Turbulent and Mighty Continent: What Future for Europe?, by Anthony Giddens

Roger Morgan on a peer’s review of Brussels’ weaknesses

October 31, 2013

Sociologists have paid less attention to the European Union than other social scientists, for understandable reasons (they have much else to do). Interestingly, two of them who have made significant contributions on the subject have been directors of the London School of Economics: Ralf Dahrendorf, after his spell as a European commissioner, and Anthony Giddens, on his way to becoming a doughty proponent of the European cause in the House of Lords.

Giddens presents this book as a contribution to the complex current debates on Europe that centre around the euro crisis, the necessary restructuring of an EU divided between those inside and those outside the single currency, the prospects for the European Parliament elections in May 2014, and the question of whether the UK (with the possible exception of Scotland) may vote to walk out of the whole thing. The book falls into two distinct parts: in fact, it is almost two separate books. Its central core is a sequence of four closely argued and informative chapters analysing some of the main problems and challenges facing Europe. The issues Giddens selects are not agriculture, regional disparities or research and education as such, but the following: first, Europe’s economic and industrial prospects in a time of “austerity and after”; second, the condition of the “European model” of social policy; third, the range of socio-cultural questions concerned with European and national identities, the nature of “European values” and their relationship to cosmopolitan ones; and fourth, environment and energy. These chapters are preceded and followed up by more general discussions of the EU’s present state and future prospects, including a number of suggestions and proposals for reforming its institutions and procedures to help it face up to the problems of tomorrow’s world.

He calls for an advance towards a federal Europe, but also advocates waiting to see what Brussels may propose

The book presents the former of these two large themes – the analysis of specific issues or policy areas – more successfully than the latter. This is partly because, as Giddens says, some of the former (social policy, for instance, or the issues of multiculturalism versus interculturalism) have only an indirect connection with the institutions and practices of the EU, and thus lend themselves to sociological or socio-economic investigation in their own right. This is what Giddens gives them, providing a stimulating tour of big issues that deserve serious attention. His argument for a European economic/industrial strategy, for instance, moves confidently and informatively from the fragility of the single currency to the need for a balanced revival in the production of goods and services (he is particularly interesting on digital technology), and policies for “bringing back the jobs” and “bringing back the money” (from tax havens).

The chapters that follow – essays, almost – demonstrate the author’s versatility. From economics he proceeds logically to the fate of the “European social model” in hard times, arguing that in some ways it was not strictly European, nor social, nor a model, and should now be replaced by the more dynamic and employment-friendly concept of a “social investment model”. In the chapter on the more abstract themes of identity, multiculturalism and values, Giddens deploys an appropriately wide frame of reference, from Eric Hobsbawm’s “invention of tradition” to Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities”, and in the discussion of energy and the environment he reverts to a suitably quantitative presentation of different energy sources and their implications.

It is in the book’s earlier and later sections, framing these thematic case studies, that Giddens offers his proposals, hints and urgings concerning the reform of the EU’s ways, linking these sometimes with strictly institutional issues and sometimes with broader reflections on geopolitics and military strategy. Too often, it has to be said, the presentation is disjointed and disappointing. The author makes some perceptive but brief comments on the EU’s current ways of functioning and issues rousing calls for an advance towards a federal Europe, but he also advocates a gradualist strategy of waiting to see what proposals come from Brussels. This approach, and his expectation that fundamental institutional reform would take 10 years to bed down, seem to contradict his sharp dissent from Luuk van Middelaar’s wise conclusion (in the latter’s outstanding recent study The Passage to Europe) that creating a union is a slow business. Giddens envisages a directly elected European president and a monolingual (anglophone) EU, only briefly mentioning the immense difficulties entailed. And the book’s short conclusion, surprisingly and regrettably, is limited almost entirely to a technical discussion of the possible break-up of the single currency.

Overall, Turbulent and Mighty Continent gives the impression of having been written – probably dictated – in haste. There are curious little slips: in chapter 2 a sudden instruction to “See below, Chapter 2”; a reference to Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, as “foreign minister”; and the use of the obsolete term “Council of Ministers” for a body now called the Council of the European Union. More seriously, it is a pity that too many of the book’s stimulating insights and ideas are not given the space they deserve, but are lost in diffuse and sometimes repetitive rhetoric.

Turbulent and Mighty Continent: What Future for Europe?

By Anthony Giddens
Polity, 224pp, £16.99
ISBN 9780745680965
Published 11 October 2013

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