On May 9, 1950, Robert Schuman, the French Foreign Minister, delivered one of the twentieth century’s most significant speeches. Its purpose was to propose that France and Germany, joined by other interested European states, should place their production and distribution of coal and steel under a “Higher Authority.” Schuman’s immediate goal was to integrate and thereby control a revitalized German economy. But Schuman also pointed to the eventual creation of an “organized and living Europe” that would provide the basis for a lasting peace. This Europe, he argued, “will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.” These modest phrases expressed a grand strategy of historical change resting on the conviction that the same gradual accumulation of individual actions that created and sustained market economies could also transform international relations. In a world governed by “de facto solidarity,” individual states might continue to exist but they would lose the incentive—and eventually the ability—to fight one another. Like the economy, the international order would be shaped by productive and necessarily peaceful competition.
No one who listened to Schuman’s brief remarks on that May afternoon could have imagined “the organized and living Europe” that now exists. In April 1951, six states (France, Italy, West Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands) signed a treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community; in 2022, the European Union has twenty-seven members and extends from Portugal to Poland, the Baltic to the Mediterranean. The ECSC’s original institutions—a commission, parliament, and court—have grown enormously. The European Parliament, for example, has 705 members (directly elected since 1979), who are supported by a staff of seven thousand functionaries. The EU’s compilation of laws, rights, and regulations (the so-called acquis communautaire), which covers everything from the movement of goods and people to the placement of electrical outlets, fills 90,000 pages. As Perry Anderson points out in his book, Ever Closer Union?, the U.S. tax code, which is notorious for its arcane complexity, takes up a mere 6,500 pages.
Only three of the four essays in Anderson’s book are about the European Union. In the first, a long and acute analysis of the work of Adam Tooze, an economic historian who teaches at Columbia, the EU makes no more than a brief appearance. The second essay is a respectful but highly critical account of the career of Luuk van Middelaar, whose 2013 book, The Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union, is one of the most interesting books about European integration to appear in the past two decades. Anderson’s own views on the EU are in “The Rivets of Unity,” which is the essay that most readers will find especially helpful. The concluding chapter, “The Breakaway,” considers Brexit; it is necessarily inconclusive because the course and consequences of Britain’s departure from the EU are by no means settled.
The three chapters on the EU originally appeared in the London Review of Books. Like many of the essays in the LRB, they are erudite, vividly written, and have a tendency to wander away from the matter at hand. One might wonder, for instance, why Anderson concludes his account of van Middelaar with ten pages on Friedrich Gentz, a nineteenth-century conservative publicist. Gentz and van Middelar do have some things in common, but hardly enough to justify this extensive rehearsal of Gentz’s life and thought. Here and elsewhere, both the author and his readers would have benefited from a firmer editorial hand.