Here’s a reading list for Cathy Ashton, as she swots up for her first outing as EU High Representative next week

Poor Cathy Ashton has been given only seven days to master the key history books that explain modern Europe, before being flung into the maelstrom that will be the brand new job of High Representative of the European Union, it has been reported. It’s the ultimate “essay crisis”.

Last-minute panic revision still induces nightmares in graduates for several years after their finals — I still get them now, a quarter of a century later — so here’s a reading list for Baroness Ashton of Upholland on the basis that she can spend the whole week reading books at the rate of one a day. All were published in 2009 and each is written with scholarship, erudition and wit.

The Inheritance of Rome, by Chris Wickham, is a history of Europe from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD410 until AD1000, and proves that the Dark Ages weren’t dark at all. If Europe has any social, cultural and intellectual underpinnings as a concept, they are to be found there, and also in Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe.

What goes wrong if — or more likely, when — the European project fails is hauntingly recounted in Peter H. Wilson’s Europe’s Tragedy, a history of the Thirty Years’ War that scarred the Continent between 1618 and 1648. Conversely, to remind Lady Ashton of the inestimable advantages of the principles of the English-speaking peoples over European dirigisme, America, Empire of Liberty by David Reynolds could provide the template by which Europe could survive.

That her own country, the United Kingdom, is at best a soi-disant player in the whole process will be underlined for Lady Ashton by the superb A World by Itself, which is a new history of the British Isles edited by Dr Jonathan Clark, with fine contributions from, among others, William D. Rubinstein, Jenny Wormald and Robert Skidelsky. Six authors taking the story of Britain from AD500 to the present day over 724 pages might seem testing, but rarely has our island story been put in better historical perspective.

It might seem otiose in a week when Lady Ashton needs to mug up on Europe to mention Martin Jacques’ fine book When China Rules the World, but it perfectly illustrates what might happen if the EU simply appeases its rivals, warbling on endlessly about “partnership” and not spotting the future dangers. The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World might sound a hyperbolic subtitle to those who don’t fear the long-term threats posed by China, but Lady Ashton should certainly master its arguments.

Finally, Martyrs and Murderers: The Guise Family and the Making of Europe is Stuart Carroll’s story of the 16th and 17th-century French dynasty that perfected the black arts of propaganda, ruthlessness, well-timed treachery and elegantly ambitious power-broking. After five years in her new job dealing with the Brussels bureaucracy, I suspect that Cathy Ashton will know why I recommended that book.

– Andrew Roberts