books: Wrinkly continent

Christopher Harvie on Euro-pessimism; A Grand Illusion? An essay on Europe by Tony Judt, Penguin, pounds 6.99
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And now, what will become of us without barbarians? They were a kind of solution." The Romans, in Cavafy's poem, found barbarians necessary. When ours exited in 1989, much triumphalism was heard, not just from capitalists but liberal theorists such as Ralf Dahrendorf. Eight years on, in this elegant essay, Tony Judt is anything but soothing to the hungover tenants of the Gorbachev European Home.

Judt's Europessimism has three main prongs. First, the European Union evolved not from idealism but to negotiate ways out of national predicaments. The most important - the division of Germany - no longer applies. Second, Mitteleuropa lacks the wealth and cohesion to be more than a pensioner of the Greater German co- prosperity zone. Third, globalisation and the dismantling of welfare states - demanded, ironically, by the Maastricht criteria - are creating new inequalities. This "bourgeois regionalism" in favour of the haves, and poverty and instability on Europe's borders, creates the neo-nationalist atmosphere out of which crawl the Le Pens.

Judt's analysis has two lacunae: democracy and technology. The EU has given West Europe more than 20 years in which ethnic authoritarianism - Salazar, Franco, Greek colonels - have been ruled out. This political condom has actually checked the Le Pens while facilitating a benign politics of the environment and of gender equality.

As for technology, its effects are both negative and positive. They include the vacuous philistinism of the McWorld. But there's a sense that, since Chernobyl, national frontiers no longer constrain. A new environmental consensus could match information technology with flexible civic republicanism, rooted in European structures so far created.

Judt's analysis owes a lot to Alan Milward's The European Rescue of the Nation State (1992), a far from starry-eyed view of the Rome Treaty's prehistory. Yet the Europe of 1957 - without computers, mass motor and air transport, the pill, the transistor - was in many ways far closer to that of the Kaiser and Czar.

Modern history broke through the Wall in 1989, and evicted the comforting amnesia in which the German economic miracle - Europe's paradigm - had flourished. But Judt's account, sharply and engagingly written, is still restricted. He imagines Europe in 2010 menaced by a "huge, frustrated, bored, unproductive and ultimately unhealthy population of old people" (meaning ME as a Hell's Grandpa), overlooking the capital and voluntary effort wrinklies can supply to society. And racial punch-ups in places like Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin don't necessarily predicate a Europe-wide confrontation.

Judt predicts a coupling of German inertia with ideological blandness that will lead a dysfunctional continent into a succession of "little local difficulties". There is truth in this, but also in the little local opportunities that co-operative federalism has generated. After almost two decades surveying Britain and Germany, I would still bet on the opportunities - helped along by a slug of Anglo-Saxon rule-breaking. Europessimism is - despite Judt's liveliness - a pathologically gloomy condition. Euroscepticism is Lord Rees-Mogg. Give Euro-opportunism a chance!