EU opinion & policy debates - across languages |


Governing Europe is a monumental task, so it behoves us to learn from other points in history when we undertook other monumental tasks in government. Therefore, I am of the position that the lessons of 19th century imperial  governance hold many lessons for a people who have hyper-prioritised the importance of nations. I have put a lot of thought into this topic and this article will be lengthy, with a lot of meaty theory before we even arrive at the practical lessons. Be forewarned.

Empire is a packed word. Much has been done under Imperial banners to earn it’s, rightful, villainous reputation. Despite this, the word remains powerful in our conciousness. Instead of evoking the atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo (Sorry Belgium), it often evokes figures such as Alexander the Great, Tamerlane and Napoléon. We cannot help to romanticise men who stood at the height of their age and, for good or for bad, history will continue to remember such men long after all of us return to the dust. I have come here to exhume Caesar, not to praise him.

The springtime of nations that led to the dissolution of Imperial rule, catalysed by the weakening of Europe from the two World Wars and the Great Depression set back globalisation and global integration considerably. The world retreated and the nation-state, the singular authority for and voice of it’s people, gained prominence.

It was once related to me that there is principally three constitutions of polities: city-states, nation-states and Empires. The nation-state model was said to me to have prevailed because it’s capacity for war. City-states were said to be the most suited for economic activity and empires were most suited for maintaining stability and order within multi-national polities.

I am fascinated by empires: always have been. It is a character defect that I hope you, dear reader, will forgive me for. I wanted to explain the difference between countries with strong national centres against countries with no national centres. My answer is that not every country is a nation-state.

Particularly in the case of western monarchies, the countries seem to be “Imperial” in constitution rather than a “nation-state”. I identify the chief, systemic difference between the two to be the concept of the sovereign.

In nation-states, the sovereign is a strong and exclusive force of the nation itself. The state is the nation and the nation is the state. Devolution becomes a ridiculous notion and authority of the state rings with the voice of it’s people. It allows the state to act with self-assuredness, knowing that it represents the vox populi; regardless of whether or not such a vox populi exists. This sort of thinking leads to strong, centralised, unitary governments. This is also a poor descriptor of those monarchies.

Imperial constitution, in my eyes, is the adherence to a constructed sovereign, rather than an ethnic one. It is countries unified by a symbol rather a resounding “we are!” Whether this symbol is one such as a crown, in the cases of Belgium, Spain and the UK or a more republican one, such as the US declaration of independence, I believe makes little difference. These governments are established not to lead a single people, but a number of different people; the English are not the United Kingdom. I believe this is why Canada, in the 1960’s moved to create nationally neutral symbols, such as the current flag; an ensign with the British union flag is a tough sell for those who identify as ethnic Frenchmen. This sort of sovereign is weaker than nationalism, but it isn’t exclusive. It is actively inclusive and seeks to make engage others outside of the national borders of the central power of the Empire: Rome was as much her provinces as Italy, the British Empire ran on the ingenuity of Scottish industrialists and Indian bureaucrats.


This concept of a “sovereign” seems superficial at first glance. After all, the living conditions and norms between “empires” and “nation-states” in the Western World are almost indistinguishable. However, if we look at British 19th century colonial administration in Africa compared with French colonial administration, we notice two very distinct methods emerge. French Africa was administered, roughly, as a part of France. French government institutions were established. However, in British Africa, existing power structures were integrated into the empire. Local rulers were often not supplanted, but were forced to swear allegiance to the British Empire. This gave Britain less direct control, but made the local populations a more active participant in the act of government.

Empires make use of autonomy to get local populations to buy into the power structure, rather than try to overturn local cultures. This is not unique to Britain either. We see the Ottoman Turks behaving much the same way with their minorities, giving political and religious autonomy in exchange for paying of the Jizya tax. This is also why special allowances  and privileges are given to communities within “Imperial” structures. Devolution to regional parliaments is exactly the same logic as the British colonial administration: holding an “empire” together is difficult and it is better for Belgium that Flanders to rule itself within Belgium than without.

With my thoughts on Empires in general expressed, we may now turn to a Federal Europe and the notion of Empire. The informed reader will note, I am not the first person to pursue this idea. Jan Zielonka wrote a book making a case for Europe as a neo-medieval empire. This is to say, not a single hierarchy, but rather multiple interconnected but parallel hierarchies of authority with multiple centres of recourse. For example, in the middle ages, someone with a grievance could seek recourse with ecclesiastical or secular authorities, were the problem with one or another.

I reject the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) as a model in favour of more recent incarnations of empires, because the HRE was not a cohesive political political structure and often fell prey to the machinations of its strongest members. It had no potential to project its will beyond its borders, especially after the advent of Protestantism in the modern age, when the Empire and what little authority it had disintegrated.  Beyond this, the HRE was primarily a German affair, despite having Italian members; indeed, it was das erste deutsche Reich. While the HRE has lessons to teach us still, I do not believe there is a basis for multi-national governance in it’s example.

Therefore, two principal lessons are apparent.

Firstly, a united Europe will require a symbol to act as sovereign to the to-be nascent polity. This cannot be a “national” identity, because the people of Europe already have national identities. This means Europe will need something Europeans can point to with pride that makes them identify with Europe next to, if not ahead of, their national attachments. A European crown seems unlikely solution, so a united Europe would need something akin to the US Declaration of Independence: more ideally, a Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen. Were it up to me and I was looking to fostering pan-Europeanism behind a symbol, I would look to create something like that, something that is really from the people that transcends the nation. Something that affirms the values of the average European are the value of Europe. One might decry this as populism, but as a former actor, I cannot stress enough the importance of a good bit of theatre. People live with their hearts as well as their heads, and while the EU makes a lot of sense, it does not inspire. It does not stir the soul and lift men and women to action. It should. It should inspire fire like the 1848 liberal revolutions. It is an incredible feat that the current climate has become grey and unremarkable, when it is a tinderbox for idealism. Europe is and always was a promise of a better tomorrow: even in the dark days overcast by the Greek crisis. That’s why It shouldn’t be difficult to find something to appeal to everyone and not just those who draw benefit from internationalism.

Secondly,  surprising none of my regular readers to hear me say this, a united Europe must be a Europe whose nations have autonomy. This has almost become a theme of my writing here. The urge to centralise is a mistake when forming governments representing diverse populations and should be avoided. It’s a simple democratic ideal; a voluntary participant is going to be a more productive participant than one compelled to action. This is an important lesson from our imperial past. The principle of subsidiarity must be upheld. It is the crux of the whole federal idea. To forget this will invite disaster.


This concludes my series on Federalism. It might seem whimsically impractical and out of touch with reality to talk about federalism with the crisis in Greece. I think the general myopia of analysts to look at this problem as an ideological or economic debate between two antagonistic parties is the same core problem that the institutions have developed in general in Europe. The core issue isn’t ideological. It’s not the Germans against Tsipras. The core of the issue is the impact of this posturing on the man on the street. There is a problem here and fighting over it is just going to hurt the very people who are being used for justification for this petty power struggle. It’s very easy for me to say the things I do. I talk about things to which I have a 3000km buffer between them and me. I don’t pretend that sorting these issues is as simple as walking to the corner store. I get that, I’m talking about long-term strategic objectives for a continent. There isn’t anything simple in that sentence. The moral is that despite this, we can’t lose sight of the small things. The people in Greece who are being affected by this crisis cannot be too small. They cannot be let to fall through the cracks, despite the politicians they chose in the face of adversity. You want a moment to inspire people? You want to build a symbol for Europe to rally around? Then stand up and show Europe what European solidarity is. I’ve seen “good Europeans” sour over the past year. I’ve spoken with friends who have become jaded in the face of “corporate interests”. There is a million reasons not to do any particular action. We have to ignore the excuses we make for ourselves and take the paths that lead us where we want to be.

I hope these past weeks have provided you, the readers, with reading of interest or use.

Author :
EurActiv Network