Book Review

October 17, 2005 20:01 | by Steve McGiffen



Dick Leonard The Economist Guide to the European Union: The definitive guide to all aspects of the EU (London: Profile Books, 2005) hardback, 342 pp. £20



As the author of an alternative guide to the European Union, my credentials for writing this review are perhaps open to question. On the one hand, I should at least know what I'm talking about. On the other, any critical comments I might make could easily be put down to professional rivalry. As I do have some quite serious criticisms of Dick Leonard's handbook of the EU, therefore, I would like to begin by dispelling any suspicion that I am simply badmouthing the opposition in the hope of increasing my own sales by stating unreservedly (and at the risk of incurring my own publisher's displeasure) that if what you are looking for is the best possible reference guide to the structures and policies of the European Union, look no further. Leonard's book almost lives up to its bold claims to be a "definitive guide to all aspects of the EU" and "a simplified account of the origin, history, institutions and functions of the Union in a form accessible to the intelligent reader with no previous knowledge of the EU". I would add that this reader, with more previous knowledge of the EU than is probably good for him, but a less-than-efficient memory, now keeps his review copy easily to hand as a handy reference to facts, figures, dates and names.

In clear, concise, digestible prose Leonard describes the workings of each of the EU institutions, the relationships between them, and the way in which they conduct business. Beginning with a useful (if predictably 'Europhile') potted history, the author goes on to look in turn at the Commission, Council of Ministers, European Council, European Parliament, Court of Justice, Court of Auditors, European Investment Bank and minor institutions. He then looks at the Union's 'competences' - the areas in which it is empowered by the Treaties to act - before examining the way in which these have been exercised in policy making and implementation. In a series of appendices Leonard gives much (but not too much) useful statistical information, looks at each of the Treaties and gives a little more detail about the make-up of Commission and Parliament, the two institutions with which most citizens, organisations and businesses will find themselves dealing, should they ever have any direct contact with the European Union at all. Tables, chronologies and diagrammatic illustrations are generally clear and used to good effect.

Errors, as far as I could see, are virtually non-existent. Indeed, the only one I can positively identify is a political misjudgement, one which is arguably important to me only because I used to work for the United Left Group in the European Parliament, though given that spectrezine is a radical left website it is natural for us to concern ourselves with the accuracy of statements made about our movement. I would also suggest that it is, though trivial enough in itself, a mistake which indicates a broader weakness in the book. Although United Left Group's full name does include the word 'Green', it is incorrect to say that Greens in the Parliament are "split between two groups: the Greens/European Free Alliance Group....and the Confederal Group of the United European Left/Nordic Green Left, a more avowedly left-wing group with 41 members, many of them formerly communists." The GUE-NGL, as it is known from its French acronym, contains no Green Parties and only one associate member, from the Danish Red-Green Alliance, the name of whose party even contains the word. On the other hand, although it does have members who were 'formerly communists', this could conceivably describe only parties (as opposed to individuals, as former communists are probably found in almost all of the Parliament's Groups) from Sweden (the Left Party, which became highly critical of the Soviet Union after the invasion of Czechoslovakia and abandoned the name 'Communist' in 1977), Finland (where the former Communist Party constitutes a large part of the Union of the Left), Germany (where the GDR's former ruling party, Communist in all but name, evolved into the Party of Democratic Socialists, which since Leonard's book was published has merged into the Left Party) and perhaps Greece, where Synaspismos was originally a split from the Communist Party. As for the rest, the parties in Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark have never been 'Communist' while those in Portugal, Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic and the larger of the two from Greece remain Communist Parties, as does the Cypriot AKEL, despite not having the word in its name.

The weakness to which I believe this points is certainly not an eye for detail, on which Mr Leonard cannot be faulted. It is rather that, having spent his life in mainstream politics, the author, a former Labour MP, lacks a feel for the unorthodox. And given the importance of Green Parties - most of which, though the British are an exception, are ultra-Europhile in outlook - as well as the crucial role played by the French Communist Party and the radical left Socialist Party of the Netherlands (also a GUE-NGL affiliate) in defeating the proposed Constitution, the unorthodox may be said to have become rather important. The EU elite notoriously listens only to itself, and therefore routinely misses the real point and content of those who oppose further integration on the elite's terms, and Mr Leonard reflects this thinking in his failure accurately to represent such critics; and, as part of that, his failure to understand why, having seen the French electorate strangle the life from a Constitution which it correctly assessed as offering it no benefits whatsoever, the Dutch duly nailed down the coffin lid.

To be fair, it is astonishing that Leonard manages to cover the results of these referenda at all in a book whose publication date was less than two months later. It is in relation to longstanding policies where his oversights are more reprehensible. The Lisbon Process, for example, is examined purely on its own terms, its premises - that the way to a competitive economy and therefore full employment lies through undermining the rights of employees, for example - are never questioned. Even ex-Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok's detailed critical appraisal, itself guilty of accepting neoliberal doctrine at face value, is given only a scant paragraph. Yet the Lisbon process is at the very heart of the EU's mature post-Maastricht strategy, one which amounts to nothing less than a Structural Adjustment Programme for the member states, and the reader who does not understand its centrality (without, I would add, necessarily sharing my negative view of it) will surely not be able to grasp the true realities of the range of policies of which Mr Leonard gives such an otherwise excellent account.

When he states elsewhere that the EU's budget is not "sufficiently large to have a significant macro-economic effect on the West European economy in a manner comparable with the way in which national budgets point their economies in an expansionist or deflationary direction" he is positively encouraging his readers to miss the point. For it is not the budget which points the EU member states in a particular direction, but the wholly unelected and unaccountable European Central Bank, and, what's more, that direction is not "expansionist or deflationary" but, barring extraordinary economic circumstances, invariably the latter. This is because the ECB is bound by the Treaties to prioritise price stability over all other goals, while the elected representatives of the European peoples are forbidden by those same Treaties to attempt to exert any influence over the ECB's policies.

Generally, the author's views, though they must always be taken into account in assessing what he has to say (which is, of course, true of all of us), rarely undermine his reliability as a source of information. Only here and there does Mr Leonard's own Europhilia cause him to break out in absurdities. He claims, for example, that the EU costs the taxpayer very little, giving a figure of 220 ecus (his puzzling choice of currency - what happened to the Euro?) per head across the Union. This disguises massive disparities, but it is indeed no great sum, always provided that the bulk of it is coming from the deepest pockets. However, he spoils a reasonable point by comparing it to the 'perhaps fifty times this sum' spent on average by the member states. Now, while some may feel that taxes are too high and others that they are ill-spent, it is fairly clear what you get for your money when you, with however heavy a heart, hand it over to the government in the form of income tax, VAT and the rest. What you get for your €220 is far less clear, unless you happen to be one of the food processing multinationals or massive agribusiness concerns which are the major beneficiaries of the Common Agricultural Policy, which takes 40% of EU spending.

In attempting to rescue the CAP from the almost universal opprobrium in which it is - and with good cause - held, Leonard ties himself in knots of self-contradiction. At the beginning of his chapter on agriculture he claims that "From the point of view of European farmers (the CAP) has been a great success." A few pages later he notes that despite attempts to slow the flight of men and women from the land, and the long-term scarcity of alternative employment - something he blames on "the economic crisis since 1973", as if this were a force of nature about which nothing could be done - "the agricultural labour force is still declining by 2.5% a year." Some success, unless of course by "European farmers" you mean the consolidated agribusiness which, aided and abetted by the CAP, has systematically destroyed the European countryside as a place to work, live, raise children and breathe fresh air.

More often than he strays into absurdity, Leonard is simply guilty of being economical with the truth. In relation to the euro, for example, though he does mention the conflicts which led then Commission President Romano Prodi to label (correctly) the Stability and Growth Pact "stupid", and the strains which its stupidity has produced between member states, he says nothing about the economic difficulties which some argue the system's inflexibility has produced, nor does he mention the inflation which appeared to accompany the introduction of the currency, in much the same way as decimalisation provoked price rises in Britain just over thirty years ago.

Another problem is that Leonard treats each area of policy as if it were quite separate to every other area. Social policy and "workers' rights" are given a chapter each, but neither subject is looked at in the broader context, the argument that both are undermined by the EU's neoliberal direction since Maastricht being simply ignored. How workers' rights are supposed to be defended in the face of a vicious piece of ultra-liberal class warfare such as Bolkestein's Services Directive is of no concern to Mr Leonard. Similarly, his statement that the "EU has helped improve women's status" is true if you look no further than laws specifically designed to do just that. However, the gradual and not-so-gradual erosion of the welfare state and social provision under pressure from the EU has hit women harder than it has men, and gender differences in voting patterns show that many women understand this. Class can be an important factor in such a response: a woman who is about to embark on a professional career may well value anti-discrimination law more than she would an effective system of income support for the low paid; one who lacks the educational and social background to do more than take whatever job comes to hand, sometimes fitting her work outside the home with a demanding range of tasks within it, is likely to see things differently. The concerns of both, of course, are important, and they certainly overlap, but the EU's economic assumptions allow much more room for the first woman's problems to be addressed.

Even where criticisms of a policy are widespread and well-known, Leonard gives them short shrift. That anti-terrorism measures may involve the abuse of individual liberty; that the Common Fisheries Policy has resulted in empty seas, and fishing ports which have become ghost towns; that transport policy is gradually covering the continent with concrete; these are just three examples of views which extend well beyond any body of opinion which might be called "Euro-sceptic" or in any way radical and yet which are ignored in this book.

The European Union in its present form is a thoroughly elitist project which enjoys widespread public acquiescence but almost no popular support. There has never been a single popular demonstration of any size in support of further European integration. This needs to be confronted if the idea of close international cooperation to solve common problems, an idea which any sane person must support, is to survive. The deeply ingrained elitism which has alienated so many people from the idea of European Union is nowhere better demonstrated than in Leonard's chapter on "Citizen's rights and symbolism". Apparently, in 1984, concerned "to foster sentiments of loyalty and solidarity among the mass of the population in the member states...the EC heads of government...decided on the appointment of a Committee for a People's Europe, which would suggest ways of strengthening the identity and improving the image of the Community." And who was to sit on this committee? Elected representatives of these 'People'? Community leaders from popular social associations, churches, groups of small business people, trade unions, people who had demonstrated that they could in one way or another communicate broadly? Not on your life. The Committee, Mr Leonard tells us, entirely without conscious irony as far as I can see, "consisted of personal representatives of each of the heads of government and of the President of the European Commission". Some of its suggestions were sensible enough, as it turns out, others less so. Some have proved easier to achieve than others. None has, however, helped to foster any kind of 'European' identity, which remains virtually non-existent. This is hardly surprising: the elite perceives that it has problems talking to the non-elite and appoints several members of the elite to suggest solutions, a process which neatly sums up what is wrong with the EU's way of doing business.

Having said all that, I would nevertheless reiterate the praise with which I began this review. Dick Leonard's book is the most useful concise reference to the EU currently on the market. If you are interested, however, in looking beyond the minor differences of opinion with which the increasingly out-of-touch Europhile political elite entertains itself, at the real criticisms which are led to the rejection of the proposed Constitution, then buy you will, I'm afraid, have to buy mine as well.

The reviewer, Steve McGiffen, is the editor of spectrezine and the author of The European Union: A Critical Guide, an updated edition of which will be published by Pluto Press in December.