28th Feb 2024


Book Review: Caroline de Gruyter on new history of the EU

  • Hodson makes it very clear in this readable book (with real people in it) that it is the member states who have most of the power in Brussels — and increasingly so
Listen to article

Most books about Europe written by academics are unreadable for the wider public. They tend to be full of jargon and focus on tired, academic pet subjects like the 'democratic deficit'.

Just once in a while, a book comes along that zooms out instead of in, avoiding acronyms and actually trying to answer the main question many citizens have had for a long time: who has the power in Europe? Who takes the decisions in Brussels?

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • de Gruyter: 'Circle of Stars helps the bigger public to understand why we live in a different Europe than just a few years ago'

Such a 'macro book' is Circle of Stars; A History of the EU and the People Who Made It (Yale University Press) by Dermot Hodson, professor of political economy and digital technologies at Loughborough University in London and a visiting professor at the College of Europe in Bruges.

Hodson, who has previously worked for the European Commission, makes it very clear in this readable book (with real people in it) that it is the member states who have most of the power in Brussels — and increasingly so.

This is because, contrary to the false popular narrative, member states have never yielded major national powers to the European Commission, except in the fields of agriculture, trade and a few others.

Instead, they have pooled some national powers with each other, and have received collective sovereignty in exchange for it. This process has accelerated since the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 because, as Alan Milward already argued in his formidable book The European Rescue of the Nation-State in 1992, national leaders have discovered that thanks to the EU they are more powerful than they would have been without the EU.

Hodson writes: "National leaders stuck with the EU after Maastricht not because they shared an ideological commitment to an ever closer union but because they believed that their countries could manage global crises more effectively by working together."

For many reasons, right after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, national leaders decided on new, ambitious projects in areas hitherto national: the euro; Schengen and more cooperation on justice and home affairs; and foreign and security policy.

These areas were highly sensitive in many member states. Therefore, the leaders did not give the European Commission far-reaching decision-making powers, but instead kept control over these areas themselves by requiring unanimity — meaning all national capitals must agree on any decision and have a veto on almost everything.

In the past couple of years, this tendency has become even stronger as member states faced problems they could not possibly solve alone, such as climate change and the rise of powerful digital multinationals such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon.

At the same time, a series of mostly external shocks rocked the EU's foundations: the financial crisis and euro crisis, the refugee crisis, terrorist attacks, the pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine all forced national leaders to pool resources and powers.

Because of all those pressures, the heads of state and government were faced with a stark choice each time: either let the EU fall apart, or Europeanise highly sensitive areas like health, security and defence, too.

The fact that they chose the latter is significant. There is only one explanation: they did not want the EU to fall apart.

This increased Europeanisation came at a price, though: more power for national leaders in Brussels. From European vaccines to the €800bn recovery program after the pandemic and immigration policies, leaders are more firmly behind the wheel in Brussels than ever before.

While previously, they had taken all important decisions in Europe and then stepping back to let the European Commission manage the implementation of those decisions, nowadays they do not step back anymore and stay involved with the implementation, too.

For example, national representatives co-decide with the commission on each other's national projects getting recovery funds instead of leaving this to Commission experts; they meticulously screen (and sometimes alter) the commission's draft contracts for vaccines; and also co-sign agreements with third countries on migration, such as the (already botched) one with Tunisia in 2023.

Unfortunately, national leaders keep their electorates in the dark about their growing responsibilities in Brussels.

They keep lashing out at supposedly all-powerful 'eurocrats', denying their own, growing power in Europe. Clearly, they prefer citizens to believe the old story of a monstrous Brussels bureaucracy acting by itself at the detriment of member states — even though today, this is less true than ever before. Hodson touches on this, but he could have been much stronger on this point.

Circle of Stars helps the bigger public to understand why we live in a different Europe than just a few years ago. In the past, the narrative often was that the more powerful the Commission became, the less power was left for member states and vice versa. This does not hold any longer. Today, both the Commission and the member states are increasing their powers in tandem. If only the public knew this.

Circle of Stars; A History of the EU and the People Who Made It by Dermot Hodson, Yale University Press (2023)

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is an EU correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC, Foreign Policy, De Standaard and EUobserver, and the author of The Habsburg Empire: An Inspiration for Europe? A Search for Clues.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


How centre-right conservatives capitulate to the far-right

Many conservatives in Europe seem to have forgotten the lesson of 1930s Germany. They sacrifice their principles on the altar of the polls and all-too-often try to overtake rightwing radicals on their own pet subjects like security or migration.


Northern Europe — the new Nato/Russia frontline

The world has changed, not least in northern Europe, which is rapidly becoming one of the new frontlines between Nato and Russia. It is sometimes said that even the largest avalanche is caused by something small. Watch Northern Europe.


Do democrats really *want* to win?

Raymond Aron, the French philosopher, once said that at the end of the day, "I think democracies will win. On one condition, however: they must want it." In today's Europe, there is again reason to doubt this.


What Europe's 1848 revolutions can tell us about 2024

As multiple crises converge again, like they did in 1848-1849 — war, inflation, social inequality, recession — sometimes resulting in economic, social and political stagnation, new political nationalists seek to benefit.

Latest News

  1. Macron on Western boots in Ukraine: What he really meant
  2. Amazon lobbyists banned from EU Parliament
  3. MEPs adopt new transparency rules for political ads
  4. EU nature restoration law approved after massive backlash
  5. Memo from Munich — EU needs to reinvent democracy support
  6. For Ukraine's sake, pass the EU due diligence directive
  7. All of Orbán's MPs back Sweden's Nato entry
  8. India makes first objection to EU carbon levy at WTO summit

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us