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.
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?
 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.