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.

8 thoughts on “A sober diagnosis of the times

  1. More importantly the EU is government of order and even-handedness

    Something Mess-Minster could never be. We have our country back, a country that is traditionally intolerant to what it classes has the Celtic fringe and intolerant of anything it sees has different. Before the Euro match between England and Wales the BBC, which is suppose to be British and impartial, only discussed England, Wales was treated has if it was a foreign country.

    I didn’t want my country back, I grow up in the UK of the early 70s and it was, well think brown smelly stuff. The problem is do we really want our country back warts and all without the fairness provided by the EU.

  2. Not for the first time I find I’m reminding myself and hopefully others that a 2% swing the other way and we’d be having a totally different conversation. The problem is that we live in winner-takes-all politics. This is why “Brexit means Brexit”. This is why a Prime Minister with the active support of 25% of the electorate can call (and lose) a destiny-shaping referendum. This is why his successor can appear to ignore the wishes of the 48%. How complicated will the negotiations be? I take heart from Bickerton’s identification of “…the central role played by our own national governments in the workings and decisions of the EU”. Adam Somerset’s final paragraph is the clincher, and the only escape from it may be via recession. Either way, I fear his weeper may be weeping for some time.

    I take hope from the marginality of it all.

  3. A week is a long time in the death of the EU – but it seems they’re coming round almost every day now… The internet is the only way to stay informed these days – events are arguably moving way too fast for books… The BREXIT vote doesn’t matter – the EU was finished with or without it.

  4. I hope John Walker is not correct in his prediction. The UK will rub along in our out of the EU but the thought that the European order with its insistence on the institutions of liberal democracy and its emphasis on social solidarity might collapse – that is truly alarming to contemplate. What do we think would replace it? Poland and Hungary run by unrestrained neo-fascistic governments, a powerful Germany no longer with even a vestigial sense of responsibility for its neighbours, Spain and Portugal adrift, facing their own tragic histories. The ideal of European unity and co-operation is a noble one. I regret that most of my fellow British citizens were never able to buy into it emotionally and contribute properly to making it better. But to sneer at it and wish it dead is to invite a menacing future in a fragmented continent.

  5. There will always be those people who will thrive n adversity and seek to create the conditions that encourage it. Those determined to drive te deathbail into the EU are doing so for reasons of mischievousnous or more distastefully for personal gain. The death of the EU would be a tragedy of epic, almost biblical proportions.

  6. A very sober analysis. It is clear to me as a humble pleb,that much of the fault lies with the federalising forces in Brussels,and the treaties signed by the UK without the full hearted support of the British people.The ‘elites’ who run both Westminster and Cardiff are remote from reality,as is evidenced by the welsh vote which was to ‘get out,even though all the main parties were for remining,and BBC Wales,and presumably S4C even more so in the remain camp. Our FM did not even win his ‘constituency’,i.e Bridgend and least the Prime Minister did the decent thing,but our FM position seems to be to blame everyone else!!. The stresses and strains of the EU are great,and perhaps the whole idea of trying to run a continental ‘entity’,with countries and electorates still in place is a ‘bridge too far’.We have to wait for the EURO drama to work itself out,and also the crisis over mass immigration from Africa into Europe,and in particular the main financial/economic power,i.e. Germany. If the Germans decide enough is enough then the whole thing collapses and what will be will be.In conclusion blame Juncker/Delors,and as the late and very great Mrs.Thatcher said NO NO NO!!

  7. As somone who has campaigned for over 25 years against eu corrruption. I agree with the comment that the vote did not matter as it was finished anyway. I talk regularly to europeans all over the eu. And believe me many are grateful the brits did this as they are being prevented from having their say. Such as in italy yesterday a greek cypriot lady lawyer gave me a hug when i said i had campaigned to leave and with near tears in her eyes thanked me and the british people for brexit.
    My real good friends in hungary, poland and yes even germany have all been delighted as they say its nothing but corrupt with none of the eu funds going to the people only politicians. The five star movement in italy is making huge gains now and will be the real power in italy. All my european friends say the eu has destroyed jobs, wealth creation and communities with its overbearing power.
    The trouble with the remainians is that they only like democracy when it works their way. They were also very arrogant to think that they were right with their project fear and everyone else was a serf. The next task is to get the uk moveing again in the world and lets have a huge reform of our own corrupt democracy universities and media. I vote strongly for some real people power. In my book that means getting rid of the old negative useless self serving political parties too. In particular the labour party which is utterly toxic.

  8. Some of the more extreme comments on here, suggest that many people who have now achieved the Brexit goal are now desperately seeking a new cause. The destruction of the EU seems to be a very anarchistic sort of cause. Were these the same sorts of seeds that started the Spanish Civil War – I’m no historian, but I sense a will by many for a return to the darkest times of the twentieth century.

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