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This review is from: A European Life (Paperback)A European Life: From War to Peace
By Michael Tracy
Michael Tracy has produced a highly readable set of memoirs. His life and experiences have coincided with the creation, implementation and expansion of the European project or what is now better known as the European Union. The title and the sub-title hint at two of the themes than run through this book, but the third theme of agriculture is not really hinted at until you start reading the book itself. But in many ways, agriculture was one of the the most fundamentally important reasons for the establishment of the EEC back in 1957. Europe of the 1950s had remembered the hunger of the depression years of the 1930s and of course the devastating effects of the Second World War. Politicians realised the importance of food security to their populations and also to help remove it as a source of tension between fellow European nations. So, the author's serendipitous journey into the field of agricultural economics is far more instructive and useful in understanding one of the core rationalities behind this European project.
Now, if I was to suggest to my students or friends to read a book on either the EU or Agriculture then I might expect to receive some groans or some puzzled looks at the very least. These two subjects would not be the first choice of most lay readers. However, the author has succeeded in putting together a narrative that goes well beyond the course of his own career and life. He marries the trajectory of his various jobs and opportunities and applies them to the successes (and failures) of the European project with all its growing pains and hopes for the future. His story interweaves in and out of key European institutions and organisation, at times he is the consumate insider and yet he also played the outsider. The result is that he can and does detach himself enough to make valid criticisms and comments on the institutions as they emerged - especially with regards to agricultural policy - although he certainly does not limit his comments to this area. He illustrates that the real power behind the European Union is 'soft power' i.e. the ability to persuade existing members, neighbours or candidate members to follow the lead and ideals of the EU. However, he is also not afraid to discuss the limitations of the EU as the institution became mired in bureaucracy, pettiness and of course institutional and national rivalries. He makes it clear that this is no single super-state but a collection of states that can work extremely effectively when they have a common goal but that can also grind to a halt when individual national interests are at stake.
The author places his (and the wider European Plans) within the vital context of the Second World War. He explains the impact it had on his own life and the life of the people of Britain as a whole when a very different kind of European unity did seem a distinct possibility under a certain Adolf Hitler. I agree with the author that the foundations and rationale for the original ECSC and EEC was forged by the experiences of defeat and humiliation for two of the main protagonists of the war: Germany and France. Of course, the Cold War complicated this situation even further - which is discussed in the book. But it was far-sighted politicians like Schumann and Monnet who saw that war had shattered the continent, not once, but twice in living memory. The author explains his travels through post-war Europe and then going on to study languages and economics which would then set him up for a life long interest and career in European affairs.
The author's career path came into collision with European political developments almost immediately as he took a job at the UN Economic Commission for Europe (ECE). The ECE would collect data and information on a wide range of subjects from agricultural production to flows of populations. It was from the ECE's vantage point that he would see the fall out from early Cold War tensions and especially the Hungarian suppressions of 1956. Shortly after this position the author took a job at the Political and Economic Planning (PEP) just as Britain was considering (but would reject) joining the EEC in 1957. He was appointed as a research assistant on agricultural policy. He explains just why the British had such reservations about joining the EEC at that stage, in particular its dependence on cheap food and its ties to Commonwealth countries with extensive agricultural communities of their own. He doesn't excuse Britain's lackadaisacal response, but he does provide some useful context and explains why the British government of the day felt confident in turning down an invitation to join when it perhaps provided the best opportunity for Britain to shape the policies of the emergent institution. Instead Britain invested its energies in setting up a rival European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
The author does a commendable job at explaining many of the idiosyncracies of the Common Agricultural Policy and in the way it was set up by the first six members of the EEC. A new position at the OEEC (later the OECD) then set the author up with a new position to analyse the successes and goals of CAP from the descendent institution of the Marshall Plan. It gives the author a wider perspective than just looking at the EU itself - rather he gathered data from the continent as a whole and could then compare and contrast competing policies.
Timing would play a role in ensuring that the author moved towards the heart of the European machine after Britain was eventually able to join in 1973. British experts in European affairs, languages and agriculture were in short supply in Brussels and so a new opportunity arose as a Director in the Secretariat of the Council of Ministers in the field of Agriculture. The author explains quite clearly the power balance (and imbalance) of the main institutions of the EEC and how they worked on a daily basis. In fact, this is one area that he may give an insight for various Euro-sceptics as the bureaucratic chicanery and battles he describes do have a Byzantine nature that seems to undermine the nobler goals for the institution. Again, the context is provided, but it does illustrate that the the present day EU is an imperfect institution stitched together largely through compromise and often motivated by national prejudice and gain. It was interesting for instance when the author describes that Luxembourg provided the most objective leadership on fisheries policy due to the total lack of a Luxembourg coastline! You might argue that the price of peace and prosperity in Europe is a daily diet of bureaucratic and political horse-trading. The author may well characterise himself as a small cog in a large machine - but it is interesting having the view of that machine from a variety of angles - and those angles continued into the realm of Academia in various European related institutions and then into an advisory capacity to Central and Eastern European Countries who would later be queuing to join this rich nation's club.
This post-Cold War fallout once again shows how the author's experiences dove-tailed nicely into the wider European narrative. He is able to explain the transition processes as the Communist policies of the East failed to produce the promised targets set for itself. The role of food and agriculture was once again showing the role that it could play for itself - especially during times of shortages of food or long queues in shops. Lack of affordable food and a boring diet can be powerful motivators to political change. The author provides some interesting anecdotes to the crazy allocation of resources in this part of the world that could lead to cheap flights from the South of Russia to provide farmers with an ability to fly produce to the northern Russian cities to sell food that few could afford. I myself can vouch for the poor state of East European farming infrastructure after having visited a North Eastern Polish Collective in 1990. It was like stepping back in time (and I'm a historian) the Collective manager proudly demonstrated equipment that I had last seen in agricultural museums back in Britain. Horse power was still the main form of power! And as for the pollution from agricultural run-off and the conditions for the livestock, they were simply diabolical. (I should point out that my path and the author's may well have crossed as I read of his visit to Krakow in May 1990 to witness the Polish national day celebrations in the Royal Cathedral in the Castle there - I was there too - my abiding memory was the strange amalgamation and sheer quantity of military and clergy throughout the city). I can therefore concur when the author states that one of the largest problems facing these Eastern European countries was distribution of food that was safe to eat. It seemed as if Communism couldn't manage to concentrate on too many tasks at once! Production was afforded a higher priority than getting it to the shops. (Once again, I remember the Commune having plenty of food to wine and dine me and yet the shops in the nearby cities were virtually empty or supplied such low quality food that you would prefer to forego the pleasures of eating or drinking).
The author does point out some of the warnings were made about too fast a transition to a market economy. He personally explains his own warnings about unrestrained liberalisation of these under-developed markets, but also how advice along these lines was not always welcomed by those who rejoiced in the demise of Communism and the primacy of Capitalism. This was to be the period of various right wing Neo-Cons crowing at the march of liberal democracy - another theme mentioned in the book. At least some of the the Eastern European nations had the prospect of European Union membership as a powerful motivator to reform themselves and modernise. Events in the old Soviet Union countries would not be quite so easily solved. This contrast does go back to what was said at the beginning of this review in that the EU is the ultimate example of 'Soft Power' at work. With the incentive to join the EU as the carrot, many of the Eastern European nations have transformed themselves in little over two decades. The author does go on to ponder what may happen to the European project in the future. He does point out the gridlock and limitations of the institution as it is now, but much of the power of the EU was in its ability to persuade countries to create the institutions and policies to allow for integration into the club. However, with talk of an unwieldly club of 27 the EU may well have lost one of its most powerful tools in its 'Soft Power' armoury - the carrot of membership.
A final mention should be made of the up-to-date facts and figures of the book. Published in 2010, there is an interesting section on Britain in its unchartered period of coalition government. A very fair and interesting assessment is made of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives who are not natural bed-fellows when it comes to all things European. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the near future. The author does remind us that Britain does seem to have sabotaged its own influence and interests time and again as it failed to reconcile itself whole-heartedly to the European project. And yet, no serious politician in Britain could ever seriously recommend leaving the EU - even the more Euro-sceptic Conservatives realise that the economic ties are just too important to even consider a retreat into some isolationist fantasyland. So perhaps the author can content himself that it is the inter-dependence dreamed of by the original architects such as Monnet and Schumann and witnessed by the author for the majority of his professional life that will finally keep Britain tied to Europe as a whole. That would be 'Soft Power' at work.