The Mini-Coup Strategy: How the European Union Took Over a Continent

The brilliant Perry Anderson, one of the greatest essayists of our time, reviews a history of the European Union in the London Review of Books, and his chosen title (or that of the LRB editors) is The European Coup. I prefer “The Mini-Coup Strategy” because it’s a bunch of coups, but the difference is minimal. We’re talking good old conspiracies here.

The book is written by a standard-issue pro-EU cheerleader, Luuk Van Middelaar, who became a Brussels-style celebrity (they exist!) with his 2009 book “The Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union.” Yes, the idea that the EU took over a continent (right there in my headline too) is the book author’s. And he loves it.

I’ll spare you Anderson’s absorbing reflections in Dutch politics and high culture, from which Van Middelaar comes from, since you can go to the source and read them yourself. Also, I’ll skip over the early stages of the EU, since Anderson (following Van Middelaar) decides to not pay any attention to the crazy dude who was the EU father, and his incredibly racist and far-fetched schemes that have been turned into standard EU policy. If you’re curious about that, read this before you continue.

We’re now in the 1960s. Anderson writes:

Under the treaty, a permanent Commission situated in Brussels, its personnel appointed by the member states, would submit proposals implementing the articles of the Treaty to a Council of Ministers representing their governments, with decisions requiring their unanimous consent, with the provision that after eight years majority voting could occur. Once set up, the Commission rapidly started to expand its activities. Its first president, the bumptious German diplomat Walter Hallstein, openly spoke of it as the ‘executive’ – i.e. government – of Europe, and in 1962 sought to bounce the Council into giving it a substantial tax base, and the hitherto powerless Parliament created by the treaty, regarded by the Commission as an ally, rights over the Community budget. Germany, Italy and the Netherlands backed him. By this time, however, de Gaulle ruled in Paris and he killed the scheme by calmly withdrawing France from the proceedings of the Community, paralysing it. The ensuing ‘crisis of the empty chair’ was resolved by the so-called Luxembourg Compromise of 1966, which in effect accepted that a decision could not be taken by a majority in the Council if ‘very important interests’ of a member state were at issue, giving that state a veto. ‘Supranationality has gone,’ de Gaulle would declare. ‘France will remain sovereign.’

Yeah, right. Anderson continues:

The horse, however, had already bolted, through a door unnoticed by de Gaulle. Three years earlier, the European Court of Justice had ruled that national legislation must comply with Community regulations, and where the two conflicted, courts in the country concerned must enforce the latter. Nothing in the Treaty of Rome authorised this. The court invoked the ‘spirit’ of the treaty, rather than its letter. Van Middelaar makes no bones about this, celebrating it as ‘a masterful move’. True, ‘the court was bluffing,’ since ‘who can know the spirit of a pact?’ But it was to be congratulated for doing so: ‘The court staged a coup on 5 February 1963 in the name of a new, auto-nomous legal order, while claiming that – although no one had been aware of it – this order was as old as the treaty itself. So its infringement of the status quo was concealed.’

It’s not even Anderson who speaks of a coup. It’s Van Middelaar himself. A good addendum follows, in case you wonder why wronged celebrities always vow to go all the way to EU court to clean up their reputation. How and when that became possible? Why, another coup!

Better still, in a second ‘handsomely constructed self-affirmation’, the court ruled a year later that since Community law overrode national legislation, citizens could appeal to it against the states to which they belonged. It was, in juridical language, of ‘direct effect’.

Or, as we say in plain language: because I fucking say so. Now, here’s a wonderful string of mini-coups, and how they gave us modern EU policymaking, that gift to history:

The alchemy of the Union is to achieve unanimity through the threat of majority, rather than to pass from unanimity to majority as imagined in classical theory. Such was the rule. There was one decisive exception, however. In 1985 the European Council met in Milan to discuss whether, to facilitate the proposed Single European Act, essentially intended to extend the common market from goods to services, the Treaty of Rome should be amended to convert the Community into a Union, which required an inter-governmental conference. Led by France and Germany, which had been secretly planning such revisions beforehand, seven out of the ten member states were in favour. Three – Britain, Denmark and Greece – were opposed. By the convention established at Luxembourg, that was more than enough to block the move. Overnight, however, Italy – host and chair of the meeting – suddenly announced, in the person of its premier, Bettino Craxi, that since convening an inter-governmental conference was a procedural rather than a substantive issue, he was putting it to the vote. Thatcher, along with her allies Papandreou and Schlüter, was outraged. Craxi was not deterred, and the motion passed seven to three. Thatcher was furious, but – she lived to regret this – did not use her veto because she regarded the SEA as in some degree her own liberalising handiwork, as it was.

The EU has a great ability to use ideological tools, which are irrelevant for EU purposes of creating a supranational entity with executive powers (Van Middelaar describes himself as a supporter of supranationality; others in the pro-EU camp belong to the more radical, straightforward globalist faction), to advance its very plain, simple and self-evidently naked power grabs. And then gloat about it, in the reasonable expectation that the nationalist right that is the backbone of anti-EU sentiment won’t pay any attention:

Van Middelaar can scarcely contain his enthusiasm at the outcome. Taking ‘the opportunity to capitalise on the flow of time’, the ‘brilliance of Craxi’s bluff’ had delivered a ‘magnificent moment of passage’, opening ‘the way to Europe’s permanent renewal’ and endowing ‘the Community with a robust supreme authority’. How was it done? ‘Secret: a coup disguised as a procedural decision.’ After Milan, the ‘gate was unbarred’ to successive treaty revisions: 1986 (Luxembourg-The Hague), 1992 (Maastricht), 1997 (Amsterdam), 2001 (Nice), 2007 (Lisbon) – every one approved by a unanimous decision of the heads of government, each a step further towards a compact European Union, with juridical authority over its member states.

No, wait. And German courts? The Germans will say something, right? The Germans, with their brilliant democratic tradition and their centuries-long respect for judicial procedure above brute force, will surely say something!

The only national court daring to question this constitutional supremacy, the German Bundesverfassungsgericht, after emitting a few grumbles at the Treaty of Lisbon, sensibly set legal niceties aside, since these would have caused ‘an acute political crisis’, and took no action. Lisbon now empowers the European Council, via the discreet device of a passerelle, to make treaty alterations without any need for special conferences or ratifications, merely the Italianate blessing of a ‘unanimous non-refusal’ by national parliaments, which would prove so useful during the euro crisis.

See, German tradition has always dictated that, if you’re not helping, just shut up. OK, then. More mini-coups took place as a way to take advantage of historical openings:

Then came the oil shock of 1973, when ‘Arab aggressors’ in the Middle East imposed an embargo on Europe, and the Bretton Woods system finally collapsed. In this dual crisis, van Middelaar writes, ‘the member states did not transfer their political voice to the institutions of the inner sphere as a way of becoming better able to respond to the demands of the outside world.’ Rather, ‘the heads of state staged a coup, uninvited,’ when at French initiative – Giscard’s incalculable contribution to the unity of the continent – they started regular summits and ‘as a result the in-between world of the member states took shape’, evolving into the European Council, the commanding instance of the Union to come.

Of course, 1989 presented a massive opportunity that the EU had neither anticipated, nor precipitated. Mitterrand’s mini-coup to ensure France’s subordination to Germany was typically EU-style. He went home thinking that was a win for Paris; same as the wonderful idea of letting a stream of German clients and former protectorates join the EU all at pretty much the same time:

The third stage of Europe’s encounter with the rapids of time came when East Germany collapsed in 1989. The ensuing crisis led to the deal struck between Kohl and Mitterrand at Strasbourg: France would accept the reunification of Germany, making the Federal Republic the preponderant power in Europe, in exchange for German acceptance of a single currency, dethroning the Deutschmark. Two years later the Treaty of Maastricht sealed this bargain, indeed went further, encompassing the Community within the grander structure of a Union equipped with its own foreign policy, as well as agencies for justice and internal security. Thereafter, the end of the Cold War assured the entry of the former neutrals Austria, Finland and Sweden into the Union, and then its progressive enlargement into Eastern Europe, more than doubling the number of signatories to Maastricht. An important side-effect was to qualify the juridical fiction that all member states were equal by introducing weighted voting in the Council of Ministers, to ensure that newcomers from the East did not by mere number rise above their real station in the Union.

Both Anderson and Van Middelaar are terribly wrong about the EU’s role in the destruction and carving up of Yugoslavia, about which I’ve written extensively here. They think the EU stood back and let the US do all the bombing, which was a sad abrogation of responsibilities (we have the Germans! the Germans know how to bomb!). They just don’t get that it all worked out fantastically for the EU, the whole sad business of letting the world contemplate how evil the Serbs, those Russian puppets, really are. As an example, take this extract also cited in my earlier post:

November 1991 is a month and year that will forever live in infamy when it comes to one of the most grievous crimes committed under the rubric of Western foreign policy, as it was on this month in this year that the break-up and destruction of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) was set in train.

The Arbitration Commission of the Peace Conference on Yugoslavia was a body set up in 1991 by the Council of Ministers of the European Economic Community (EEC) in response to the conflict that had broken out between separatists in Slovenia and Croatia and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) earlier that year. It was tasked with providing the peace conference with legal advice and on 21 November, in the first of its legal opinions on the crisis, it determined that Yugoslavia was “in the process of dissolution.”

That’s not really standing back, in my book. That looks a bit more like approaching somebody on the brink, and pushing gently so that his misery ends. Or starts.

From these omissions, we enter the world of science fiction, EU-style:

Europe was irrelevant when 9/11 struck, and split over the war in Iraq. Nevertheless, in 2003 a Franco-German agreement moved the Union forward once more, introducing two vital innovations: the election of the Spitzenkandidat of whichever bloc of parties won the most votes in the European Parliament as Commission president; and more consequentially, the creation of a no longer rotating but permanent president of the European Council, appointed by its members for a five-year term, and holding – an ‘institutional revolution’ – no national office. With this innovation, Europe acquired a figure who could speak for it at the highest international level, where previously it had none. ‘That void had now been filled.’ Already strengthened, the Union could dispatch crisis missions, military or civilian, across the world, from Kosovo to Iraq, Mali to Afghanistan, and in the war between Russia and Georgia of 2008 stopped the Kremlin from seizing Tbilisi, Sarkozy flying to Moscow and extracting a ceasefire, in the name of ‘the ancient French state and the power bloc of Europe’.

That, of course, wasn’t the reason why “the Kremlin” wouldn’t seize Tbilisi. What in the world would “the Kremlin” do with Tbilisi, a large city full of rabid anti-Russians? Van Middelaar now is on an unstoppable roll:

The upshot, van Middelaar concludes, is that ‘under pressure from inevitable appearances by Fortune, the Union is clambering up into the outer ranges of high politics. In light of the past, this is remarkable.’

Here, it’s worth considering, like the Romans, who benefits. For a few decades, the Americans — to this day occupiers of much of Western Europe through military bases and various arrangements under which the EU countries essentially surrender their defense to NATO in exchange for saving on military expenses — grumbled that there was no easy way to pick up a phone and get “Europe” on the line. Now there is one!

Mark Steyn famously called the EU a 1970s solution to a 1940s problem. Note that all of the examples that Anderson provides (“from Kosovo to Iraq, Mali to Afghanistan”) are American operations that included some offshoring contracts for EU allies, and aspiring EU allies (Georgia, Ukraine…). This is not high politics. This is sepoy duties. Van Middelaar himself understands that his excitement about the EU’s international role is pure posturing, a way to make Brussels eurocrats pay attention. He wrote this for Obama’s inauguration, in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad:

Obama makes America more powerful. The ability to cast the national interest in terms of a universal mission is deeply embedded in American consciousness. America is a force for good. That is its imperial trump card. Anyone who can credibly identify power with virtue is strong. The president himself knows this very well, and spoke to it in his masterly inaugural speech. Why did he move hundreds of millions? Certainly, because of the colour of his face, the sound of his voice, the moment in time. But also because he said that America, ‘the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth’ is and will remain a beacon of light and freedom, a country that is ‘a friend of every nation’ and ‘willing to lead again’. Obama’s audience, inside and outside America, yearned for this message. (1)

Moving on, there’s a lot to enjoy in Anderson’s essay:

Faced with low voter turnout to the Parliament in Strasbourg, the blue and gold flag was lifted from the (unrelated) Council of Europe of 1949, with its nearly fifty members, and ceremonially displayed whenever and wherever bureaucratically possible; Beethoven’s music to Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ was adopted as an official anthem; a pantheon of Founders created to baptise squares, buildings, chairs. Euro coins with appropriate symbols were minted; European values declaimed; European ‘criteria’ for accession codified. All attempts to give a cultural and historical grounding to the political construct of the Union, however, remain somewhat arbitrary so long as it still does not actually encompass geographical Europe. Only when all its states are safely gathered under the roof of the Union can the German strategy come to a natural fruition.

Van Middelaar, a cultivated man, has his moments too:

 ‘We could come straight out with it and call this second version the “coup sequence”. Every royal or imperial dynasty starts with a power grab; every founder is a usurper.’ Much energy is afterwards invested in smooth inheritance and cultivation of public goodwill, ‘but – as Lady Macbeth’s hands remind us – the founding act can never be completely expunged.’

That is, in the first book. Because Anderson also reviews a second by the same auhor (Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage) which he doesn’t find quite as insightful. Again, I myself appreciate Van Middelaar’s candor as described by Anderson, for example when discussing the way EU rules were ignored during the Greek-driven crisis of 2009-2017:

The states had committed themselves at the Union’s foundation not only to adherence to Union law but to the continued existence of the Union as such. In emergency situations, therefore, breaking with the rules could actually equate to being true to the contract.

As a student of pyschoanalysis, I found much to savor in the EU reading of the average Greek voter mind:

Tsipras’s acceptance of medicine harsher even than that just rejected by voters was true to their deeper desire, which was not for a return to the drachma, but for the preservation of their dignity. 

There are enlightening references to the EU role in Ukraine (nothing about the infamous “Fuck the EU” incident); and this great nugget about the EU’s role in disturbing and mucking Brexit up (or, as Anderson puts it, the EU’s “determination to punish Britain for its desertion”):

‘Bluntly put, it would not be in the Union’s interests for things to go well in the post-Brexit UK. Leading European voices considered that the political costs of a “soft” Brexit outweighed the “economic” costs of a hard Brexit.’ So Tusk gave Ireland a veto on the withdrawal process, with Brussels compactly behind Dublin. Yet it was above all the awakening of the decisive power of Germany to the stakes at issue that made Brexit the Union’s finest hour, enabling it to perform more convincingly than in any of its previous crises.

Little else. The EU is where countries go to die.

  1. He also wrote: ‘The Statue of Liberty was no longer the symbol of America, but Guantánamo Bay. That’s why Obama decided to remove that blemish immediately. Symbolism is power politics.’ So, let’s not get carried away about Van Middelaar’s smarts.

About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
This entry was posted in Essays, Greatest Hits and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Mini-Coup Strategy: How the European Union Took Over a Continent

  1. Pingback: History’s Greatest Power Grab: How EU Institutions Became Dominant | Neotenianos

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