In identically Bill-Brysonesque dust jackets, these two books seek to rediscover Europe by means of modern-day Grand Tours. Nick Middleton sticks to existing members of the Union, including recherché outposts like Ceuta and Helsinki, while Nicholas Fraser ventures east to Poland, Russia and Bosnia. Middleton wants to find out if Germans really are humourless, Scandinavians suicidal and Spaniards given to throwing live goats off church steeples; Fraser – an Anglo-Frenchman who amazed his prep-school masters by collecting stamps of Resistance heroes – hopes that Europeanness can be ‘made to mean something outside the passport queue’. With unification half-complete, is there any such thing as a European?
Inevitably, the two authors cover much the same ground. Both visit First World War battlefields, citing them as justification for the end of nation-state nationalism. Both register unease at their own reactions to the concentration camps. Fraser skips a repeat visit to Auschwitz, ‘mistrusting’ his habit of dropping in every time he goes to Cracow; at Dachau, Middleton feels ‘more like a voyeur than I had wandering around the prostitutes’ shop windows in Amsterdam’. Both see the Regional Development Fund notices that plaster Irish public works, remarking that the European ideal is more popular in small, poor countries than in big, rich ones, and both use cut-and-paste Belgium as a metaphor for the EU itself. ‘Belgium’, a film-maker tells Fraser, ‘is the equivalent of the famous Magritte picture of a pipe, but with the inscription “ceci n’est pas un pays” over the map.’ Both make hay with Eurospeak, but, although Middleton has some funny stories on a stint harmonising wet appliances – that’s washing-up machines – for the Danish Energy Agency, Fraser is outstanding on the weird combination of impotence, folie de grandeur and faith-healer enthusiasm that is the European Commission:
Self-evidently imperfect the Union might be, but it still shone each day with clerkly busyness, recomposing itself as an ideal bureaucratic creation, as if the European élite had at some point been shipped en masse to a large, blank hangar whence, after listening to Schiller and consuming chocolate spiked with the untruth drug, they returned federalised, blessed with optimism.
Of the two, Fraser’s book is the classier production. While Middleton backpacks from eccentric museum to lonely restaurant, musing on a Bavarian alp ‘with the unfortunate name of Wank’ and the fact that every sixth sheet of lavatory paper in his Berlin hotel is printed with the word Danke, Fraser goes about netting heavyweight interviewees. Norman Foster confides his difficulties designing a dignified yet non-triumphal eagle for the revamped Reichstag, Umberto Eco deplores the end-of-millennium information glut (‘How do you know something will be useful any more?’ he asks. ‘How do you acquire information about information?’) and a series of dapper Enarques deftly expound, ‘taking no less and no more than six minutes’, their mania for administration. Briefly, he even gets hold of Jimmy Goldsmith, booming over his mobile phone.
Fraser’s conclusion, modishly, is that lack of definition is an integral part of the European identity.
Scepticism, I felt, was right for the end of an often bad century, and it was right for Europe, where there was no escaping the weight of experience. My only regret was that the word, which described the only attitude an intelligent person could take to the real European future, had been wrenched from its true meaning and set to propagandist work. Still … I had faith that one day the quality of scepticism would be reclaimed and enshrined in Brussels. I resolved to keep faith in the quality of doubt. I would continue to believe that Europe existed, not for the arrogant superstructure currently implied in its official existence, but for the tradition of uncertainty itself. That was how I would be a European.
Middleton’s view, sensible enough but never really explained, is that despite the ubiquitous tacky souvenirs and fast food, Europe will remain a various place, and that the European Union is ‘fundamentally a good idea’. His book opens clumsily (being a geographer, he tells us, ‘covers a multitude of sins’), but he has an eye for the quotidian realities of Western life – the malls, the motorways, the industrial suburbs – and an endearing weakness for bad jokes. Once he got into his stride I wished his advance had let him trek to further-flung bits of the EU – Guadeloupe, Réunion, French Guiana. And on the slippery question of national identity, he extracts an unbeatable quote from the son of a Polish friend in Rome. Does he feel Polish, Italian, or European? ‘I feel normal’, the six-year old replies.