Europe Book Reviews


50Days Cover - 3D

January 2012

An indispensible primer on the events that shaped Europe

At a time when Europe is again facing existential questions about how it confronts current financial crises and ensures the stability of its monetary union, Hanneke Siebelink’s accessible and well-researched tome puts it all in perspective. It is a vital reference for any Europeanist who wants to recall exactly what happened when, and more importantly, why. It also captures the essence of the history of post-war European integration. More than that of other global powers, the history of the EU is revealed in dramatic fashion when members come together for Summits and other defining events. The format thus allows the reader to vicariously look in on all these moments, each of which, as Ms. Siebelink says, ‘changed Europe.’

Charles Ries, Vice President International at RAND Corporation

September 2011

Wall Street Journal Review: Would Kissinger Care?

In 1960, the Netherlands raised tariffs on certain chemical imports. A Dutch shipping company, Van Gend & Loos, sued the state. The 1957 Treaty of Rome, which had established the European Economic Community, mandated the gradual abolition of tariffs among its six original signatories: France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Luxembourg and West Germany. The lawyers for Van Gend & Loos argued that tariffs were OK, but extra tariffs were not.

On Feb. 5, 1963, the newly formed European Court of Justice found in favor of Van Gend & Loos. The Treaty of Rome, it proclaimed, ‘constitutes a new legal order of international law for the benefit of which states have limited their sovereign rights, albeit within limited fields.’

That ruling, a quiet milestone in the history of the European Union, has been chosen by Hanneke Siebelink as one of The 50 Days that Changed Europe. In this slim primer, she explains how the EU grew from a weak six-nation trade alliance to a 27-country behemoth with its own currency. Given the euro’s current woes, a skeptic might subtitle her book, ‘How We Got Into This Mess.’

Mrs. Siebelink is a Dutch trade economist who already has a book on Abraham Lincoln to her name.  She grew up in Brussels, the daughter of an EU civil servant, surrounded by the comfort of the EU’s master narrative.

She writes, for better and worse, about the EU as an old friend. Her goal, she tells us in her introduction, is ‘to offer an insight into the people behind the most important moments in our history’ and to take her readers ‘into the kitchen where the decisions are made—bringing you close to the reality that is often simply dismissed as ‘Brussels.”

Although lacking a bit in healthy skepticism, the book works. The rhetoric surrounding the EU can be grandiose; consider U.K. tabloids’ exaggerations about the power of Brussels bureaucrats to regulate the size of cucumbers. So one can do worse than Mrs. Siebelink’s account, which simply tells stories about days when things happened to the EU—a free-trade, regulatory and currency alliance of still-sovereign countries.

Your correspondent, who is preparing to leave Brussels after eight years of covering the EU, witnessed first-hand many of the events in her book. Mrs. Siebelink’s descriptions, in lucid declarative prose, ring accurate and true.

At its most basic level, the history of the EU is about recovering from war. As Mrs. Siebelink quotes former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl as saying, the EU is about the transition from a ‘German Europe to a European Germany.’

In the summer of 2005, I drove south to Luxembourg to watch Jean-Claude Juncker, the Grand Duchy’s prime minister, campaign for the European Constitution. In a small town called Grevenmacher by the German border, Mr. Juncker spoke movingly of his father having been shot in the war. ‘In 30 years, there will be a new generation of leaders, and they will have forgotten the war,’ he warned.

In the 1980s and 1990s, under leaders of Mr. Juncker’s generation and spirit, European unification built up into a crescendo. Single market! Open borders! The euro! The European Commission’s president at the time, a Frenchman named Jacques Delors, led the way. He is a hero to people like Mrs. Siebelink and Mr. Juncker. At Brussels cocktail parties, Europhiles can often be heard complaining that they just don’t make them like Mr. Delors anymore.

Mrs. Siebelink quotes Mr. Delors answering a question on West German television about whether Germany was still the enemy that he, as a Frenchman, had grown up with in the 1930s. Mr. Delors replied: ‘You have done so much for Europe. Stay with us. Together we can realize a beautiful vision.’

The politics, of course, were more complicated. Mrs. Siebelink tells of one summit in Strasbourg on Dec. 9, 1989, after the Berlin Wall fell, which turned out to be the day that Germany agreed to monetary union in order to get French President François Mitterand to agree to German reunification. Now that was a historic day.

But the difficulty of understanding the EU is that so many of its important days are not about history. They’re just about the EU and meetings and the normal tick-tock of an institutional bureaucracy at work. It’s as if somebody tried to tell the story of African poverty by describing meetings of the United Nations. Those meetings only matter if they helped the hungry.

Let’s divide Mrs. Siebelink’s 50 days into three categories:

1. Real integration and expansion of the EU, part of the healing peace following centuries of continental war. The Van Gend & Loos case, for example, belongs in this category, as does the fall of the Berlin Wall. We can also count the expansion of the EU on May 1, 2004, to include eight countries of former Communist Europe, as well as Malta and Cyprus. The tally: 22 days.

2. Meetings, internal policy battles and procedural changes. We’re going to apply a reverse Kissinger test here: Did the day matter to Henry Kissinger? (The former U.S. Secretary of State famously asked who answered phone when one called to speak to ‘Europe,’ and his 1973 speech on Europe is the subject of a chapter in Mrs. Siebelink’s book.) In other words, did it matter to history?  Most of these days did not.

With apologies to former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, his selection in 2009 as the EU’s first president falls into this category. This basket also includes the 2007 signing of the Lisbon Treaty, which rearranged EU powers and rules, and the summits that led to it. Another day in this category includes the first direct election of the European Parliament in 1979. There are 24 of these days.

3. Real manifestations of EU centralized power. So, for example, the EU’s unprecedented €497-million fine of Microsoft Corp. for antitrust violations in 2007. There are only four of these days included in Mrs. Siebelink’s book, the last one being the EU-led bailout of Greece in 2010.

That, really, is the history of the EU as an institution: two parts miraculous recovery from the wreckage left by Hitler and Stalin, two parts complicated political negotiations, and one small part real power.

However glorious and true the first two parts, that ship of peace has sailed. Now we’re left with questions about what to do with the fragmented power that remains, and a lot of room for summits Henry Kissinger doesn’t need to care about.

John W. Miller, Wall Street Journal

June 2011

In 50 Steps towards the EU

With a firm euro-crisis at hand caused by Greece, the future of the European currency, even the European Union itself, seems at stake these days. For all the right reasons, since the Greek crisis constitutes an explosive mixture of financial mayhem of an unprecedented size, an EU, internally very divided by profound conflicting interests, and an increasing popular discontent about national taxes supporting technically bankrupt member states.

In that light Hanneke Siebelink’s book The 50 Days that Changed Europe is a refreshing read. Of course is the effort of reducing the formation of the 27-state European Union to ’50 days’ for many a hand-wringing simplification of a much more complicated story. But whoever took the effort of struggling through the failed concept of the European constitution, can only feel sympathy for the French and Dutch voters who brought down that draft, because it was incomprehensible for human beings.

Siebelink makes an effort to bring the formation of the European Union back to earth and its earthlings, where it belongs. And her analysis of the many European crises and near-failures that marked the effort of uniting a continent divided by devastating wars, after the end of World War II, gives actually hope. The EU’s future has been at stake for at least ten times in the past sixty years, and the eleventh crisis is even statistically unavoidable. Politicians tend to love runaway successes, and reframe past disasters as current successes, but at least 20 percent of Siebelink’s 50 days constitute a major crisis.

Selling the EU as a major success to a generation that has forgotten the gruesome world wars dividing Europe, is a tough job for politicians who are increasingly out of touch with their own constituencies and face stiff anti-EU opposition. Siebelink knows how to sell that message much better than fearful politicians, who hope to win elections with one-liners.

In that way, the Greek crisis could be a blessing in disguise. When it is combined with a real effort to enhance democratic processes, politicians can use their talents for simplifying big issues to one-lines by explaining Europe in two-liners. Again, statistically there is a fair chance Europe and the EU will also survive the Greek crisis.  And the next one.

Fons Tuinstra, President China Speakers Bureau

May 2011

This book will be a trip down memory lane for some and a first introduction to the history of European integration for others, but it will be a pleasure to read for all. By highlighting 50 history-making events, Hanneke Siebelink has captured the essence of the European integration process. She surprises us with some events (Kissinger’s 1973 declaration of the Year of Europe, Michail Gorbechev kissing Erich Honecker) that gave momentum to European history but hardly ever made it into the standard textbooks on European integration. A great read!

Nico Groenendijk, Jean Monnet Professor of European Economic Governance, University of Twente, the Netherlands

January 2011

Books about Europe are often dull manuals written for insiders working within the Euro bubble. Hanneke Siebelink has done something different. She has told the story of Europe through an account of the decisive moments in its history. Her account of The 50 Days that Changed Europe lives readers a keyhole view inside meeting rooms in elegant châteaux while eavesdropping on the key decisions taken over the past 60 years. She shows with poignant clarity how Europe has been shaped, not by anonymous technocrats but by fallible human beings in moments of intense pressure. She reveals the failures, the crises and the blunders but also the extraordinary achievements like the removal of frontier posts, the reunification of Germany and the introduction of the euro. It is an inspiring book for all Europeans and a telling illustration for other countries who aspire to the European model.

Derek Blyth, Editor-in-chief,  The Bulletin

July 2010

In 50 days: Dutch living in Brussels wrote book about key European dates

Hanneke Siebelink was born in 1966 in Brussels, where her Dutch father was an official at the European Commission. She still lives in Brussels, but has kept her Dutch nationality. She worked for ten years as an adviser to the US government at the US Mission to the European Union and in 2009 published a book about Abraham Lincoln, the American president who abolished slavery.

On the first day of the Belgian Presidency of the European Union, her book De 50 Dagen die Europa Veranderden (The 50 Days that Changed Europe) was launched. The book begins on May 9, 1950 with the Schuman Declaration, considered the conception of the European Union, and ends on May 9, 2010, when EU leaders agreed a massive bailout for the eurozone. Together the accessible stories form a practical guide for anyone trying to understand the history and complexities of the European Union.

‘When, after ten years of intensive work in the Brussels bubble, I became a full-time author, I soon realized that people don’t really know what is happening in the European institutions. And yet everything that is decided at European level has a direct impact on our lives. This is why I wrote this book’, says Siebelink, who has a Twitter account: @Europewatcher.

Carla Joosten, EU Correspondent, Elsevier Magazine

May 2010

Interesting and well written overview of the highlights of European integration.

Jean-Luc Dehaene, MEP, former prime minister of Belgium



Februari 2012

Dit boek verdient het aanbevolen te worden bij een ruim lezerspubliek

In hun slotverklaring van Laken van 2001 onderstreepten de Europese staatshoofden en regeringsleiders, de Europese Raad, dat ‘de Europese instellingen nader tot de burger moeten komen.’ Met haar boek De 50 Dagen die Europa Veranderden heeft Hanneke Siebelink de ambitie daar een steentje toe bij te dragen, wat in deze periode van sterk verminderd vertrouwen in ‘Brussel’ zeker toe te juichen is.

In 50 stukjes brengt Siebelink evenveel scharniermomenten in de geschiedenis van de Europese eenmaking in beeld. Ze beperkt zich daarbij niet tot de belangrijkste topconferenties die via van naam bekende verdragen tot belangrijke wijzigingen in de oorspronkelijke Europese constructie hebben geleid. Ze besteedt ook aandacht aan gebeurtenissen die de toegenomen bevoegdheden van de Europese gemeenschap op tal van domeinen in de verf zetten.  (…)

Zowel kenners als historisch-politiek geïnteresseerden die hun blik willen verruimen kunnen nog wat opsteken uit dit vlot en luchtig geschreven boek. Op de eerste plaats kan het worden beschouwd als een beknopt naslagwerkje waarin de belangrijkste mijlpalen in de ontwikkeling van de Europese Unie vlug kunnen worden opgezocht. Op de tweede plaats belicht Siebelink de geopolitieke, nationale en soms persoonlijke belangen die de besluitvorming hebben beheerst. In casu het verschil tussen de Franse en Duitse opvattingen en de Britse aversie tegen bevoegdheidsoverdrachten naar een supranationale instelling komen op een duidelijke manier aan bod.

Tot slot is er de onuitgesproken boodschap die besloten ligt in de benadering van Siebelink. Met de ‘eenmaking’ heeft men een aanzienlijke vooruitgang geboekt en men heeft een onverhoopt aantal nieuwe landen weten te bereiken (al is die eenmaking nog verre van perfect). Maar de ‘eenwording’, het ideaal dat Jean Monnet voor ogen stond, met name ‘we verbinden geen staten, we verenigen mensen’, blijft een verre toekomstdroom.

Hanneke Siebelink heeft een werkstuk afgeleverd dat het verdient aanbevolen te worden bij een ruim lezerspubliek.

De Leeswolf, Robert Antonissen

Mei 2011

Dit boek is een feest der herkenning voor sommigen en een eerste kennismaking met de eenwording van Europa voor anderen, maar biedt iedereen veel leesplezier. De vijftig dagen die Europa veranderden zijn goed gekozen en geven de essentie weer van 60 jaar Europese integratie. Een prima aanvulling op alle studieboeken op dit terrein. Goed geschreven, met veel oog voor – menselijke –  details.  Kortom: een echte aanrader!

Nico Groenendijk, Jean Monnet Professor of European Economic Governance, Universiteit Twente

Juli 2010

In 50 dagen:  Brusselse Nederlandse schreef boek over cruciale data EU

Ze werd geboren in Brussel, waar haar Nederlandse vader ambtenaar was bij de Europese Commissie. Ze woont er nog steeds, maar heeft nog altijd de Nederlandse nationaliteit. Tien jaar werkte Hanneke Siebelink (1966) als adviseur voor de Amerikaanse regering bij de United States Mission to the European Union. Intussen is ze schrijver en publiceerde in 2009 een boek over Abraham Lincoln, de Amerikaanse president die de slavernij afschafte.

Ter gelegenheid van het Belgische voorzitterschap van de Europese Unie verschijnt haar boek De 50 Dagen die Europa Veranderden. Het boek begint op 9 mei 1950 met de Verklaring van Schuman, dat gezien wordt als de conceptie van de Europese Unie, en eindigt op 9 mei 2010 de dag van de ‘monstersteunregeling’ van 750 miljard euro die de euro moet redden.

Bij elkaar vormen de toegankelijk geschreven verhalen een compacte vertelling van de zo complexe wording van de Europese Unie. Een handzame les voor wie wil weten hoe die nu zo vaak verfoeide Europese Unie eigenlijk is ontstaan. ‘Toen ik na tien jaar intensief werken uit het Brusselse complex stapte, merkte ik al snel dat de buitenwereld totaal geen weet heeft van wat daar allemaal gebeurt. Tot in Brussel toe. En dat terwijl het allemaal zaken zijn die het publiek aan gaan. Daarom heb ik dit boek geschreven,’ zegt Siebelink, die een Twitterpagina heeft: @Europewatcher.

Carla Joosten, redacteur Europa, Elsevier Magazine

Mei 2010

Interessant en vlot lezend overzicht van de hoogtepunten van de Europese integratie.

Jean-Luc Dehaene, Europarlementariër en voormalig eerste minister van België