The EU: From Medieval to Modern Empire?

The Eurozone is in trouble.  Commentators usually interpret the currency crisis as partially a result of a lack of central coordination. This diagnosis leads to calls for centralized economic governance at the European level. The reasoning goes that a central decision-maker is more effective, decisive, and can wield the full range of monetary instruments. This will restore the markets trust in the Euro. The question then becomes how to reshape the EU’s institutions. The current debate on the Euro-zone reminded me of earlier debates about the EU. Certainly, when a complex metaphor re-entered the European political arena: the EU as an empire.

The phrase never really left popular discourse. It is perhaps most powerfully expressed through imagery in which the European flag is combined with the one of the Holy Roman Empire (above) or more detestably with Nazi symbolism. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte implicitly reintroduced it into political discourse when he argued in a leaked paper in favour of turning Euro-members unable to comply with monetary guidelines into wards of Brussels. I found it particularly interesting how this changes the use of the term empire. Therefore, let me take you back to earlier usage of Europe as empire.

In academic circles, Jan Zielonka arguably made the phrase most famous through his book: Europe as empire: the nature of the enlarged European Union. He argues that since the enlargement with ten new member states, the EU can no longer think about itself as a nation-state. Instead, it makes more sense (and is more desirable) to take the Holy Roman Empire as a model. This medieval empire was, so he argues, relatively peaceful, whilst having multiple centres of government. These centres ruled over often overlapping territories. The EU is similar in many regards, because different policy issues are dealt with at different levels by different authorities. Hence, this model of empire, Zielonka argues, is desirable, because it takes into account the heterogeneity of (political) cultures within the EU.

In a similar vein, President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso described the European Union as a non-imperial empire.  Thus, the idea of empire also entered political discourse. Barroso stresses the importance of pooling of sovereignty. The European Union is not ruled with an iron hand from the centre, but governments come together voluntarily to create policies for their own benefit. For example, several countries aimed to make themselves more competitive in the world market via the introduction of a common currency: the Euro.

However, recently, the political discourse on the Eurozone (and its slipstream the EU) has changed, in part, because of economic pressures on the Euro. In the 2011 Spinelli debate, Fischer argued that sovereignty means very little without the economic power to pay for political decisions. Thus, he continued, it was necessary to further integrate the European economic markets. The currency crisis means further integration or rather centralisation of economic governance is also necessary. The paradox of this line of reasoning is clear, namely if the States want to retain sovereignty then they have to actually sacrifice sovereignty in an unprecedented matter. No longer can they keep the sovereign power of economic decision-making. Here, the economic union starts to become re-imagined, if not as an empire, at least as a federation.

Premier Rutte’s plan implicitly evokes the idea of empire. The paper talks about ‘wards’ and ‘guardianship’. The policy would mean an external auditor can end up drafting the budget of a failing Eurozone member rather than the national government. Moreover, the Eurozone member would lose its voting rights at the European level. Europe as Empire, in this intepretation, seems very imperial indeed. It is a paternalistic centre ‘caring’ for its weak members in other words enforcing its will. This use of empire in political discourse is both different from that of Zielonka and Barosso. Their descriptions of the European Union as an empire aimed more to describe and justify the newly emerging complex system of governance with shared, yet mixed responsibilities between different authorities. Rather than to describe let alone justify further integration or for that matter supranational centralisation.[1]

Rutte’s plan does contain an interesting echo of democracy. The plan argues that failing member-states can choose to leave the Eurozone or else they voluntarily have to submit to the ‘ward status’. In other words, this plan does not impede on democratic sovereignty. However, the incongruence between the plans imperialistic concepts, like guardianship, in addition to its actual policy of external agencies drafting national budgets make this invocation of the idea of sovereignty look rather superficial. This is even more so if we accept that Fischer’s rationale of political sovereignty without economic strength might ‘force’ States to opt for economic guardianship.

That being said, Rutte’s terminology is arguably much more congruent with popular understandings of empire. These often refer to the (early) modern empires of Europe. These sovereign political entities subjected other countries to their rule for economic benefit. In this context, Barosso’s non-imperial empire seems a contradiction-in-terms. In Rutte’s policy, we can find a metamorphosis of the metaphor of empire. The need for stronger economic coordination transforms Europe as empire from medieval to modern.

This leaves us with the question: how plausible is this type of central empire? A closer look at current political developments might be illuminating.  Merkel and Sarkozy’s proposal for a European economic government interprets supranational centralization in a particular way. The coordinating institution is not an independent auditor or the ‘bureaucratic’ Commission. Instead, in addition to the introduction of tax harmonisation and budget regulations, they opt for the European Council to meet twice yearly and national governments to change national constitutions and legislation in order to make firm ‘European’ decisions possible. They choose the pooling of sovereignty of democratic states over any idea of imperial rule by Brussels. Thus, they seem to opt for a ‘neo-medieval’ empire type solution.

Yet, I will not be surprised if the metaphor of modern empire stays around. The call of EU for national unity in the Greek parliament and, only today, of  Italian society for economic reform packages shows that European economic interest might well influence national not-so-sovereign democratic politics. Euro-sceptics might well describe it as an act of empire over democracy. In a similar vein, a recent commentator points out that the European Central Bank dictated the exact measures to fight the Euro-crisis to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Moreover, they apparently advised him to implement them through emergency procedures to avoid the long process of parliamentary approval. This might well be sound economic advice, but it raises important questions, such as: are we sacrificing democracy for economic gain? And maybe more importantly, if yes, do we think this is worth it?

[1] Zielonka does point out imperial tendencies in forcing new member states to comply with the EU’s economic, political and legal requirements. However, here, empire is meant as a disqualification and not a justification. Arguably, this is the image of a modern colonial empire instead of the medieval Holy Roman Empire.


  • Lucas Freire says:

    A major improvement in the flag :)

  • Haha Lucas, your insights into European politics are always enlightening to us!

    I do wonder whether most people will actually care a lot about democratic politics or whether a sort of performance-focussed permissive consensus is still in place for the European project. I see riots in Greece, and protests in other countries, but the majority seems silent or at least not actively engaging.

  • Lucas Freire says:

    Thanks for the text, JP. It seems to me that right now (at the governmental level) it’s more about whether it works rather than democratic values. But, then, aren’t both connected these days? Rutte indeed has a point in a purely “Olsonian” perspective – there has to be an incentive structure for compliance, especially when member-states start to defect because they change their perception about the efficiency of the EU, just like when workers in a heavily regulated labour market who had initially benefitted from trade unions Ponzi schemes realise the whole thing is flawed and then have to be “coerced” so they don’t quit.

  • Mike says:

    An Empire it might be – but it won’t last – because it’s people don’t want it …

    • Dear Mike,

      Thank you for your comment. Some might say it is an empire exactly because the people do not want it. But your concern is relevant indeed: one might well wonder whether democratic states should want impose a political system without popular consent – in one form or another.

      I would be very interested to know whether you think the EU should just disappear completely or that people’s opinion should be sought out on the issue? and how and why?

  • […] in favour of a federal Europe might well be seen as a contribution to this debate. Others, such as Mike, who commented on my previous post, argue against any kind of European Union. One of the factors […]

  • Gaz says:

    Thanks for this article, its a great insight into the future the EU’s integration theory!
    Just a question; you have been observing I guess, the latest role of the EU in Kosovo through its EULEX mission. Isnt this another form of coercion by the EU against a country* that has a (somehow) democratic government that does not necessarely agree to some terms & conditions put forward by the EU?
    I mean; the Kosovo government has always followed what the EU has said anyway, but the point I am trying to make is that there are many prominent figures within the Kosovo government that oppose the EU’s arbitrary rules. And moreover, as you have touched on your article, can we compare and contrast the EU’s empire – type approach against Greece too?
    What are your thoughts of these two examples?
    Thank you


    * I am aware of the ongoing debate and some objections internationally about the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo in 2008 – but I think it is irrelevant to what I am trying to understand.

    • Dear Gaz,

      Thank you for your response and apologies for getting back to them so late. You raise several interesting points. Kosovo seems to have similarities to the Greek case in the public’s resistance. However, I belief the model of empire as presented lacks the necessary sophistication to compare the two cases.

      Just to offer you my broad thoughts on the subject. I am not sure I would characterise the mission as an imposition of arbitrary rules. However, I would not be surprised that the EU has made demands and that these change. These might not be shared by the government or all within it and there have of course been protests/riots against the mission. More in general, there might be other issues involved in transnational partnerships and development missions. You could also wonder in how far the EU differs from (large) states? Don’t they all try to influence their neighbours?

      The empire perspective is, I believe, able to make sense of the fact that the EU can influence policy beyond its borders. In effect, you draw attention to a modern empire model. It could be used to understand EU involvement in Kosovo as a form of paternal rule over a sovereign population. The resistance understands it this way. Yet, the politics behind resistance might be more diverse than such a simple dichotomy between democratic sovereign people and foreign invader. However, you asked to compare and contrast. You mention Greece. It is the same with regard to the dynamics of resistance. However, Greece is arguably different from Kosovo as it is part of the EU. I belief that the empire model lacks the necessary sophistication to compare and contrast.

      The distinction is primarily between a partnership – although I am sure this term is contested – between the EU and another country and an internal imposition of sanctions. This difference in circumstance would I imagine impact the type of policies and negotiation strategies: more or less demanding/paternalistic. This would require research to investigate the similarities and differences of which I am not aware, but would surely be interesting.

      Thank you I hope my thoughts make sense,

      Jan Pieter

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