The long view
Anderson compares van Middelaar to Friedrich Gentz, a key collaborator of the Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich in shaping the counter-revolution in post-Napoleonic Europe. Gentz recognised that the Congress of Vienna was little more than a scheme where “the victors should share with one another the booty snatched from the vanquished”. Yet the EU echoes the Metternich system: in pursuit of collective security, it constrains the separate ambitions of the nation states.
Van Middelaar made his own 19th-century comparisons. The founders of the Union felt, he says, “a profound consciousness” of the “legacy of the Concert of Europe” – a shared understanding among European powers that kept the peace on the continent for decades in the first half of the century and again until the First World War. The European Council formed, he says, “a contemporary Vienna 1814-1815” – the period when the Congress of Vienna, held after the defeat of Napoleon, set up a system of meetings between powerful European countries to resolve their differences.
In our own time, the European project can deliver collective outcomes beyond the reach of individual states, but it is only the European Council that has the clout to deal with the biggest issues within the project’s structure.
By contrast, says Anderson, “van Middelaar leaves little doubt of the much lower regard in which he holds the Commission, a useful but humdrum factory of rules, and the Parliament, a windy cavern of words”. Moreover, all Council decisions are reached “behind closed doors, in deliberations of which no minutes are kept, that issue announcements under the seal of consensus reached far beyond any popular say”. As for the Court of Justice, this “also deliberates in secret and forbids publication of any dissenting judgment, delivering its rulings as unanimous edicts”.
Van Middelaar’s approval of this situation is underlined by his admiration for the series of coups that delivered it: “catching their victims unawares and confronting them with a fait accompli that cannot be reversed” – even though a coup is “not a term associated with any form of democratic politics”.
In this, van Middelaar was consciously following Gabriel Naudé and “his truly amazing book”, ‘Political Considerations on Coups d’Etat’, written in the century after Machiavelli, lauding sudden, secret and surprising actions, some like thunderbolts, some quite invisible, in support of state interests. In Naudé’s view, the “enlightened elite” must master the “excitable masses”.
‘Weak governments in southern Europe’
It was from a new perch as a special adviser to the first full-time president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, that van Middelaar could observe at close quarters the workings of the EU, producing, after four years in this vantage point, a new book, ‘Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage’.
Here van Middelaar – this time without calling them ‘coups’ – applauded the manoeuvres whereby measures to save the euro by-passed the Maastricht treaty and rode roughshod over “weak governments in Southern Europe”; as well as circumventing the UK’s opposition to the Fiscal Compact.
He praises the deal Angela Merkel brokered with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over refugees as politically vital, however “ethically and legally questionable”.
As for Brexit, the hard line pursued by Brussels, in support of Dublin and backed by Paris and Berlin, constituted a coming of age for the EU: “bluntly put, it would not be in the Union’s interests for things to go well in the post-Brexit UK”, while the Commission would show its value by revealing to the public “just how difficult it is to escape its clutches”.
Yet Anderson wonders how a failure to accommodate David Cameron’s minimal requests with regard to free movement can be described as “a triumph of European statecraft”, given how vague the statement of that principle actually is in the provisions of the Treaty of Rome.