A sober diagnosis of the times

Adam Somerset reviews a new book on the EU in light of the electorate’s Brexit decision.

Chris Bickerton

The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide

Pelican 2016


An older person weeps on June 24th. She has, she says, her England back. “It was a huge emotional hit” says the twenty-year-old language student. “I’m going to Berlin next week. I don’t know what I’m going to say. I’m ashamed to be British.” Anne McElvoy was one of a small group of regular commentators of integrity. She wrote in mid-May in London’s Evening Standard of a Britain, a place of nominal community, revealed as in actuality divided by zones of segregation. Not only did the Remainers of her acquaintance, she wrote, not know a single voice for secession but, she added tartly, there was a pride to it. Characteristically, my view of the sixty-year old weeper was via a camera lens, the words of the twenty-year an exchange in real encounter.     

Chris Bickerton’s book was published shortly before June 23rd. It is both concise and full, lucidly structured and eloquently phrased. “We think of it [the EU] with a sense of unhappy fatalism” is language from a scholar for a general audience. The author is a political scientist, a fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge. His book is a reminder of why we have universities. A decent polity would have printed and distributed thirty million copies to every household. In its place we got what we got- with a few noble exceptions a shrill and vapid journalism. “My goal” writes Bickerton “has always been to describe the European Union as it is and not as we may wish it to be.”  

The Foreign Secretary spins his verbal candyfloss. Real writers report from observation. Bickerton’s opening sentence reads: “Those who view the European Union as a super-state trampling on our national democratic freedoms exaggerate its power and authority. They ignore the small size of the EU administration and the central role played by our own national governments in the workings and decisions of the EU.” Real writers, of integrity, do real numbers. The Commission’s headcount is a little below twenty-five thousand. The USA has a population around a third less than that of the EU; its Department of Commerce alone employs forty-four thousand.

The most valuable part of “The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide” is its analysis of the structure of power. It was a rare voter in June- this one included- who could distinguish the European Council from the Council of Ministers. Bickerton puts in a friendly “Still Reading? Good” before moving to Ecofin, Agrifish, Coreper, parts I and II. He describes exactly the working methodology of the Antici diplomats. For those educational policy-makers still insistent on the Cybersphere as a source of knowledge, here is the rebuttal. A Cambridge scholar tells it; the Internet does not.   

The book also embraces history, on the large scale and close-up. Monnet, Schuman and Delors are all here alongside a richness of later detail. In 1996 rates of interest in Bulgaria exceeded three hundred percent. In 2013 Slovenia’s three main banks, all state-owned, collapsed. Labour mobility, citizens working in a state that is not their own, is three percent of the total working population. A section on the stages of economic integration cites comparisons with CARICOM, SACU, CACM and EACM as well as bilateral agreements with Andorra, San Marino and Turkey.

Far away from blocs and acronyms Bickerton evokes close-ups of politics. In June 2014 one Chancellor and three Prime Ministers share a small rowing boat on a Swedish lake. In a revealing simile one of the company declares his life jacket to be unnecessary as he can swim “like a Labrador.”

“Culture hides more than it reveals and strangely enough what it hides, it hides most effectively from its own participants” wrote a pioneer scholar of culture. June 23rd was for most Britons cultural statement. If farmers in aggregate voted to shatter their status quo they also conformed to voting patterns by age. If the members opted for change, within days the NFU President was writing to the Times that absolutely nothing must be permitted to change.

“I looked at the facts” declared a Londoner to me. She was twenty-five, a tech entrepreneur, employer of thirty young staff. She was also of course a once immigrant. Berlin, she said, is chomping for London’s tech sector. The prosperous Shires have made the strangest of coalitions with Margate, Spalding and Torfaen. I wondered how many secessionists really want her kind out.           

Bickerton touches deftly on the cultures that make the coalition of Europe. For the Mediterranean nations Brussels has a double identity. Firstly it is rejection of rule by soldiers. Within living memory Spain, Greece and Portugal have all been dictatorships. More importantly the EU is government of order and even-handedness. The Mediterranean wants government by the principles of Max Weber. “Spain is the problem, Europe the solution” said Ortega de Gasset on his country’s accession in 1986.  

De Gasset is his country’s greatest philosopher. Europe is a philosophical furnace in a way that that the USA is not. When Germany speaks of the EU it is the voice of Hegel. The Commission is Descartes. Bickerton towards his close homes in on a debate between living thinkers, Juergen Habermas and Wolfgang Streeck. The maintenance of Europe’s high standard of living and the extensive regime of social rights require, in the Habermas view, a supra-national state. For Streeck: “Europe is more heterogeneous and more divided than ever. Differences between national societies are acute.” Habermas versus Streeck is a rerunning of Fichte versus Herder.    

Bickerton starts with a question, calling it a riddle even. Given that Ministers and national Civil Servants interpenetrate every level of decision-making “why” he asks “does the EU appear like a stand-alone phenomenon, separate from its member states?” The answer must be cultural. Seventy percent of brain capacity for the senses is devoted to visual processing. Bickerton himself says it early on: “ the EU still appears as a monolithic and drab entity housed in buildings that all look the same.” There is nothing to see beyond identikit men going in and out of meetings.

Culture precedes politics. On the day that the backbenchers made their choice of May versus Leadsom I made a visit to that quirkiest of museums, the house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields of Sir John Soane. It is also home to Hogarth’s Election series. It is politics as raucous, noisesome, public process, and vital. Art does not teach but it makes the metaphors that we follow. France does Liberty storming the barricades and Britain does Hogarth. That meeting of the four premiers in the rowing boat on the Swedish lake was to tussle as to who would be next President of the Commission, a power in fact lost to the European Parliament. Had it been a Delors everything might have been different on the morning of 24th June. But then the “ifs” are endless. But that austere figure is remote from the British political tradition. A trip through history has to go back to the like of Cripps or Snowden to find his peer. History will surely record that the EU was let down by its own President. But then he is servant to the edifice of the EU. Bickerton cites the German sociologist Claus Offe who identifies the core dilemma, greater powers versus public resistance. “Europe is “entrapped” he says “unable to move forward, it cannot move backwards either.”

Bickerton the political scientist ends with a sober diagnosis of the times. Allegiance to party by class has gone. That is the agony of Labour. To try to beat UKIP on nostalgia is not enough. “Political competition is increasingly structured around twin poles of populism and technocracy” says the political scientist.

“The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide” is a book of scholarly discipline with notes, bibliography, glossary and index. A statement that the GDP of Wales is 75% public sector can be traced back to its source. It presents Europe and the world as a place of complexity and paradox. On July 2nd thirty thousand gathered across Parliament Square and Whitehall. One repeated statement regularly elicited the loudest cheers. Speaker after speaker waved a hand at Barry’s great neo-gothic pile and thundered “We are a representative democracy!” The audience was nine-tenths below the age of thirty. Their fealty to Parliament over plebiscite was total. The Member for Islington North would not care to admit it, but he is mirror to the Member for Witney. Both have looked to extra-Parliamentary legitimacy to mask intra-Party schism. As a mechanism it is hazily constitutional, as a tactic it is short-term glue.

Books, and universities, are there to make us see the world more truly. I started the reading of this book in certainty.  I ended it, in the best of ways, with certainty rattled. June 23rd was a choice between the status quo and risk, the dimensions of which were and are entirely unknown. I came to the end of this potent book wondering whether that status quo might not deserve the shattering.

As for the future the weeper of June 24th is statistically one of around fifteen percent of Britons. They are going to be disappointed. Britain cannot create its own fruit-pickers, baristas, builders, abattoirists, nurses, surgeons, quants, systems analysts, molecular biologists, and it cannot magic them from nowhere. Getting the country back is a chimera, but Britain has got its politics back.  

Adam Somerset is a Critic.

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