Only the very prescient, or at least the very readable, can get away with publishing political essays years after they were first written, thus forfeiting both the advantages of immediacy and the comfortable wisdom of the long lens. Perry Anderson, the venerable New Left Review chronicler of modern Europe, has the self-confidence to risk it. The New Old World is a survey, culled from previously published essays, of the foundations of the European Union (as well as its erratic development) and a look at some of its leading players - though not, alas, Britain, which Anderson dismisses as a land "whose history since the fall of Thatcher has been of little moment".
Tush, tush. He may not be especially interested in, let alone approving of, the modified Thatcherite settlement that has governed the UK for the past couple of decades. It does, however, seem a bit perverse to leave the country out of the reckoning entirely while according France, Germany and Italy serious study.
The first half of this hefty tome offers a magisterial view of the evolution of the European Union from the perspective of an informed outsider. Anderson is also a master of invective, and he is scathing about the EU's tendency to combine grand gestures with unreadiness for action when the chips are down. "The self-satisfaction of Europe's elites," he writes, "has become such that the Union is now widely presented as a paragon for the rest of the world, just as it becomes steadily less capable of winning the confidence of its citizens."
There follows a wonderful deconstruction of the mirage of pan-European power structures: "A customs union with a quasi-executive without any machinery to enforce its decisions, a quasi-legislature . . . shielded from national oversight and a supreme court that acts as if it were the guardian of a constitution that does not exist." This is an account usually associated with Tory Euroscepticism. Anderson, it seems, has more in common with Daniel Hannan than the Europhiles of New Labour.
As a leading left-wing intellectual, he is nonetheless disapproving of free-market liberalism and suggests that the real purpose of the EU is to distract Europeans from deeper questions about their situation and interests. We are left in the dark, however, about what sort of institutions he would deem more satisfactory than the ones we are muddling along with.
The post-cold war trajectory of European power also gets short shrift - subservience to the United States in the war on terror is pungently observed. And yet, Anderson's central contention that Europe is not all it cracks up to be already seems dated. The new era of EU self-belief that blossomed immediately after the Berlin Wall fell was short-lived, curtailed by its shameful inability to stop bloodshed in the Balkans.
This isn't a book with an argument to inspire or enrage. Anderson is essentially an essayist, not a polemicist. His strength is portraits of individuals, such as Jean Monnet, the homme mystérieux whose vision inspired the institutions of today's Europe. Monnet was "an international adventurer on a grand scale" who, when not cornering Canadian brandy markets or fixing railroad loans in Shanghai, dreamt up the pooling of international sovereignty as the answer to the potential threat posed by over-mighty nation states. Monnet, Anderson notes tartly, was "a stranger to the democratic process", and was so good at pulling international strings that he got the Kremlin to sort out his Italian lover's permission to remarry.
Chapters follow on selected member states. France is the subject of a mordant treatise on the shabbiness of its political culture, which, in the author's view, is not much better than Berlusconi's Italy. About Germany, Anderson is grudgingly admiring of Helmut Kohl for achieving unification, but chides Kohl's Social Democratic successor, Gerhard Schröder, for his attempt to reduce unemployment in the East by expanding low-wage jobs.
The breadth of Anderson's scope leads to no small variation in quality. The chapter on Italy, for instance, is barely comprehensible to readers who do not consume the woes of the Italian left, and its many acronyms, for breakfast. Yet it all just about hangs together because he is a fluent stylist with an instinct for the oddities of European politics. He observes with mischievous glee the "ideological whirligig" French election of 2002, when the march of Jean-Marie Le Pen caused such hysteria that the left transferred its vote to Jacques Chirac. And he offers dark warnings, too, about Turkey and the troublesome question of whether Europe and the EU are, or should be, contiguous.
The idea of the EU as separate from and superior to the rough-and-tumble of the democracies has become a hallmark of the Union's development. These essays ask whether this is the point of it all: the appearance of a grand project, beneath which the nation states continue to pursue their interests. The EU as grand but harmless illusion? Maybe that's as good as it gets.
The New Old World
Verso, 592pp, £24.99
Anne McElvoy is political columnist of the London Evening Standard