Alarums and Excursions

Improvising Politics on the European Stage

Luuk van Middelaar

£20.00  |  $30.00
ISBN 9781788212779
£20.00  |  $30.00
ISBN 9781788211727
£20.00  |  $30.00
ISBN 9781788211734
320 pages   |  234 x 156mm   |  20 February 2020


"... refreshing and perceptive ... Van Middelaar is a more thoughtful guide than most to these [EU] institutions and events, in part because he brings the eye of a political theorist to his years working for the European Council president." – Alex Barker, Financial Times

"Part insider memoir and part commentary, this is probably the best analysis yet to appear of how the EU managed its recent crises over refugees, Ukraine, and the euro. Van Middelaar ... repackages the EU establishment consensus in prose largely free of jargon and footnotes. He convincingly shows that the EU has been surprisingly successful at managing crises – although, in keeping with the conventional wisdom in Brussels, he suggests some moderate reforms designed to bolster its power and legitimacy." – Andrew Moravcsik, Foreign Affairs

"Van Middelaar’s conceptualizations add clarity and distil the emerging patterns of European politics. He writes succinctly and elegantly, moving seamlessly between Machiavelli and the nitty-gritty of daily EU politics ... should be required reading for scholars, practitioners and interested members of the public alike." – Leonard Schuette, International Affairs

"Highly recommended if you are interested in understanding present day Europe (and the EU)." – Alberto Nardelli, Buzzfeed News

"An elegant and magisterial follow-up to his 2013 study, The Passage to Europe ... Van Middelaar writes in a literary style which is immensely pleasurable to read and lards the texts with insights from classical philosophers and strategists which further enhance the pleasure."  – Martin Westlake, European Political Science Review

"One of the most thoughtful and uncompromising books to appear on the EU in recent years. It should be widely read by EU specialists and used as a core text for EU studies in advanced graduate seminars." – Mark Gilbert, Journal of Common Market Studies

"While it reads like a thriller, this book provides one of the most lucid and profound analyses of European politics in recent years ... This perspicuous, arresting, and insightful book on Europe is a must-read for every practitioner, student and scholar interested in the Union." – Johann Justus Vasel, European Journal of International Law

"Van Middelaar, a former adviser to Herman Van Rompuy, is a very fine writer and academic, and has penned the most insightful and original book on this era of European politics." – Florian Eder, Politico Brussels Playbook

"brilliant ... his discussion of the high politics of migration is the best thing yet written on the subject."  – Christopher Hill, "Book of the Week", Times Higher Education

"... a brilliant series of case studies that illuminate different points in the creation of a new European political theater unscripted by the innumerable treaties and rules that created the EU as we know it today." – James McAuley, New York Review of Books

"This splendid new volume, written by perhaps the ultimate ‘insider’ ... is far more than an insider’s account of the current dilemmas of the EU ... The author pursues a fascinating discussion on the nature of ‘opposition’ as perceived in Brussels ... [and] also exposes the way in which constitutional and procedural ‘depoliticisation’ is used to place certain policy options outside the political arena, removing from view those responsible for a given decision ... will become perhaps one of the most important texts for students, teachers and would-be reformers for many years to come.” – Derek Hawes, Journal of Contemporary European Studies

"Quite simply the most insightful book on Europe’s politics today. A unique blend of behind-the-scenes knowledge, compelling ideas and powerful political judgement. History is back, not as a script, Luuk van Middelaar shows, but as a living entity, and the choice is ours: do we want to play or be played? The book is a great toolkit, not only for a better performance of Europe’s political actors, but also to cope with the cheers and booing of the European public."  – Donald Tusk, president of the European Council

"Whatever our future relationship with the EU, our prosperity will be hugely dependent on understanding what it is, how it works, where it might be headed and what crises, beyond Brexit, it is trying to surmount. This book is a truly brilliant guide on all. It avoids all the fatuous lazy generalizations which so bedevil much UK debate, and points to the reforms that will be needed if the EU is to surmount the most formidable set of challenges it has faced since it was formed." – Sir Ivan Rogers, British Ambassador to the European Union, 2013–17

"With his fluid style and sharp eye for detail and context, Luuk van Middelaar has captured many of the critical themes with which Europe must grapple over the coming years. Even as an eye witness to many of these events, I found reading his book rewarding as his observations often provide new insights and valuable distillations of complicated issues." – Anthony Gardner, US Ambassador to the European Union, 2014–17

"Lively and well-informed ... offers thought-provoking insights into the European Union, its ways of working and its many challenges, both historical and contemporary." – Prof Dame Helen Wallace FBA

"An elegantly-written study of how European Union politics changed in response to the dramatic political events of recent years. The book combines the inside knowledge of a participant in the theatre of European politics with the critical distance of the political theorist. It is neither a partisan defence of the European Union nor a pessimistic prophecy of doom, but a cool analysis of the role of European institutional structures and of key personalities."  – Bruno De Witte, Professor of European Law, Maastricht University and European University Institute

"a fascinating take on events in recent European history" – Matthew Partridge, MoneyWeek

"Vivid accounts of the crises that have marked the transition of the European institutions over the past six years ... a must read." – Peter Kenyon, The Chartist


Crisis after crisis has beset the European Union in recent years – Greek sovereign debt, Russian annexation of Crimea, unprecedented levels of migration, and the turmoil created by Brexit. An organization originally designed to regulate and enforce rules about fishing rights, wheat quotas and product standards has found itself on the global stage forced to grapple with problems of identity, sovereignty and solidarity without a script or prompt. From Paris to Berlin, London to Athens, European leaders have had to improvise on issues that the Union was never set up to handle and which threaten to engulf this unique political entity. And they have had to do so in full view of an increasingly disenchanted and dissonant public audience.

In this candid and revealing portrayal of a Europe improvising its way through a politics of events and not rules, Luuk van Middelaar makes sense of the EU’s political metamorphosis over its past ten years of crisis management. Forced into action by a tidal wave of emergencies, Van Middelaar shows how Europe has had to reinvent itself by casting off its legal straitjacket and confronting hard issues of power, territorial borders and public authority.

Alarums and Excursions showcases the fascinating relationship between the Union and the European heads of government, and the stresses it must withstand in dealing with real world events. For anyone seeking to understand the inner power play and constitutional dynamics of this controversial, but no less remarkable, political institution, this book provides compelling reading.



1. Improvising: the euro crisis
2. Negotiating: the Ukraine crisis
3. Setting boundaries: the refugee crisis
4. Uprising: the Atlantic crisis

5. Two foundations
6. Directors and actors
7. The opposition takes the stage

Author Information

Luuk van Middelaar is a historian and political theorist. In his role as a speechwriter and close advisor to the president of the European Council (2010–15), van Middelaar witnessed the political theatre of Europe from the front row. He is currently a professor at the Europa Institute of Leiden University. His previous book, The Passage to Europe (winner of the 2012 European Book Prize) has been translated into more than ten languages. He was advisor to the acclaimed BBC programme, Inside Europe: Ten Years of Turmoil (2019).