the Union is governed by an idealistic administrative elite which is profoundly suspicious of popular control, because it correctly perceives that electorates identify with local and national communities rather than with transnational enterprises like the European Union.

Large numbers of Frenchmen should have rejected the European Constitution because of their low opinion of President Mitterrand and a fair number of Irishmen voted out the treaty of Lisbon because of their views about contraception, neutrality or euthanasia. These facts speak for themselves. The idealism of enlightened minorities has achieved a great deal in human history, but in a democracy it can easily isolate the rulers from the pressures of public opinion. Would it make any difference if the European Parliament had more power? Probably not. For as long as electorates think in national terms, there will be no Europe-wide issues, no Europe-wide parties and no Europe-wide political campaigns. Without these, the European Parliament will always look like just another branch of the same distant transnational elite.

The striking thing is that there is no appetite for ending the democratic deficit on either side of the ideological divide. It is too convenient. For Europhobes, the lack of popular legitimacy limits what the Union can effectively achieve. Europhiles like it for precisely the opposite reason. The absence of effective democratic constraint frees the Union to move in a direction which national electorates would never accept. One side is happy with the democratic deficit because it weakens European institutions, the other because it makes them all-powerful. It will be many years before we can know which group has the better prophets.

Like most of us, Perry Anderson is equivocal about all this. He would like to see the European Union becoming more than an expansive economic regulator. So far as one can judge, he applauds its growing interest in social policy and economic policy-making. He would like to see it take more assertive positions on international issues, positions which would perhaps be less subservient to the interests of the United States. But these are sensitive areas. At a time when international clout depends on concentrations of economic and military power they may well be better decided at a European level. But there is, as he recognises, a price to be paid for doing so.

These dilemmas are not new in human affairs. All political communities are oligarchies, and always have been. But at least in national democracies the oligarchs can be removed and replaced by more congenial ones. This is not a practical possibility at the European level. The only constraint in Europe is provided by the Council of Ministers, essentially a congress of ambassadors, each nervously looking over his shoulder at an angry electorate and powerful sectional pressure groups back home.

The danger about the European enterprise is that as it expands its activities into areas of critical concern to the population at large, these tensions will become more acute. The problems of economic management arising from the common currency have already caused serious political crises in Portugal and Greece. The enlargement of the Union was encouraged by the United Kingdom because it was thought likely to make further encroachments on national autonomy impossible. Yet it has also created a pool of low-wage labour which has contained wages in this country and actually reduced them in real terms in Germany. It would be difficult to say that either of these seminal projects was willed by the electorates of these countries. Sooner or later, they will realise what is happening. A famous historian once described 18th-century England as an aristocracy tempered by riots. Will the same thing be said about 21st-century Europe?

Show comments