The Passage to Europe:
How a Continent Became a Union

Luuk Van Middelaar

translated from the Dutch by Liz Waters
Yale University Press 2013
A book review by Danny Yee © 2019
First published in 2009 in Dutch, The Passage to Europe has the advantage of not being dominated by either Brexit or an Anglo-centric perspective. Van Middelaar has firsthand experience of European politics but is primarily a historian; he offers a historical analysis, with just a flavouring of political philosophy in brief references to Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Arendt, and so forth.

A Passage to Europe assumes at least elementary knowledge of the workings of the European Union, and of post-war European history. A prologue introduces the three basic discourses of Europe — Offices, States and Citizens — and its three spheres, the outer sphere of sovereign states and international law, the inner sphere of the treaties, of the Commission and the Court, and the "intermediate sphere", recognised in the 1974 creation of the European Council, where the member states act collectively but outside the legal framework of the Union.

Part I, "The Secret of the Table: The Transition to Majority", concentrates on constitutional history. "The Step Across" describes how the 1965-66 constitutional crisis, symbolised by the French "empty chair", was resolved with the 1966 Luxembourg Compromise, establishing the veto but also "formal confirmation of the existence of the intermediate sphere". "The Leap" compares the Brussels Convention of 2002-3 with the American Constitutional Convention, looking at how attempts to move to ratification by majority failed; the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon retained requirements for unanimity. And "The Bridge" centres Craxi's "coup" in Milan in 1985, where the European Council accepted that "the convening of an intergovernmental conference was a simple procedural decision, which could be taken by majority". ("In Milan, the heads of government had come together as a European institution, whereas at the intergovernmental conference in Luxembourg they would be sitting around the table as representatives of the sovereign founders.")

Middelaar also covers, in this, some key legal developments. The 1963 ruling of the European Court of Justice in Van Gend & Loos gave individuals the right, in some circumstances, to appeal to the treaty over heads of the states. And decisions by the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, in 1993 and 2006, highlighted the potential conflicts between treaty changes and national law.

Part II: "Vicissitudes of Fortune: In the River of Time" is a more narrative account, focusing on the Union as a historical actor. Middelaar describes the original "Coming Together as Six" and the 1958-1989 period, where he sees the dominant theme as "Community Waiting", "when a 'no' is interpreted as a 'not yet'". "Acting as a Union" describes the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, bringing new members but also requiring the unified response of the Council of Twelve and the development of something akin to a cabinet, and subsequent developments such as the creation of a permanent President of the European Council.

And Part III, "The Quest for a Public: Winning Applause" looks at three approaches to finding, or creating, a European public. "The German strategy: Creating Companions in Destiny" attempts to build a European identity on the model of 19th century nation-building: the flag, a pantheon of shared great figures, the symbolism on euro notes and coins, and so forth. "The Roman Strategy: Securing Clients" is to provide benefits, guaranteeing rights and protecting freedoms: freedom of movement and non-discrimination, regional redistribution, limiting roaming charges for mobile phones, and so forth. And the "The Greek strategy: Seducing the Chorus" centres shared concerns: "in unison" in direct elections to the European Parliament and in the never-ratified Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe, but also "polyphonically" through formal roles for national referendums and parliaments, potentially in some kind of senate.

The Passage to Europe is probably too idiosyncratic — and indeed too sophisticated — to be much use for educating clueless British politicians. But it offers some novel perspectives on the history of the Union and will I think have something even for experienced followers of European politics. I found it enjoyable, provocative, and informative.

June 2019

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%T The Passage to Europe
%S How a Continent Became a Union
%A Middelaar, Luuk Van
%M Dutch
%F Waters, Liz
%I Yale University Press
%D 2013
%O paperback, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN-13 9780300205336
%P 372pp