Monday, 14 January 2013

Book Review: The 50 days that Changed Europe by Hanneke Sieblink

50 Days that changed Europe: the cover
Europe is very much in the news in Britain but instead of being a celebration of it being 40 years since we were allowed into the biggest single market in the world, media attention is focussed on whether we should have a vote on whether we should be in the European Union or not.

I have always had a love of Europe, which for me is the cradle of democracy, of human rights and of capitalism and progress. As a Liberal Democrat, I always enjoy meeting Liberals from around Europe and learning about how they are doing and how they interpret a common political philosophy to the economic and political realities of their countries. Not to mention the fact that the Scandinavian Liberals are incredibly good drinkers!

Four years ago, I stood for the European Parliament and this exposed me to the actual institutions of the European Union, namely the Commission and the Parliament. I have to say the rational consensus style of policy making appealed to this UK citizen used to the braying of the politicians in the House of Commons. It also led me to seek out more about why Europeans were so keen on this union that my domestic media told me was such a terrible idea and which seemed so controversial in my own country.

I got the best gift I could want from the in-laws at Christmas, a gift voucher for Waterstone's (I refuse to drop the apostrophe like they have done!) so I could buy myself a book that is unlikely they would pick for me. It's "the 50 Days that changed Europe" by Hanneke Siebelink, a Dutch writer who was an economic advisor to the US Mission to the EU for 10 years. Her aim is to give the reader a snappy and easy to read book on a very dry subject, the development of the body we now call the European Union. It covers all the important events from French foreign minister Robert Schumanns historic call for binding the economies of Europe together to stop another war in 1950 to the current day. She does this in 50 snappy chapters of two or three pages each  which detail each of the 50 most important days in the unions development. Whether you think you are anti or pro EU, you really need to understand why we are where we are. This is a really accessible book that will help anyone understand the European Union.

What it does for me is reinforce the bravery and breathtaking vision of the 6 European nations that founded the union. After the war, bitter enemies put their differences aside to create a free trade zone and customs union. They recognised though that the model of a purely free trade zone was not enough and by pooling sovereignty things which worked better when done in a common way across the whole area could be done much easier. This is a revolutionary concept and one which the EU has been scared to talk about in recent years but one which has stood the test of time.

From a British perspective, it is amazing that on almost every strategic call on the EU it has had to make, the UK seems to have got it wrong and had to come back to the cap in hand once the rules have been set by the other countries. The UK was invited to attend negotiations on the European Coal and Steel Authority, the first institution. We didn't even show up. The European countries wanted the UK then but had got used to life without us when we applied to join and France vetoed our membership for a decade. When the EEC was founded in 1955, Britain said "The future treaty which you are discussing has no chance of being ratified; and if it was ratified it would have no chance of being applied". It was ratified and it was applied. We had no influence on its wording.

Also fascinating is that in 1974, Britain felt that it couldn't argue for what it wanted in terms of the development of the European Parliament because Harold Wilson didn't want to cause negative headlines just before the forthcoming referendum on membership in the UK. One wonders if history will repeat itself if the UK is again distracted by a referendum. Also interesting is how scared by German reunification Thatcher was and how badly she got it while other more visionary politicians realised that you couldn't stop it and that Germany had massively moved on since 1945.

A fascinating book then and one I would recommend anyone who wants to understand the European Union and not just repeat tired old clich├ęs that they read in the UK press.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully summarizes the problem. Niall Martin