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Book Review: Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage by Luuk van Middelaar

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 28/09/2020 - 9:19pm in

In Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage, Luuk van Middelaar argues that recent crises since 2010 have transformed the European Union, which has moved from a politics of technocratic rule-making to a politics of improvisation in response to uncertainty and events. This is a sharp and refreshing analysis of European crisis politics, writes Zbigniew Truchlewski, that deserves to be read alongside other classic studies of the EU. 

Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage. Luuk van Middelaar. Agenda Publishing. 2019.

In Alarums and Excursions, Luuk van Middelaar offers a sharp and refreshing analysis of European crisis politics since 2010, which comes in the wake of his brilliant book, The Passage to Europe (2013). His approach is original because he eschews traditional ‘-isms’, instead opting to use political theory to shed light on the transformations of the European Union (EU). Among other thinkers (Hannah Arendt, Montesquieu, Alexandre Kojève), Machiavelli is revisited in a stimulating manner. But this theoretical approach should not fool you: van Middelaar is not only a distinguished philosopher who writes in a very accessible manner, collaborating with scholars including Amartya Sen, Philippe van Parijs, Jürgen Habermas and Pierre Rosanvallon. He also witnessed most of the events he analyses first-hand as a speechwriter to former European Council President, Herman van Rompuy.

For van Middelaar, the crises of the 2010s transformed the EU. The EU moved from a politics of technocratic and depoliticised rule-making (i.e. building the single market) to a politics of events, uncertainty, improvisation and power politics (i.e. dealing with unforeseen crises). Interestingly, some EU players themselves do not understand this essential transformation. In the introduction, van Middelaar remembers how, during a seminar, EU officials were at pains to see the difference between the quiet politics of fish quotas in the 1980s and the tumultuous politics of refugee quotas in the mid-2010s. This is dangerous because, as shown later in the book’s chapter on the refugee crisis, such a mindset can lead to technocratic overreach.

Switching European politics from rules to events requires re-inventing the ‘performance space’ of the EU: the EU moved from the depoliticised space of committee politics to the more open and transparent space of summitry and parliamentary elections. Van Middelaar calls the latter an open stage where improvisation becomes the norm.

Another key idea of the book revolves around the emergence of a new authority in Europe. Here, van Middelaar leverages the writings of other philosophers (Hegel, Kojève) in another brilliant application of political theory to current politics. In short, the crises have created a new authority structure in the EU where the European Council plays first fiddle because it is the only institution that has joint authority (derived from European voters) to improvise during unforeseen crises. As a result, the EU has become a ‘confederal’ structure, more akin to the United States or Switzerland than to the imaginary strong federation (e.g. with a president, foreign minister, treasury) preached by some pro-Europeans.

The book has two parts. The first analyses four recent crises in as many chapters: the Euro crisis; the crisis in Ukraine (2013-15); the refugee crisis of 2015; and the Atlantic crisis (the 2016 election of President Donald Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK). Although there is a significant amount of publications on each of these topics already, scholars of these crises will find many thought-provoking insights.

In analysing Article 50 and Brexit, van Middelaar argues that the EU killed the idea of its own perpetuity. But this could be a good thing for democracy: in van Middelaar’s words, the EU ‘could no longer rely on a ‘’yes’’ at the altar but needed the support of unpredictable populations, day in, day out’. Making the EU more ‘perishable’ seems to make it also more democratic. At the end of Chapter Six, van Middelaar also points out that breaking away from universal perpetuity by thinking and moving ‘into the river of time’ will allow Europe to think more strategically: it will force it to consider how to be prepared for unforeseen events by switching from regulation to capacity building.

The main analytical action happens in the second part of the book. The author explains why moving from the politics of rules to the politics of events is a Machiavellian moment for Europe. What is at stake is getting a grip on historical reality (virtù) and letting go of the religious incantation of ‘ever closer union’ (fortuna). In this sense, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s words about taking destiny into ‘our own hands’ and emancipating Europe from its own history of salvation is Machiavellian.

But this is not such an easy thing to accomplish for several reasons. One is that it is hard to find compromise among states that define events differently. Here, the author could have gone further in showing how problem pressures and the differences in initial conditions (e.g. the centralisation of power in France vs. decentralisation in Germany) lead to coordination problems in the face of unexpected events like the Euro, refugee or the COVID-19 crises. Other hurdles on the stage include the habit of depoliticisation, the weight of the community method (that is, the governing method of the EU in which, in contrast to intergovernmental decisionmaking, supranational institutions like the European Commission or the European Court of Justice play a leading role) and the taboo of talking about national interests.

Still, EU actors have managed to change the way they operate on the European stage. The most important development is the emancipation of European executives through the establishment and development of the European Council. The Council deals with ‘Chefsache’ (issues that have to be dealt with by ‘the boss’) when there is urgency, when existing frameworks have to transcended, during deadlocks or when the fundamentals have to change. From this vantage point, van Middelaar implies that the European Commission is the great loser from the advent of event politics because it cannot derive political authority for dealing with uncertainty from simple legal competences, while the Council can derive it from democratic legitimacy.

Another new actor is the opposition. This is one of the most stimulating chapters in the book: it argues that because there is no clear government in Brussels, no clear opposition could emerge. As a result, if opposition cannot happen within the EU, it will happen against the EU (for example, Brexit). This problem is a powerful self-undermining mechanism for a polity; counter-intuitively, letting opposition organise is one way to strengthen the EU. But what kind of opposition does the newly emancipated power in the EU create?

Van Middelaar discusses several options: functionalism (backstage depoliticisation or introducing politics in rule-making processes); federalism (frontstage politicisation through the European Parliament); and confederalism (frontstage politicisation through national leaders). Each of these solutions has its own problems: for instance, how to introduce opposition in a setting like the Council where consensus is the rule? Even though van Middelaar does not give a clear-cut solution, his discussion is worth mulling over.

The book has some minor shortcomings, such as observation bias: one wonders whether once crisis politics recedes, the authority and political structure of the EU will revert to traditional rule-making politics. Van Middelaar assumes that the change is permanent, but this premise is never really discussed. These minor quibbles notwithstanding, this original and well-written book deserves to be read together with many other thought-provoking classic EU studies such as Stefano Bartolini’s Restructuring Europe or Jan Zielonka’s Europe as Empire, to name just a few.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Image Credit:(Thijs ter Haar CC BY 2.0). 


Delusion Regarding the Fall of Neoliberalism and Globalization

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 25/09/2020 - 2:10pm in

So, the article below was published December 8th, 2015.

The pull quote is:

Neo-liberalism is nearing the end of its cycle. It will kill a lot of people dying, but its death is now ordained and can only be slowed by fanatical levels of police state repression in a few countries. And its death convulsions and the birth pangs of the new system will create a new age of war and revolution which will kill far more.

This is now as close to inevitable as human affairs, endlessly complicated and subject to unexpected shocks, can be.

Nothing has changed, the process has simply continued. Notice the repression going on in the US right now. Since I wrote it, the UK left the EU, there was massive resistance to Macron in France, and so on. We have massive fires all over the world: Australia, California, South Africa the Amazon and more. Wealth continues to concentrate at the top, etc, etc…

These convulsions take time. Slap the start of the actual fall as 2020, with the UK’s Brexit, and we’ve got 12 to 20 years to go. This one’s going to be bad, really, bad, simply because of climate change and our vast over-exploitation of limited resources. There’s going to be a lot of real hunger and lack of water, and so on.

The next age is undetermined, but one possibility is a centrifugal period. It is hard to imagine a future in which, India, for example, survives as a unified nation. For that matter, I’m not sure I’d put my money on China holding together over the middle run: 50/50 it’s fallen into warlordism by 2050 to 60.

The simple way to make your guesses is ask if a country can feed itself with domestic production AFTER the effects of climate change. If it can’t even feed itself now (or only barely); or if it is going to have serious water issues (water, obviously affects agriculture, so it’s not really two things), then the smart money is that it’s going to break up or lose effective control of various hinterlands.

And if you’ve got resources a more powerful nation on your border wants, well, that could go very badly for you. (My fellow Canadians, who seem clueless about how violent Americans are, should take note here.)

On the upside, this will be a very interesting period to be alive, if you can stay that way.

Natalie Nougayrède writes in the Guardian about The Front National’s victory in France:

Marine Le Pen has no solution for France’s problems, her economic programme is all about retreating from the outside world and Europe. Her social vision is of a mythical, homogeneous France that never existed. What she has to sell is an illusion. It’s only because so little else is on offer that people are buying.

This analysis is, there is no kinder way to put it, delusional.

And Nougayrède should know it, because she writes:

The impact of globalisation marked the end of what the French demographer Jean Fourastié coined Les Trente Glorieuses (The Glorious Thirty), the 1945-1975 period when France was modernising and increasing its international influence. There is much twisted nostalgia in the rise of the National Front.

Nougayrède blames this on the oil shocks, which the entire West failed to handle (note that Japan, far more vulnerable to the oil shock, DID handle it. Their later failure had other causes). She notes that France’s elites have not, since 1975, been able to turn things around, something I have noted as well.

But she is wrong about a retreat from globalization being delusional. The simple fact is that in France and almost every other country (including, by the way, most African countries), growth was better before globalization, and the proceeds of that growth were distributed to their populations much more evenly.

This is a fact, and you can only argue against it by invoking China (which used classic mercantalist policies, and was not meaningfully party to the 1945-1975 consensus economy.)

There will always be trade. There will always be global movement in goods, capital, and ideas, but more is not always better.  In fact, one can easily argue that more is rarely better.

As for “Europe,” the fact is that increased integration has not been to the benefit of most Western Europeans. That assertion is, again, extraordinarily hard to argue against and is especially true of the creation of the Euro.

Nougayrède wants France’s leaders to fix things, and not to fail, but she is very nearly as delusional as them. She admits that their failure has led to the rise of Front National, but cannot admit that their policies have failed, economically, along the lines that Marie Le Pen says they have.

Just because someone is a near-Fascist does not mean they are wrong about everything. I have no tolerance for LePen’s brand of Imperialism and cultural supremacy, but she, like Trump, is telling a lot of truths to a lot of people who feel like their country has been on the wrong track for a long time. (In the U.S., white, working class male salaries peaked in 1968. No matter how much you scream about white privilege, you are a fool if you expect white males to gravitate towards anyone who doesn’t at least pay lip service to reversing that.)

As an economic project, the EU is a failure for many of its members, including France. There are exceptions (Germany, Poland, etc.) but the losers cannot be expected to just sit there and take the beating forever. The “beating” has been exacerbated by Europe’s deliberate imposition of austerity. It is not just that Europe’s elites have failed to create a good economy, it is that they have deliberately made the economy worse for the majority of residents in many of its countries.

Until we can honestly evaluate the failures of neo-liberalism, and gut globalist cant which claims more trade and capital flows are always a good thing (and, even if they aren’t, are “inevitable”) we cannot fix the economy.

France, like about half of the EU, should leave the Euro. It should re-impose tariffs on a wide variety of goods and produce them in their own countries. Yes, they would cost more, but wages would be higher. It should also move radically to non-oil-based energy (as is true of, well, almost everyone).

These basic policies are not difficult. Corbyn is not wrong to say “make the necessary adjustments so it will work today, and go back to post-war policies.”  It failed,  yes, but it was the last economy which spread money evenly through the economy.  Make sure it’s not sexist and racist, update it for new energy technology, and try it. It may not be the best solution (I’d like some fairly radical changes), but it’s certainly not crazy, given that it did give France those 30 great years.

The failure to deal with the oil price shock doomed the post-war world, yes. But it is 40 years later and we have technology and knowledge they did not have.

Until the developed world’s sanctioned intellectuals (as opposed to pariahs like myself and my ilk) and their masters come to grip with these facts, the population will continue to turn elsewhere. They may turn to sane and reasonable people like Corbyn, or they may turn to people like LePen and Trump, but people will not put up with “it’s going to get worse for the forseeable future” forever.

We can have reasonable policies, which will make the world better for everyone (even if that means there will be a lot less billionaires–the Corbyn solution), or we can have the rise of fascists and their left-wing equivalents.

The room in the mushy middle for those who aren’t willing to do something radical to fix the economy and other problems is narrowing. It will continue to narrow.

Our current elites will not adjust, so the question is: Who will we get? Corbyn and FDR? Mussolini, LePen, Trump?

Neo-liberalism is nearing the end of its cycle. It will kill a lot of people dying, but its death is now ordained and can only be slowed by fanatical levels of police state repression in a few countries. And its death convulsions and the birth pangs of the new system will create a new age of war and revolution which will kill far more.

This is now as close to inevitable as human affairs, endlessly complicated and subject to unexpected shocks, can be.

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The success of the EU recovery fund will depend on bold missions

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 10/08/2020 - 7:27am in


eu, Eurozone

The historic plan is a turning point for the bloc but policymakers need new tools to direct it.

Maastricht and All That

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 20/07/2020 - 1:23am in

Wynne Godley readingBy Javier López Bernardo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

This article by Wynne Godley was first published in The London Review of Books, Volume 14, no 19, on 8th October 1992. Original article here

A lot of people throughout Europe have suddenly realised that they know hardly anything about the Maastricht Treaty while rightly sensing that it could make a huge difference to their lives. Their legitimate anxiety has provoked Jacques Delors to make a statement to the effect that the views of ordinary people should in future be more sensitively consulted. He might have thought of that before.

Although I support the move towards political integration in Europe, I think that the Maastricht proposals as they stand are seriously defective, and also that public discussion of them has been curiously impoverished. With a Danish rejection, a near-miss in France, and the very existence of the ERM in question after the depredations by currency markets, it is a good moment to take stock.

The central idea of the Maastricht Treaty is that the EC countries should move towards an economic and monetary union, with a single currency managed by an independent central bank. But how is the rest of economic policy to be run? As the treaty proposes no new institutions other than a European bank, its sponsors must suppose that nothing more is needed. But this could only be correct if modern economies were self-adjusting systems that didn’t need any management at all.

I am driven to the conclusion that such a view – that economies are self-righting organisms which never under any circumstances need management at all – did indeed determine the way in which the Maastricht Treaty was framed. It is a crude and extreme version of the view which for some time now has constituted Europe’s conventional wisdom (though not that of the US or Japan) that governments are unable, and therefore should not try, to achieve any of the traditional goals of economic policy, such as growth and full employment. All that can legitimately be done, according to this view, is to control the money supply and balance the budget. It took a group largely composed of bankers (the Delors Committee) to reach the conclusion that an independent central bank was the only supra-national institution necessary to run an integrated, supra-national Europe.

But there is much more to it all. It needs to be emphasised at the start that the establishment of a single currency in the EC would indeed bring to an end the sovereignty of its component nations and their power to take independent action on major issues. As Mr Tim Congdon has argued very cogently, the power to issue its own money, to make drafts on its own central bank, is the main thing which defines national independence. If a country gives up or loses this power, it acquires the status of a local authority or colony. Local authorities and regions obviously cannot devalue. But they also lose the power to finance deficits through money creation while other methods of raising finance are subject to central regulation. Nor can they change interest rates. As local authorities possess none of the instruments of macro-economic policy, their political choice is confined to relatively minor matters of emphasis – a bit more education here, a bit less infrastructure there. I think that when Jacques Delors lays new emphasis on the principle of ‘subsidiarity’, he is really only telling us we will be allowed to make decisions about a larger number of relatively unimportant matters than we might previously have supposed. Perhaps he will let us have curly cucumbers after all. Big deal!

Let me express a different view. I think that the central government of any sovereign state ought to be striving all the time to determine the optimum overall level of public provision, the correct overall burden of taxation, the correct allocation of total expenditures between competing requirements and the just distribution of the tax burden. It must also determine the extent to which any gap between expenditure and taxation is financed by making a draft on the central bank and how much it is financed by borrowing and on what terms. The way in which governments decide all these (and some other) issues, and the quality of leadership which they can deploy, will, in interaction with the decisions of individuals, corporations and foreigners, determine such things as interest rates, the exchange rate, the inflation rate, the growth rate and the unemployment rate. It will also profoundly influence the distribution of income and wealth not only between individuals but between whole regions, assisting, one hopes, those adversely affected by structural change.

Almost nothing simple can be said about the use of these instruments, with all their inter-dependencies, to promote the well-being of a nation and protect it as well as may be from the shocks of various kinds to which it will inevitably be subjected. It only has limited meaning, for instance, to say that budgets should always be balanced when a balanced budget with expenditure and taxation both running at 40 per cent of GDP would have an entirely different (and much more expansionary) impact than a balanced budget at 10 per cent. To imagine the complexity and importance of a government’s macro-economic decisions, one has only to ask what would be the appropriate response, in terms of fiscal, monetary and exchange rate policy, for a country about to produce large quantities of oil, of a fourfold increase in the price of oil. Would it have been right to do nothing at all? And it should never be forgotten that in periods of very great crisis, it may even be appropriate for a central government to sin against the Holy Ghost of all central banks and invoke the ‘inflation tax’ – deliberately appropriating resources by reducing, through inflation, the real value of a nation’s paper wealth. It was, after all, by means of the inflation tax that Keynes proposed that we should pay for the war.

I recite all this to suggest, not that sovereignty should not be given up in the noble cause of European integration, but that if all these functions are renounced by individual governments they simply have to be taken on by some other authority. The incredible lacuna in the Maastricht programme is that, while it contains a blueprint for the establishment and modus operandi of an independent central bank, there is no blueprint whatever of the analogue, in Community terms, of a central government. Yet there would simply have to be a system of institutions which fulfils all those functions at a Community level which are at present exercised by the central governments of individual member countries.

The counterpart of giving up sovereignty should be that the component nations are constituted into a federation to whom their sovereignty is entrusted. And the federal system, or government, as it had better be called, would have to exercise all those functions in relation to its members and to the outside world which I have briefly outlined above.

Consider two important examples of what a federal government, in charge of a federal budget, should be doing.

European countries are at present locked into a severe recession. As things stand, particularly as the economies of the USA and Japan are also faltering, it is very unclear when any significant recovery will take place. The political implications of this are becoming frightening. Yet the interdependence of the European economies is already so great that no individual country, with the theoretical exception of Germany, feels able to pursue expansionary policies on its own, because any country that did try to expand on its own would soon encounter a balance-of-payments constraint. The present situation is screaming aloud for co-ordinated reflation, but there exist neither the institutions nor an agreed framework of thought which will bring about this obviously desirable result. It should be frankly recognised that if the depression really were to take a serious turn for the worse – for instance, if the unemployment rate went back permanently to the 20-25 per cent characteristic of the Thirties – individual countries would sooner or later exercise their sovereign right to declare the entire movement towards integration a disaster and resort to exchange controls and protection – a siege economy if you will. This would amount to a re-run of the inter-war period.

If there were an economic and monetary union, in which the power to act independently had actually been abolished, ‘co-ordinated’ reflation of the kind which is so urgently needed now could only be undertaken by a federal European government. Without such an institution, EMU would prevent effective action by individual countries and put nothing in its place.

Another important role which any central government must perform is to put a safety net under the livelihood of component regions which are in distress for structural reasons – because of the decline of some industry, say, or because of some economically-adverse demographic change. At present this happens in the natural course of events, without anyone really noticing, because common standards of public provision (for instance, health, education, pensions and rates of unemployment benefit) and a common (it is to be hoped, progressive) burden of taxation are both generally instituted throughout individual realms. As a consequence, if one region suffers an unusual degree of structural decline, the fiscal system automatically generates net transfers in favour of it. In extremis, a region which could produce nothing at all would not starve because it would be in receipt of pensions, unemployment benefit and the incomes of public servants.

What happens if a whole country – a potential ‘region’ in a fully integrated community – suffers a structural setback? So long as it is a sovereign state, it can devalue its currency. It can then trade successfully at full employment provided its people accept the necessary cut in their real incomes. With an economic and monetary union, this recourse is obviously barred, and its prospect is grave indeed unless federal budgeting arrangements are made which fulfil a redistributive role. As was clearly recognised in the MacDougall Report which was published in 1977, there has to be a quid pro quo for giving up the devaluation option in the form of fiscal redistribution. Some writers (such as Samuel Brittan and Sir Douglas Hague) have seriously suggested that EMU, by abolishing the balance of payments problem in its present form, would indeed abolish the problem, where it exists, of persistent failure to compete successfully in world markets. But as Professor Martin Feldstein pointed out in a major article in the Economist (13 June), this argument is very dangerously mistaken. If a country or region has no power to devalue, and if it is not the beneficiary of a system of fiscal equalisation, then there is nothing to stop it suffering a process of cumulative and terminal decline leading, in the end, to emigration as the only alternative to poverty or starvation. I sympathise with the position of those (like Margaret Thatcher) who, faced with the loss of sovereignty, wish to get off the EMU train altogether. I also sympathise with those who seek integration under the jurisdiction of some kind of federal constitution with a federal budget very much larger than that of the Community budget. What I find totally baffling is the position of those who are aiming for economic and monetary union without the creation of new political institutions (apart from a new central bank), and who raise their hands in horror at the words ‘federal’ or ‘federalism’. This is the position currently adopted by the Government and by most of those who take part in the public discussion.



To accompany the article, we would like to share Warren Mosler’s talk about the setting up of the Euro and his warnings of its structural faults.











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The post Maastricht and All That appeared first on The Gower Initiative for Modern Money Studies.

Quo Vadis?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 14/10/2019 - 7:51am in


brexit, Christianity, eu, UK

When even anti-EU tabloids say the Government's official position on Brexit is insincere, it is time to take it seriously. On Tuesday last week, The Sun reported that the European heads of government had concluded that Johnson's latest genius plan to create a "double border" on the island of Ireland wasn't a serious attempt to negotiate a Brexit deal. "They believe his insistence the dossier be kept secret is an effort to disguise the fact it is designed to set up a “blame game” with Brussels," it said.

An hour after The Sun published its article, Sky News released a briefing from an unnamed "No. 10 source" on a phone call between Boris Johnson and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel:

"The call with Merkel shows the EU has adopted a new position. She made clear a deal is overwhelmingly unlikely and she thinks the EU has a veto on us leaving the Customs Union. Merkel said that if Germany wanted to leave the EU they could do it no problem but the UK cannot leave without leaving Northern Ireland behind in a customs union and in full alignment forever. She said that Ireland is the government's special problem and that Ireland must at least have a veto on NI leaving. Merkel said that the PM should tell NI that it must stay in full alignment forever, but that even this would not eliminate customs issues.

It was a very useful clarifying moment in all sorts of ways. If this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially impossible not just now but ever. It also means they are willing to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement."

This was the second briefing in two days from an unnamed "No.10 source" that said talks were about to break down and it was all the fault of EU countries. The first, reported in the Spectator, accused the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, of "reneging" on a promised compromise, and it warned that if talks failed and Johnson was forced to ask for an extension to Article 50 under the Benn Act, the UK would "withhold cooperation" from any EU countries that backed the extension. The brusque tone and inflammatory language of both briefings suggest that the source is the same person.

 Shortly after Sky News's report, Leave.EU issued an incendiary tweet showing a picture of Angela Merkel and saying "we didn't win two world wars to be pushed around by a Kraut." I was struck by the similarity between this tweet and what my Leave-voting neighbour told me over the garden fence the day after the referendum: "We didn't fight two world wars to be run by Germany," she said.

The ensuing Twitter storm forced Leave.EU to delete the tweet and issue an apology. But Leave.EU know their base well. That tweet will have resonated with people like my neighbour. And the apology was more than slightly insincere, anyway. "The real outrage is the German suggestion that Northern Ireland be separated from the UK," said Leave.EU's co-founder, Arron Banks. That amounts to "we're sorry for saying that it's the Germans' fault, but it's still the Germans' fault". Of course, some in Northern Ireland might think the real outrage was the UK government separating Northern Ireland from Ireland in the first place. Sometimes I wonder if hardline Brexiters know anything at all about Britain's shared - and extremely bloody - history with Ireland.

Anyway, The Sun is right. The European heads of state do indeed think the UK Government is trying to pin the blame for the Brexit mess on European countries. And they are furious about it. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, issued this angry tweet:

The British press made valiant attempts to understand what "quo vadis" meant. Most got the translation right - "where are you going?" Some suggested that using a Latin phrase was intended to appeal to Johnson's classical education. To its credit, the Express did better: it recognised the origin of the phrase in the legend of St. Peter's attempted flight from Rome during the Emperor Nero's persecution of the early Christians. The story goes that St. Peter met Jesus on the road. "Quo vadis, Domine?" he asked, to which Jesus answered "Ad Romam, iterum crucifigi" - "To Rome, to be crucified again". St. Peter took this to mean that Jesus was intending to take his place on the cross he was running away from. Horrified that he was about to betray Jesus again, he turned around and returned to Rome to face certain death.

That's the legend as I learned it as a child at a Catholic primary school. But I don't think Tusk is directly referring to this legend. Tusk is Polish. I think his use of the term "quo vadis", and the comment about a "stupid blame game", channels the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel Quo Vadis, which I first read in Joseph Curtin's translation as a teenager, and have just re-read to refresh my memory.

Quo Vadis establishes the roots of the Catholic Church firmly in the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Nero. The weak, vain Nero, suspected of having burned down Rome to clear the way for building a new, grandiose capital called "Neropolis", shifts the blame from himself by launching a pogrom against Christians, who are already popularly believed to be "enemies of the state". Thousands are publicly killed, in ever more creative and entertaining ways. But this only serves to strengthen the nascent Church. Towards the end of the book, the simultaneous martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul, attended by hundreds of their own followers, marks the beginning of the end of the Roman state and its god-emperors:

But Peter, surrounded by soldiers, looked at the city as a ruler and king looks at his inheritance. And he said to it, "Thou art redeemed and mine!" And no-one, not merely among the soldiers digging the hole in which to plant the cross, but even among believers, could divine that standing there among them was the true ruler of that moving life; that Caesars would pass away, waves of barbarians go by, and ages vanish, but that old man would be lord there unbrokenly.

Given this, Tusk's inference is clear. Persecution only strengthens the persecuted. Johnson's attempt to pin the blame for the Brexit mess on Europeans could perversely strengthen the EU and hasten the demise of Britain as a global power.

The FT's Izabella Kaminska reached the same conclusion:

But she then pointed out that it could of course be interpreted to mean exactly the opposite:

In fact this is the more obvious interpretation, at least to British eyes. The Christians in Quo Vadis embraced martyrdom willingly, because they believed that after death there would be a far better life. Similarly, conversations I have had with Brexiters indicate that they are fully prepared for short-term pain, because they believe that "in the long term we will be richer". There is no more evidence for this than there is for the Christians' belief in life after death. But faith isn't founded on evidence, it is founded on emotion. Thus it is the nebulous concepts of "sovereignty," "self-government" and "democracy" that attract people to the Brexit cause, not facts and figures. Indeed people believe in Brexit despite the preponderance of facts and figures that show it will do them harm.

Those promoting Brexit claim the EU is the cause of all the ills suffered by British people. They promise that freeing the British people from the yoke of this "evil empire" will bring them prosperity - eventually. Though as Keynes observed, in the long run we are all dead, and unlike Christianity, Brexit does not promise a better life after death. If Brexit does not deliver the promised "sunlit uplands", at some point there will be a reckoning. No wonder those who peddle the most damaging forms of Brexit are readying an array of culprits on whom to pin the blame. Brussels, obviously, but also the Germans, the Irish, the French, the UK Parliament, British judges, Remainers.....

But this is not just about Brexit. Nigel Farage's response to Donald Tusk's tweet indicates a larger ambition:

Farage and his party are part of a pan-European movement whose intention is to "kill off" the EU. This is why Farage opposes any deal with the EU. Why do a deal with an organisation you intend to destroy?

Farage's call for "a Europe of peaceful, democratic nations", while maybe not snake oil, is certainly a pipe dream. It has never existed. Europe's history is one of perpetual conflict, both between nations and within them. Many of today's European nations did not even exist in their present form until the 20th century: Central Europe, particularly, has been a melting pot for over a thousand years. Many countries have disputed borders. And many in Eastern Europe are threatened by the Russian bear, which makes no secret of the fact that it wants its empire back. The most recent war in Europe started not in 1939, but in 2014. EU member states enjoy peace at the moment - but for how long, if the EU dies? And maybe I am cynical, but I question Farage's motives. If the EU is destroyed, cui bono?

If there is one thing that the history of the Christian church teaches us, it is that to build a lasting empire, you must win the battle for hearts and minds. Institutions that rely for their strength on facts and evidence, but to which people have no emotional attachment, ultimately fail. This is why religions last longer than any secular state. The Catholic church born of Nero's persecution still dominates the world today. But the outlook for the EU, held together as it is by treaties and rules, is much less certain.

Tusk could be right about Johnson's blame game potentially strengthening the EU, at least in Europe. Many Europeans, both in the East and the West, have extremely painful memories of war and are under no illusions about the fragility of peace. For that reason alone, they may respond to Johnson's attacks by closing ranks. Though fear of the alternative is not really a recipe for long-term survival of the EU. There needs to be a positive aim - a promise of a better life for everyone. To my (admittedly jaundiced) British eyes, the fractured EU currently appears unable to offer that.

But I think it is much less likely that Johnson's blame game will increase support for the EU in the UK, even in the short term. As I have noted before, Britain;'s experience of war is rather different from that of people in Europe, and it is not comfortable in a partnership of equals. Perhaps because of this, the Remain side is - to say the least - lukewarm about the EU project. Many Remainers support EU membership not out of conviction but because they fear the economic consequences of leaving. And many, though convinced that the principle of a "european union" is right and good, are distinctly unimpressed with the way it is being implemented. There is little similarity between the sclerotic, bureaucratic and at times cruel European Union, and the young, vibrant, and above all gentle Christian church portrayed in Sienkiewicz's novel. I'm not sure Remainers care enough about the EU to be strengthened by Johnson's attacks.

However, Tusk's warning about security is absolutely right. Johnson's blame game is undoubtedly a threat to peace and security, not least because it makes cooperation between European powers over matters such as Turkish belligerence in Syria much more difficult. And Farage's ambition is even more dangerous. At least Nero intended to build Neropolis. Farage doesn't appear to intend to build anything. But we know the consequences of destroying something with no idea what you will build in its place. Just look at Iraq. Or the former Soviet Union, for that matter. Is that really the future we want for Europe?

We should remember too that the UK's history is far from stable. Over the last four hundred years there have been repeated civil wars in the UK, though only one of them is officially called a "civil war". The wars were sectarian, but as with all sectarian wars, the fight was really over territorial control and sovereignty. From the moment Henry VIII rejected the Pope's authority in England (hey-ho, "foreign interference in British affairs"), the fundamental dispute was always about "who governs the British Isles": Spanish- and French-backed Catholics versus all but one of the Tudors, then the Catholic Jacobites versus first Cromwell then the Protestant Hanoverians. Catholics, suspected of being "enemies of the state", were repressed and at times persecuted for about two hundred years. And long after the Battle of Culloden had ended the last Jacobite's claim to the British throne, discrimination against Catholics still continued, particularly in Ireland and, after Irish independence, Northern Ireland.

The most recent sectarian war in the UK was the so-called "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, which ended in 1998 when the Belfast Agreement, often known as the "Good Friday Agreement", was signed. This is the agreement that is threatened by Brexit. And no-one seems to have noticed No.10's inconsistent briefing about it. First we are told that France and Germany's ability to compromise with the UK is being "held back" by their solidarity with Ireland. Then, a day later, we are told that Germany is prepared to "torpedo" the Good Friday Agreement. But torpedoing the Good Friday Agreement is the last thing Ireland wants. It is, however, what Johnson's allies in the DUP want. They hated it from the start. If the Good Friday Agreement is destroyed, cui bono?

Quo Vadis tells us that love conquers hate. For a myriad of reasons that have little to do with economics and much to do with faith and emotion, Brexiters hate the EU. But Remainers don't love the EU enough to counter the Brexiters' hate, and they don't love Northern Ireland enough to want to protect it from the consequences of that hatred. And that is why, even though Brexit is a threat to peace in the UK, Britain is leaving the EU. The question is, do Europeans love the EU enough to overcome those who want to destroy it? Do they care enough about peace in Europe? It remains to be seen.

Related reading:

Quo Vadis, Henryk Sienkiewicz (translated by Joseph Curtin)
Austerity and the rise of populism
Grieving for a lost empire

Image "Domine, quo vadis" by Annibale Carracci, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons