Books about the global financial crisis and its aftermath have tended to fall in to two camps: attempts by spectators to explain what decisions were made, and attempts by participants to justify why they were made. European Spring is intriguing because its author, Philippe Legrain, is in both tribes, having spent time as a senior policymaker at the European commission, while never quite relinquishing the journalistic detachment that makes this more of a manifesto than a memoir. While this book has plenty to discomfort Legrain’s former colleagues, and he seems to rather delight in asides about the pay and conditions of various Eurocrats, this is not a grubby kiss-and-tell or bitter retaliatory strike. Instead, this is an overwhelmingly serious book, from an unquestionably qualified source, which offers intelligent (and intelligible) context for understanding what has just happened to our continent.
Legrain’s starting point is pretty simple, if contested: policy is for people, and pan-European austerity cannot, by definition, be the right policy if it leaves so many young people without options and families without hope. He then takes a gallop through all the different things that could have been done instead, and is convincing when he lays out the economic myths which haunt European decision-making. To that degree, one half of the promise of the book’s subtitle, that it will answer the question ‘why our economies and politics are in a mess’, is safely honoured.
Where Legrain is less convincing, however, is in trying to unpick the politics of the economics. Or, to put it more crudely, why even those who never doubted he was an extremely clever bloke still did not take his advice. In the end, independent thinkers are there to offer technically perfect answers to problems and powerful policymakers are there to find the place where the perfect and the practical meet. Why were the answers, so obvious to him, not adopted by the very people who stood to gain from returning Europe to the path of jobs and growth? And why are those of us who agree with him that the role of centre-left parties is to help people manage change, not avoid it, losing the internal argument so badly?
These are the biggest questions facing proponents of a progressive globalisation, and this book does not lay out a practical plan for victory in the battles of ideas or organisation. Perhaps it was never meant to: after all, the author talks about the need for a European Spring without ever suggesting he is the man to lead it. But this would have been a more satisfying text if it engaged more seriously with why even potential allies were a disappointment to him, and where public pressure could be usefully directed to try to shift public policy. I am convinced by his argument that ‘Europe has bounced back from far worse than this’, I just want to know more about what I can do to contribute to the bounceback – and the fightback – Europe’s progressives so desperately need.
Kirsty McNeill is the founder of ThembaHQ and a former adviser at 10 Downing Street. She tweets at @kirstyjmcneill
European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess – and How to Put Them Right
CB Creative Books | 484pp | £12.99
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