Since its inception as the European Coal and Steel Community over half a century ago, the European Union (EU) and its predecessors have embodied a vision of a united Europe, bound together through trade, culture and a common will to prevent a repeat of the horrors of the first half of the 20th century.
The 21st century has not been kind to this vision, and within the first quarter of the new century the EU appears to be in its most fragile state since the start of the great experiment. The challenges of an aggressive Russia on its eastern border, the imminent collapse of the bloc’s single currency, the rise of far-right nationalism…..we could go on. Will the EU survive? We’ve put together the 15 best books to help you decide.
July 2020: Since publishing our original article, we’ve received personal recommendations for further reading from several of our featured authors; check them out below!
Is the EU Doomed?
by Jan Zielonka
As a Professor of European Politics at Oxford, Zielonka’s reputation as one of Europe’s most original thinkers is without doubt. In Is the EU doomed? Prof. Zielonka sets out to respond to two different crises he identifies in the EU; one of integration, the other of imagination. The track he proposes for the organization is nothing if not unique. Under the tag-line of “neo-medievalism”, the author argues that the EU should embrace its member-states’ recent desire for greater autonomy, and go even further. Zielonka sees Europe’s future lying not in the EU’s current institutional structure, but in a new Europe in which highly autonomous cities and regions work together, building a stronger political and commercial entity while retaining their independence. Comparisons with the Holy Roman Empire would not go amiss. Nevertheless, as a Pole with a Dutch passport, who owns a house in Italy and works in the UK, such an eclectic solution to such a multi-faceted problem certainly doesn’t seem out of place. Flight of fancy, or a genuine alternative to the current slow-death of Europe? Prof. Zielonka’s book will broaden your mind to the wider possibilities of Europa.
Author Jan Zielonka recommends….
by Ivan Krastev
Krastev, as the Chair of a liberal think-tank in one of the EU’s newest member states, certainly brings a unique perspective to the organization’s current myriad problems. In this book-length essay, he tackles each major issue head-on, from the immense migration of over 1.3 million people into the EU, the spread of right-wing populism, to the geo-political challenge posed by an aggressive Eastern neighbor. Krastev views the EU in its current state as a reincarnation of the Habsburg Empire, whose disintegration over a century ago sparked the First World War. The author’s own prediction for the EU’s own future is not much more positive. Krastev’s book is a timely wake-up call from the Union’s furthest periphery.
Fractured Continent: Europe’s Crises and the Fate of the West
by William Drozdiak
As the former chief Europe correspondent for the Washington Post, Drozdiak spent years on the continent interacting with its most senior political and military leaders, as well as interviewing people from all walks of life. This wealth of experience shines through in the pages of Fractured Continent. Written primarily for an American audience, Drozdiak’s work charts the downfall of the EU from its previous heralding as the future “United States of Europe”, to its current shattered state. The woes of the continent’s single currency, Russia, rising nationalism, Brexit, and an America increasingly uninterested in maintaining NATO’s military dominance; all of these factors play key roles in the author’s analysis of Europe’s challenges. Drozdiak’s journalistic experience is evident in his lucid, flowing prose throughout, and readers will find themselves gripped by his compelling narrative of the state of modern Europe.
Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age
by Steven Hill
Hill, whose fluency in German stands him out among the US’s European commentators, offers a refreshing and illuminating counter-point to the near incessant doom and gloom of the majority of Europe prognosticators. Europe’s Promise is a resounding review of the EU’s strengths, and international influence. The book’s publication date of August 2009 means that many of the biggest freak waves to batter the political elite of the continent in the last decade are inevitably missing; far-right nationalism, Brexit, and mass migration being among the most notable. Even so, in 2020 Hill’s work offers an engrossing time capsule of the possibilities that once were for the Union, when its promotion of renewable technologies, welfare programs for working people, and its status as the world’s largest trading bloc made it a giant on the world stage.
How times change, eh?
And the Weak Suffer What They Must? Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Stability
by Yanis Varoufakis
As Greece’s former Finance Minister, Varoufakis faced the unenviable job of dealing with the EU’s negotiators during the Greek bond crisis in 2012. The experience obviously left an impression on him, as he has been an implacable critic of the EU ever since. That’s not to suggest that his opposition to the Union is unbalanced, or unfounded. As a Professor of Economics, Varoufakis’s book leads the reader through a step-by-step replay of the founding of the EU, underlining its structural weaknesses and explaining the underlying factors in the Union’s gradual unravelling that has played out in the decade since the financial crisis in 2008. As a scholar, politician, and activist, Varoufakis brings his broad experience to bear on his account of the EU’s structural failures, and the potential remedies he believes could yet reform and even save the colossus from terminal decline.
The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age
by James Kirchick
Kirchick, a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution and prolific freelance journalist, brings a collection of his most penetrating journalistic articles to publication with The End of Europe. Criss-crossing the continent, Kirchick lays bare the thinly-veiled dishonesty of the political leaders who campaigned for Brexit, explores the political and social implications of admitting over a million migrants from outside the EU’s borders, and tracks the rising unease along the EU’s eastern border from Estonia to the Ukraine as they face up to an increasingly adventurous Russian military. While Kirchick’s writing style has been criticized as overly academic, the content of his reports and the first-hand accounts he brings back from the frontlines of Europe’s most pressing issues leave the reader feeling as though they have personally accompanied the reporter on his numerous journeys across this rapidly changing continent.
Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage
by Luuk van Middelaar
As a senior advisor and speech-writer to the President of the European Council between 2010-15, van Middelaar was a first-hand witness to the theatre of the EU’s highest level policy discussions and debates. His previous book, The Passage to Europe, was an award-winning analysis of the EU’s formation. Alarums leverages van Middelaar’s experience at the heart of Brussels, providing insider access to the deliberations between the Union’s own political leaders and the heads of member states as the organization was beset by crisis after crisis. In doing so, the author reveals the personal, and institutional battles raging at the heart of Europe’s governance, as the Union fights for its future.
The Brussels Effect: How the European Union Rules the World
by Anu Bradford
As a Professor of Law and International Organization at Columbia Law School, Bradford brings her academic expertise to bear in her somewhat surprising defense of the EU and its legal institutions. She argues that the EU has become the international standard-setter in numerous fields, from data privacy, to antitrust, environmental protection and consumer health and safety. In the midst of the EU’s seemingly unstoppable decline, Bradford’s full-throated support for the EU’s progressive legal stance might appear to some as simple Europhilia. But her book is important for many reasons; not least as a corrective to the all too common assumption that the EU was nothing but a sinking ship from its inception.
Author Anu Bradford recommends…
The Future of Europe: Towards a Two-Speed EU?
by Jean-Claude Piris
From a law Professor to a man who actually had a hand in writing the very foundational laws of the EU itself. With unparalleled knowledge of the EU’s institutional and legal structures, Piris lays out his solution for how the Union can cope with widening disparity among member states. Although originally published in 2012, his “two-speed” proposal still carries some weight today, even after the cataclysms of Brexit, mass migration and rising nationalism. Even if you don’t agree with his solution, Piris’s discussion of the legal structures at the heart of Europe’s everyday government will leave you with an enhanced appreciation for, and understanding of, the Brussels edifice.
The EU: An Obituary
by John R. Gillingham
A former visiting fellow at Harvard’s Center for European Studies, Gillingham isn’t just some rabid Euro-sceptic. His unrelenting dissection of the EU’s institutional problems from their initial foundation will leave many readers convinced of the inevitability of the Union’s fall. And yet, the author’s unfailing negativity risks provoking a backlash in any reader with a half-questioning mind. Is it really all that bad? Can a great continent not re-invent itself? We suspect that many readers of Gillingham’s work may already be fellow travelers, and in this case the book will not disappoint. For those readers who are as yet undecided on the EU, this book provides challenging questions that need to be answered if the EU isn’t just going to continue its current slow-stumble death march. Now available in a much enlarged and expanded second edition.
The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe
by Joseph E. Stiglitz
The EU’s single currency started as a project designed to increase the bloc’s economic unification. In hindsight, this was grossly naïve. Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist and one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, lays out in jaw-dropping clarity how the euro has had the direct opposite effect from what was originally intended. Exacerbating the existing economic disparities between member states, plunging the southern members into seemingly interminable debt crises and forcing economic stagnation upon many others; the list of sins goes on and on. Stiglitz’s suggestions for reform are welcome and provoke deep reflection; but surely, with a concept so deeply flawed from the start, is it not already beyond salvation?
The Rotten Heart of Europe: Dirty War for Europe’s Money
by Bernard Connolly
In 1995, when Rotten Heart was first published, its author was head of the EU’s analysis unit for the entire European Monetary System. As one of Brussel’s most senior economists, he had unparalleled access to the internal machinations that played out prior to the establishment of the single currency. Needless to say, he didn’t like what he saw. As it turns out, nor did Brussels when they got wind of the book’s publication. Connolly was promptly fired; and just as promptly became an early prophet of the political and economic catastrophes to come. More than 20 years later, Rotten Heart remains an essential handbook for the structural weaknesses at the center of the EU.
Europe’s Unfinished Currency: The Political Economics of the Euro
by Thomas Mayer
Mayer, the former chief economist for Deutsche Bank, provides an historical analysis of previous attempts at monetary union between sovereign states. Unsurprisingly, none of these actually worked. Mayer then proceeds to apply the lessons learnt from these past failures to reform of the EU’s equally precarious monetary union. His contention that the single currency has only ever been thin cover for the grander project of increased political union is without doubt. The strength of Mayer’s work lies in his extensive proposals for how to solve the euro’s key structural weaknesses, and thereby rescue the single currency.
EuroTragedy: A Drama in Nine Acts
by Ashoka Mody
EuroTragedy provides a perspective so far lacking in our other books; that of an external observer from another global economic giant. During his time as head of the IMF’s European unit, Mody was granted access to the unfolding disaster of European economic integration from the ground up. His penetrating economic analysis of the euro’s flaws won EuroTragedy many plaudits. Free of technical jargon, and dotted with flashes of the author’s dry humor, EuroTragedy remains possibly the most comprehensive take down of the single currency to date.
Europe’s Orphan: The Future of the Euro and the Politics of Debt
by Martin Sandbu
Sandbu’s book is bold and brilliant. Retracing many of the ground covered by other works; namely the history of ideas behind the European monetary union since 1945, the desire for the bloc’s increased political unification, and the inherent structural flaws of the single currency from its conception, the author nevertheless arrives at a stunningly different conclusion. The euro, it turns out, has been wrongly accused of its litany of evils, and is nothing more than the innocent scapegoat of a much more deeply flawed, and rapidly crumbling, set of institutions at the heart of Europe. Sandbu’s conclusions, and his proposed remedies even more, will likely provoke skepticism among a reading audience conditioned to view the single currency itself as the evil-doer. But in doing so, the author prompts us to consider the euro crisis, and by extension the EU itself, on a much deeper level.
Way to go guys – we just smashed through the 15 best books to understand the EU’s potential dark future, or what could be done to reverse course. Got any titles you think we missed from our list? Let us know in the comments below.
Remember, for all our curated book recommendations check out our Current Events page; you’ll find only the best selected titles to help you understand unfolding news stories and the hottest topics in the global news media.