Saturday, 4 February 2017

Book review: Europe's Last Chance, Guy Verhofstadt, 2017

Guy Verhofstadt is probably best known to most non-Belgians (he was that country's prime minister from 1999 to 2008) as the anti-Nigel Farage, the man at whom Farage's anti-EU tirades are perhaps most often directed, given that Verhofstadt and Farage face off in the European Parliament, whereas Jean-Claude Juncker, Farage's other bete noire, presides over the European Commission. Verhofstadt's designation as the Parliament's Brexit representative has thrust him further into the limelight recently, a position he certainly enjoys.

He's a pro-European, but also a reformist, and Europe's Last Chance is his diagnosis of and prescription for the EU's ills. As such it's wide-ranging, covering EU governance, financial union, an EU army, the rise of populism, the migrant crisis and Russia. I expect it's therefore an almost perfect book for someone looking for a middle-distance contemporary guide to the EU. As someone who reports on the EU for a living, I'd have preferred a more warts-and-all, microscopic examination of everything from which Commissioners take sugar with their coffee to what national heads of state spit when they talk, but probably that's just me.

The book starts weakly, with a subjective and unconvincing attempt to solve the problems of nationalism and European identity. That the EU Verhofstadt envisions - as he later reveals - is essentially just a nation writ large undermines his attempt to dispel nationalist sentiment as wrong-headed. "That Europe is suffused with social bases and values so different as to be incompatible is nonsense", we're told, rightly, but then Verhofstadt declares that: "The entrepreneurial spirit is not northern European, it is European [his emphasis], as are solidarity with the vulnerable, the pursuit of justice...", as if North Americans or Africans were not entrepreneurial, Central Americans not empathetic, Middle Easterners not concerned with fairness. This crude if well-intentioned assertion is then undermined later by Verhofstadt himself, when he notes that "many French people still hold monarchist, rightist, and downright anti-semitic opinions".

It's not so much that Verhofstadt is wrong - later he says that "everyone should be able to become European" - it's just that he's better at handling the technical details than the emotional reasoning, and unfortunately the emotional part of the book comes first.

Later chapters are more convincing. The problems with the currency union lacking a fiscal union are well-known but quite clearly presented here, and the problems with the Greek debt crisis and the fractured and sclerotic EU governance even more so. Likewise, Verhofstadt's plans for dealing with these problems and others are clearly presented: he wants the Eurozone to be a genuine union; Greece's politicians to institute sweeping reforms; and the EU government to be shrunk and elected on a continent-wide basis and executive powers to be transferred to the Parliament and Commission, with a nationally selected senate acting only as a legislative check.

For those not already well versed in EU politics, this will all be informative and interesting stuff. For me, the most interesting parts were those that were less familiar and more personal: Verhoftstadt's take on the rise and (moral) fall of Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban, the difficulties his cleaner had securing asylum in the EU, the wall he himself ran into when trying to secure a loan in Italy to set up a vineyard.

The book isn't perfect: in places it feels a touch shallow (minus the index it comes in under 300 pages), it could've done with more raw data and insider examples, some idea of how broad Verhofstadt thinks the EU should ultimately be would have been interesting (should Turkey be a member?), as would some indication of how he thinks the EU should deal with Brexit outside of his ideal scenario of a two-tier EU with an inner Eurozone and an outer associate layer in which the UK might find a home, plus there are too many typos, but over its course it slowly gains authority as it covers more ground, and by the end it's hard to imagine any but the most fixedly anti-EU readers not agreeing that the EU needs to succeed if Europe is to compete on the world stage, and that the only way it can do so in the long-term is through reform and closer unity.

A final thought: as a Brit, it's depressing to read a plan for European success in which Britain realistically will play no part. If a close-knit market of half a billion people and a European army are needed to compete with the US and China, repel the threat of a rampaging Putin and bring stability to north Africa, where does that leave the UK? A lone outsider, desperately trying to keep upper lip stiff while the realisation of increasing irrelevance and backwardness slowly dawns...

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