A bumpy coming of age

Chair of Policy Network

Loukas Tsoukalis

Europe’s Coming of Age

London, 2023

As a reviewer of this book, I must declare an interest. I have been a longstanding admirer and friend of Loukas Tsoukalis. He is my kind of pro-European. He is a modern Social Democrat, but with no spirit of partisan hostility to those who have built Europe from other traditions, whether liberal, conservative, green or Christian Democrat. On the central question that has been his life’s work, the cause of European unity, he is a believer, not a dispassionate observer.

That driving conviction flows through every page of his latest book, Europe’s Coming of Age, but it does not diminish the quality of his analysis and his frank recognition of where today’s Europe falls short of his hopes and ideals. As an academic, he has always been prepared to speak truth to power and he does it directly but in an irresistibly charming way.

This book tells the European story with great style but with little loss of accuracy. In some respects, Loukas is an old-fashioned academic from an era that is now past: a technical economist by initial training who is prepared to bound effortlessly across the disciplines of economics, politics, philosophy, history and international relations to tell a story that is uniquely his own and in a compelling style. One comes away from his book with a mix of frustration and hope. Frustration about the many areas where Europe falls short of his ideal, but hope that the harsh inevitabilities of “events, dear boy events” (as Harold Macmillan quipped about the driving force of political life) will provide opportunities for unexpected visionary leadership that will make possible the necessary integrationist steps forward. This has happened time and again before. 

If I have a disagreement with Loukas, it is that he is, on the one hand, over-disappointed with the Europe we have, and on the other hand, too pessimistic about the possibilities of significant but incremental change and reform. Loukas sometimes writes as though he believes at some day of reckoning in the future, Europe’s politicians will eventually realise that there is no alternative to the great leap forward to a federal United States of Europe and suddenly we will wake up to find we Europeans are living in a totally different world. Much as I might like to believe it, I confess to great scepticism of this second coming. 

The nation-state is strongly entrenched in the European way of thinking. Indeed, I subscribe to the Alan Milward view that it was the creation of the post-war European community that made possible “The Rescue of the Nation State”. With the beginnings of the European Community, Germany began to win back its self-respect after the Nazi trauma and disgrace; France to reimagine its place in the world after the loss of Empire; Italy to hold together in the face of its own political dysfunctionality; Greece, Spain and Portugal to rediscover democracy after the decades of dictatorship; the nations of eastern Europe to find their own identities after the brutalities of Soviet domination. The EU is a continent of proud nations. They will not willingly dissolve themselves into some amorphous United States of Europe. But most of them have enough sense, 52 per cent of Britons (I hope temporarily) excepted, to realise that the framework of the European Union is an essential guarantor of their prosperity, human rights and independence. 

The European Union is destined to survive and overcome the multiple threats that face its future. In all member states, the forces of national populism can be beaten off. The failure of Brexit which becomes clearer day by day will not be a lesson lost on others. My biggest worry remains France and what transpires in the post-Macron world. But the far-right can no longer credibly claim the model of Putin as their inspiration. Indeed, one hopes that Ukraine will serve to bring Poland back into the European democratic fold and isolate Orban as a rogue force. As for far-left anti-Europeans, I hope fellow democratic Socialists and Social Democrats have learnt the lessons of the Jeremy Corbyn experience in the UK and are no longer prepared to ally with the destructive populist left.

For the present and foreseeable future, Europe is condemned to be what it now is: a higgledy-piggledy hybrid of supranationalism and intergovernmentalism but nevertheless cajoling most member stages in a progressive direction, with the need for opt-ins and opt-outs to satisfy the enthusiasts and recalcitrants. Is this sustainable still? I believe it is. I once wrote a memo to Tony Blair which foolishly started with a sentence something like “Europe is in a deep state of crisis” – precisely about what at the time I have forgotten: it came back from his weekend box with a handwritten “when has it ever not been” written across the top. Europe is always in some crisis and the amazing thing about the EU is how it always manages to overcome them, or at least to solve in part and leave some of the difficult bits for another day. 

As a patriotic Greek, Loukas knows only too well what economic and social damage his own country suffered as a result of the imperfections of the foundation of the Euro. I have been a supporter of the single currency ever since Roy Jenkins as President of the Commission relaunched the monetary union with his brilliant Florence speech in 1977. This led to the creation of the European Monetary System which the Callaghan government foolish stood part from in 1978. Yet unlike the Jenkins concept, the Euro was at the start poorly conceived: an accident waiting to happen. Much has changed since the naïve assumptions of Maastricht, but further governance reforms are a priority to create a viable banking union. But who would have believed thirty years ago that the European Recovery Plan financed in part by the issue of Euro bonds would be happening today? The inevitable next step is agreement on Europe wide taxes to finance those bonds, probably taxes designed to achieve the EU’s shared climate change and environmental objectives. 

Tsoukalis’ book is honest that the problem of unmanaged migration eats away at political support for Europe. Yet the pressures to award the free movement rights of EU membership to include Ukraine, Moldova and the Balkan countries will be very strong. Then there is the question of migration across the EU common border. The only answer is a much stronger common policy which recognises the facts of demography – that Europe needs migration – but puts in place stronger border controls to ensure that migration is properly managed with the burden of refugees in need of our humanitarian protection and support, fairly shared between member states.

The relationship with the United States has long been a source of tension between member states. I believe Joe Biden has been magnificent on Ukraine, but surely it must be clear to all that Europe has a responsibility alongside its commitment to NATO, to take much greater responsibility for its own defence. This is not a crisis that will go away: it will only intensify. We must be thankful to our fellow Social Democrat, Olaf Scholz, for demonstrating the quality of leadership at times of crisis that his predecessors as German Chancellor have shown. 

Loukas’ book is a brilliant reminder of all that a united Europe still must do. Every informed pro-European should read it. 

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