Guy Verhofstadt’s book occupies a unique genre. On the one hand, it is unapologetically, aggressively pro-Federal Europe. On the other, it provides a critique of the current incarnation of the European Union that would make even Nigel Farage blush. Of course, the difference lies in their answer to the problems of European integration: for Verhofstadt, it is federal Europe; for Farage, and other Eurosceptics and nationalists, it is a return to national democracy of old.
Verhofstadt embeds his argument in a highly rationalist framework. He argues that Europe must unite to compete on the global stage (Chapters 4–5), to deal more effectively with situations like the immigration crisis, rule of law crisis in Hungary, or economic crises (Chapters 8–9, 16–18); and addresses particular areas in which a federal Europe could perform better (Chapters 10–15). He then finishes with a ‘rebirth’ section with chapter headings that would make Brexiters shudder: ‘A government for the Euro’, ‘A European Army’, and ‘The United States of Europe’.
It is not this rational approach from Verhofstadt I will take issue with here, but rather two points which underpin much of his argument but are not addressed as fully as the economic or political arguments. The first is about identity. The second is about democracy. For the first I claim that he is a hypocrite and naïve; the second I claim that he is simply a hypocrite.
Verhofstadt devotes a chapter to ‘The Chronic Condition of Nationalism’, but moves easily between using ‘nationalism’ and ‘identity’. To him, ‘the delusional spirit of nationalism still haunts the continent’. He completely rejects identity. He argues that ‘a person is a unique personality […] there is no such thing as a clear identity’. Identity is ‘a narrow-mindedness that ignores that each persona has a whole range of identities and characteristics’.
This is an odd position to take for someone who has used the Twitter hashtag #IAmEuropean. Throughout the book, he makes claims that depend on his own European identity. He argues that Europe ‘stands in the middle of a clash of civilisations’. He argues that ‘we must concentrate once again on that which binds us, on the challenges we face jointly’. He even says ‘we Europeans’. In his critique of identity, he says that identity is used to decide on ‘who does and does not belong to a community’; later, he says ‘Russia is part of Europe. A European continent, and certainly a European civilisation, is unimaginable without Russia’. If that is not deciding on who does belong to a community, what is?
The point here is not to defend identity politics (and I wouldn’t want to). But rather point out that, in many ways, the defence of a federal Europe hinges on his own European identity. You can replace any of the defences he makes of Europe with ‘English’ or ‘England’ — or any other nation state in Europe — and it would not sound odd. He is quite correct that identity decides which belongs to a community. But rather than rejecting identity, he instead adopts a European identity, pitting Europe against the rest of the world (‘clash of civilisations’, also Chapters 4–5), and arguing for a shared, European identity against the ‘inward-looking’ national identities.
But there is another issue. Let’s assume identity matters, as it clearly does to Verhofstadt. And let’s assume identity matters for further integration: after all, he cites Eurobarometer data in support of his argument at the end of his book (p.271). Then comes the question on what this identity looks like across Europe. It’s possible to look at this using the same data the book uses.
The graph below shows that very few people feel European only, or European before their nationality. It is up to debate about whether nationality first and European second is a positive category for his argument. But about a third of all those polled across Europe see themselves as their nationality only — about 55% are both, with their nationality first. It is a classic question of whether European integration can continue without a ‘European demos’, and it is one that the book does not address.
Given the focus on European identity throughout the book, it is impossible to completely ignore identity politics. However, looking at identity more broadly is troubling for Verhofstadt’s overall goal of European federalism. Most people do not feel European. Most people still have deep-rooted, palpable attachments to their nationality. To ignore these is naïve. To ignore them and indulge a European identity is hypocritical.
This leads to the second point. Throughout, the book refers to the European values of democracy, rule of law, and so on, that are embedded more formally in Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. He is clearly a democrat. However, he also says that European politicians must ‘fly in the face of public opinion where necessary’ in order to move European integration forward (p.101). This would not be a problem if the public wanted further European integration, of course. And we can answer that question too.
The graph below shows whether people believe the EU has gone too far (0) or not far enough (10) in its integration. Ultimately, most people are largely ambivalent. But we can also see that very few people want the EU to go further — fewer than think it has gone far enough.
Verhofstadt’s focus on democracy then seems misplaced. After all — he is advocating a solution no one wants. And he is doing that because of the rationalist perspective the book takes. It might be the case a United Europe would be more efficient, more powerful on the world stage. But you cannot root that argument in democracy.
Verhoftstadt’s Europe’s Last Chance is worth reading. It is both a critique of modern-day Europe and a rare, provocative argument for a Federal Europe. The rationalist argument is good and solid. Where the book falls is on the more intractable problems like identity and democracy. At the same time as appealing to a united European identity around shared values of democracy, it rubbishes any claim to national identity and advocates going against public opinion. These two positions cannot be held simultaneously — at least, not without problems. If the ideal of a Federal Europe is to be achieved, Verhofstadt would need to address both of these issues.