The End of the West: the Once and Future Europe

The End of the West: the Once and Future Europe
David Marquand
Princeton University Press, 224pp, £16.95

What is the point of Europe? Over three decades ago, Henry Kissinger issued his artful-naive complaint about having no one to call direct when he wanted to talk to Europe - and the call still doesn't connect. On Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, the EU, questing since 1989 for a common foreign and security policy, has proved as fissiparous as ever under pressure.

“The hour of Europe has come!" exclaimed the Luxembourg foreign minister Jacques Poos when the bloodletting raged in the Balkans in the 1990s. Institutional Europe promptly sent hapless "observers" to monitor the carnage and waited for the Americans and Brits finally to rouse themselves to intervene.

This gap between aspiration and result is one that David Marquand explores with an unforgiving eye in The End of the West. The most surprising thing about this critical reckoning with modern Europe is that it comes from a seasoned promoter of the European project. Marquand followed Roy Jenkins to Brussels in the 1970s and is an avowed pro-European - but one no longer convinced by the legitimacy of the EU's institutions and only half in love with the form currently assumed by the grand projet that inspired his mentor.

Marquand's thesis is that Europe was less well placed to prosper from the end of the cold war than it thought when Beethoven's Ninth Symphony rang out at German reunification in 1990. I remember the strongly pro-EU Die Zeit newspaper running a portentous front page headline at the time that read, "Never was such a new beginning!" The expectation that this historical relaunch would be to Europe's benefit was seen as a fait accompli. But, as Mar-quand notes, since the end of the cold war, interests have become more fluid and the route to moral and strategic superiority harder to discern.

Europe today is uncertain about its own values, interests and even identity in the face of growing ethnic and national strains. Marquand asks what it can claim to be, other than "a political pygmy: rich, fat and vulnerable to the new world". The counter-argument is that, unlike many of the new emerging economic powers, most of Europe is stable, largely peaceful and overwhelmingly democratic. It may not be so very bad to be a political pygmy, when the coming giants have their own internal contradictions to wrestle with.

The real problem for Europe is that its institutional expansion has proceeded way ahead of the appetites of its citizens. The criticism that the European Union's grandiosity of aspiration is expressed through institutions that are flawed, unaccountable and distant from those that they serve is not new. But in making it here, this former believer writes with all the anger of the disappointed.

Marquand is lucid on the origins of the European ideal. Immanuel Kant argued in the 1790s for an expanding set of republican states that would secure perpetual peace. But once the present EU, envisaged by Jean Monnet, was established and had become a fact of life for the major nations, what then? The drive for currency union replaced the drive for political union (though in some quarters these were, and still are, regarded as the same end achieved through different means).

The strains of the single currency are nicely observed here. "The gamble of Europeanising monetary policy without Europeanising fiscal policy has failed." And the supply of fudge required to cover this up is not, Marquand concludes drily, "inexhaustible". Alongside these strains can be counted the ethnic tensions inside some new member states, and an energetic anti-EU right-wing populism in France and the Netherlands. (One of Marquand's most arresting insights is that the union is failing in part because it cannot deal with ethnic nationalism.)

Muslim minorities have become larger and more visible, yet the official European con­versation rarely dwells on this. Marquand, for his part, is fervently anti-assimilationist, on the grounds that assimilation is an "intolerant and fearful" approach to difference, requiring "them" to become copies of "us".

Surely not? Assimilated minorities can play a full part in national life in a way unassimilated ones cannot. Marquand should look at the unhappy situation of Turks in Germany for a counter-example: they are tolerated as "other " but are barely present in politics and exist on the fringes of the nation's shared cultural life. Moreover, I'm at a loss to see how the EU could be enhanced by "creating spaces for a Muslim minority". The emptiness of the rhetoric shows that the idea is a non-starter.

If European values are worth upholding, we have to be as prepared to take on sharia law as we are nasty dictators.

The account thus takes a very odd turn when Marquand looks at what he calls "Islamophobia", but which, for others, is simply a resistance to allowing the less edifying bits of political Islam to be imported into Europe. Even more peculiarly, he objects to Turkish membership of the EU on the grounds of overexpansion, but then reminds us that today's Europe is "the child of all three Abrahamic religions", not just Judaism and Christianity. Like many intellectuals of the centre left, Marquand can't quite put the crisis in western values that he intuits into context. True, there is no "distinct, identifiable place called 'the west'". But I suspect that we know western values when we see them in practice, as opposed to being inclined, or able, to codify them into settled precepts.

Still, Marquand the grand old pro-European is on to something when he pokes an inquiring finger into the question of what modern Europe wants to be. Somewhere between post-1989 enlargement, the advent of the eurozone and the financial crisis of autumn 2008, the governing institutions have lost their way and mislaid their aspirations. The current sprawling EU resembles, he concludes, "a lanky schoolboy who has outgrown his strength".

I remain unconvinced by Marquand's final recommendation that a less "western" set of values would begin to cure the ills that he analyses. Nonetheless, this highly readable book offers a compelling description of Europe's modern malaise. l

Anne McElvoy is public policy editor of the "Economist" and a former correspondent in Germany and the Balkans

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia