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Insights into why Europe ended up at war again – and more…

Europe’s Leadership Famine: Portraits of defiance and decay 1950-2022 – by Tom Gallagher

Scotview Publications, 17 June 2023, 403 pp, ISBN 9780993465444

HOW WAS it possible for the dogs of war to be let loose in Europe, thirty-one years after the struggle between the West and the Soviet Union came to a conclusion, and seemed to begin a long term era of peace?

Tom Gallagher’s book ‘Europe’s Leadership Famine: Portraits of defiance and decay 1950-2022’ provides a good number of the answers. We are witnessing the consequences of the political ascendancy of a cosmopolitan professional political elite, skilled in spin and immersed in managerialism, but woefully short on statesmanship. Putin is the rogue who fired the first shot; but an accommodation of  him, over a long period, by senior European figures (Merkel (pictured) and Schroder with significant roles, with Macron not far behind), played its part in his miscalculation.

This is a book both for people with a general interest in politics, and for those who practice the art, for whom there are lessons to be learnt, about recognising the clash between the legitimate interests of nation states and international institutions. Lessons, which if not learnt, will see Europe, especially that part now forming the European Union, continue to be controlled by a bureaucratic class, part of an international club in which, to quote Gallagher: “many politicians have lost the ability to communicate easily because their contact with the wider society has shrivelled.”

Gallagher is a scholar with an incisive understanding of politics and politicians, and this ability emerges in his assessment, and their impact upon national and international affairs, of the twenty main figures he profiles in a wide sweep of history from Tito (1950) to Zelensky (2023). British readers may be surprised that only two of our crop feature: Boris Johnson and Nicola Sturgeon. The latter, hardly a major state-actor, and devoid of any influence on international relations or European policy, comes in because, I suspect, taking her along with Jordi Pujal of Catalonia, allowed the author to express his dislike of Nationalism. But perhaps I do the author a disservice. Pujal was a major player in Spain’s public life and politics as well as within Catalonia; and that Nicola Sturgeon’s arrest was on the front pages, and among the first item on international television channel news programmes, meant she was difficult to ignore in a book of this kind.

Her perambulations around the world, the self-promotion (65 pictures or videos of herself on Twitter over a nine-day period) and selfies with important international figures looked to have paid off, with an international career post-Holyrood a distinct possibility. Why that ambition is now probably in ashes, and Gallagher’s analysis of her failures is worth reading, I deal with in my final paragraphs below.

That other than Johnson, he found no other recent UK prime minister worth the importance of a profile, speaks volumes about those who now sit atop of our political pile.

Some will decry his emphasis on personality, and he admits that much of scholarship today aims to “take the individual out of recent historical accounts of Europe after 1945” and recognise instead the importance of “impersonal structures and forces.”  This is an old argument. There is, however, nothing contradictory in acknowledging economic or social forces let loose are the main driver of events, but that individuals can be decisive in the direction that is ultimately taken. Lenin and his force of personality, was key to the Bolshevik decision to create the second revolution in Russia.

Readers will be drawn to the profiles of recognised major figures who played front rank roles in  European integration and the development of European security in partnership with the United States. Paul-Henri Spaak,  Valery Giscard d’Estaign, Francois Mitterrand, as well as the two German leaders already mentioned, are all objectively examined and the flaws and sins of commission and omission recorded.  The “sinuous” Giulio Andreotti navigating, always to his personal advantage, in the “treacherous”  political waters of post-1945 Italy is a fascinating character; a man Gallagher describes as a “riddle,” but whose baleful influence has a responsibility for Italy’s failure to achieve democratic stability.

In a chapter headed “Pirates of the Mediterranean” he embraces Andreas Papandreou of Greece, Pedro Sanchez of Spain, Milo Đukanović of Montenegro, and that late star of Italian melodramas  and bunga-bunga Silvio Berlusconi.  As Gallagher shows in examining Silvio’s political career and manipulative ability, he  was anything but the “clown”, described by The Economist when applauding “Angela Merkel for helping to get rid of him” as prime minister by means of the ECB “violating its mandate,” and imposing  Mario Monti, a former EU insider in his place. British Leavers will find comfort among the pages of this book as, time and again, Gallagher highlights the propensity of EU institutions, headed by the new elite, to squash nation state interests when they deem it necessary to emphasise the “project” of ever closer unity… and control.

One man profiled who is in a constant state-versus-EU clash is Viktor Orban the prime minister of Hungary: “the most successful conservative leader in the last fifty years (Margaret Thatcher included).” To say, outside of Hungary, that he gets a bad press is an understatement. He is deplored for breaking up his country’s ‘liberal intellectual power base that had seemed entrenched’ after the fall of communism, and the sin of establishing in its place “a conservative hegemony.”  He is, as is noted, accused by those who run the EU, and others in our democracies, of retaining power by a combination of “chicanery and authoritarianism,” but as also noted “his ability to produce good economic results and win electoral victories on such a scale that it strains credulity they have been secured primarily by fraud and malfeasance.”

The chapter  on Orban is of value because too little is understood, but needs to be understood,  about the Hungarian society that keeps sending him back into power time after time.  He is an unashamed exponent of promoting his country’s state interests, expounding this view in relation to the role of the European Court of Justice (the main instrument of integration) in stating, to quote Gallagher: he “feels under no obligation to defer to what he regards as a politicised court belonging to an international entity that is often unfriendly towards governments wishing to preserve their sovereignty.”

It may be the clue to why Orban keeps winning a national election in a country where the opposition is strong, winning as it does local elections in Budapest and other large cities,  is to be found in the message from this uncompromising statement on immigration recorded by Gallagher: “This is an uncontrolled and unregulated process. We did not get authorisation from our citizens for millions to walk into our continent……..The German, Hungarian or Austrian way of life is not a basic right of all people on earth. It is only a right for those people who have contributed to it.”  Can you imagine the furore if Sunak or Starmer said anything like that?

Three strands run through this work: the empowerment of the professional elite in charge of the EU’s institutions, at the expense of national states, and how the states’ politicians, in subordinating themselves to those higher echelons, have produced the famine of leadership at national levels, with no-one, except perhaps Merkel (who was a hidden failure waiting to be discovered) able to give pan-European leadership and hold pan-European respect. Another is how many of those profiled had a “proprietorial” attitude towards the state, with personal interests rather than public service  determining their priorities. Not surprisingly, given that outlook, was the corruption by some, and unbelievable self-interest by others, with Schroder outstanding in that respect. Schroderizatsiya is a term coined by Toomas Hendrick, former President of Estonia  to describe “the corruption of a political elite by another country” with Germany in mind.

With a few exceptions, none of those who were in command of their states or influential in the EU have left a legacy that commands respect. Most made no improvement to the democratic structures of their countries. Many became criminals. They were, Gallagher declares: “from the clubbable and networking swarm of European politicians who scrambled to acquire power and influence in the final decades of the 20th century.”  Not  a likeable bunch.

Among the exceptions I picked out was Urho Kaleva Kekkonen, President of Finland from 1956 to 1982, a post held continuously despite there being, in that timescale, 26 governments.  Henry Kissinger is the doyen of the realist school of international relations, but were it not for Finland being a small country on which the spotlight seldom falls, Kekkonen would share the accolades that the American receives from certain quarters.

Kekkonen was aware of the three fundamentals of international relations that never change: geography, state interests and spheres of influence. After 1945, Finland, which had been an ally of Nazi Germany in its war on the USSR, was at the centre of all three factors.  His mentor was Juho Kusti Paasikivi, President from 1946-56, who passed on the wisdom ‘that any pursuit of self-government needed to accommodate itself to the reality of Russian strength and power.’  The exploration of just how Kekkonen kept Finland independent, and safe, while dealing with the Kremlin is a fascinating lesson in statecraft.

Those in the Scottish independence movement who in my time of activity would roar with approval the delegate who claimed, falsely,  that “No man can set the bounds of a nation,” and who seem ignorant of the crucial importance of understanding realities, would learn a great deal from this piece about Kekkonen.

The book links President Zelensky with Chancellor Scholz. The first engaged in a real war of killing and heavily dependent on western powers to sustain his military; while Scholz, head of the major  European power, squirms in trying to maintain the SPD’s long standing policy ‘that special ties with Russia must never be jeopardised,’ while condemning the very Russia the policy is aimed at. Scholz’s performance is not held in high esteem, but at heart it is based on his perception of German state interests, and that does not include a serious defeat for Russia and the permanent suspension of long-term positive relations.

It is, of course, not possible to pass any final assessment of Zelensky. As a war leader he is outstanding. But his military is fighting with a leash attached, all western weapons come with the qualification that they cannot be used to attack Russia itself. His army is expected to do what no NATO one would contemplate, that is launch a successful major counter-offensive without air superiority against a well dug-in enemy.  As the Wall Street Journalnoted on 10 July, even with the weapons provided by the US, UK and others, Ukraine is “outgunned and outmanned, troops confront a daunting phase in the war.”

Gallagher sensibly  notes that  Zelensky will shortly face “troubling choices.” His stated war aim is liberation of every inch territory including Crimea.  The trouble in that troubling choice, is that he is not master of his situation. Joe Biden is, and whispering in his ear is Scholz.

Finally, given that this review will be published on a Scottish web site, I come back to Tom Gallagher’s assessment of Nicola Sturgeon, and Scottish nationalism, because it is not she alone about whom he writes, critically. As a member of the SNP, the reader may suspect I will bridle at a number of his conclusions, but that is not necessarily the case.  He identifies in our nationalism an entrenched sense of victimhood, a certainty that Westminster governments are set on, to quote Ian Blackford MP, “shafting”  the Scots at every opportunity, and thus  feeding on “a grievance culture” to be found in “post-industrial communities.”

Sturgeon was a dab hand at that game, singling out the Tories, as proxy for the whole union, as people to be “despised,” and claiming blame never lay with her for failure, but with that shower in Westminster. Gallagher has her measure, and any sensible SNP member will wince as he takes us through the stages of her political career,  during which she accumulated power within the party, and emasculated its democratic foundations, and then went on to capture civic society through government patronage.  To what end?  Not a reinvigorated, successful Scotland free from the disgrace  of poverty, with the torch of knowledge and achievement aflame in our schools, but to a one summed up by the magazine Money Week 16th June 2023: “Mess and Mediocrity: Nicola Sturgeon’s legacy”.

Tom  Gallagher has written a superb book on European politics, using the careers of twenty individuals, with side references to others,  as entry points. I cannot over-state its value in the lessons to be learnt from it.

Available here from Amazon £19.53

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