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Excerpt: The EU as a revived medieval empire

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This is a free excerpt from our deep dive into an alternative way of viewing the European Union. Rather than seeing this institution from the lens of a classical state, we argue the European Union’s power structure more closely resembles that of a medieval empire; the Holy Roman Empire.

When Boris Johnson cheekily suggested this week that Emmanuel Macron’s European Political Community proposal would allow for the creation of a modern Roman Empire he missed one crucial thing.

We have already rebuilt a Roman Empire in Europe – it’s just not the Roman Empire you’re thinking of.

It is instead the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), that funny political entity founded in 962 AD that at one point dominated Western, Central, and Southern Europe, and then mostly limped along until its dissolution in 1806.

You see, sometimes, the most obvious historical metaphors are not the most appropriate. Centuries since the final passing of the original Roman Empire, we forget what the classical polity’s expanding principle was founded on; military dominance. From a Greek or Carthaginian perspective, the old Romans were total smooth brains (which is meme-talk for a small brain surface area). They used their muscle, not their nous. Remember how their pantheon is basically a ctrl-c ctrl-v of the Greeks? The Greeks certainly do.

The European Union’s lack of a common military thus undermines any comparison to the classical Roman Empire.

But stretching through Central, Western, and Eastern Europe, from Rome to modern-day Poland, with an elective system of leadership chosen by shockingly different member polities, a leadership based primarily on consensus-keeping and internal stability, and a top-down system of laws that flowed from this leading institution… wait a second! Are we still talking about the Holy Roman Empire, or did we just unconsciously describe the European Union?

Neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire by textbook definitions, the new one based in Brussels bears uncanny similarities to the old papal-based one.

In fact, for its empire credentials, you needn’t look too far beyond its structural foundations. 

Some, for example, have traced the root of some of the EU’s core institutions to Hitlerian sources. The late Paul Einzig, economic and political columnist at the Financial News, which later became the Financial Times, was one of those who noted in 1971 that Europe’s common market could link itself to Hitler’s plan for political and economic integration in Europe; a.k.a Hitler’s New Economic Order. In his book, The Case Against Joining the Common Market, he explained how the structure was actually the brainchild of Dr Walter Funk, Minister of National Economy of the Third Reich. It was based, he said, on the idea of offering a system of stabilising agricultural prices for European agriculture to remain competitive against the wider world.

The scheme was praised by economist Mr C. W. Guillebaud in the British Economic Journal in 1940, and it was even noted positively by the then already eminent John Maynard Keynes: “I am sure this is a view… which deserves ventilation. We shall make a bad peace if we disregard the sort of things which Guillebaud is emphasising.”

As Einzig noted:

On the basis of the above evidence, I feel justified in describing the common market – the economic integration of the continent, based on Professor Hallstein’s common agricultural policy — as an idea inherited from the Hitler regime. Of course, this fact by itself would not justify its rejection. But it is a matter of historic truth which should be placed on record, if only to prove that the common market can have no pride of ancestry.

Regardless of origin, the new Common Market would emerge out of something undeniably positive; uniting each other in business to stave off the powers of division.

Therefore, the European Union, this barely-Holy somewhat-Roman but-maybe-Empire has its central goal, peace, which it strives towards via the mechanism of prosperity, to be achieved through shared rules and incentives.

We hear you say: the European Union as an Empire?? That pathetically disunited, inefficient series of mostly secondary institutions, manned by an oyster-guzzling group of enthusiastic apparatchiks?

It certainly stretches our credulity too.

But there’s a reason why comparisons between Europe and its antecessors hold weight and are relevant even today — as Johnson has so enthusiastically confirmed.

What if, in a world filled with global states trying their hardest to loudly one-up each other with political, military influence, and grand designs, fragmenting the global rules-based order (if it ever existed), one globe-encompassing blob was quietly thriving? What if this blob, far from just holding monetary and regulatory power, is in the process of expanding economic and security objectives far beyond its borders too?

Maybe this is because it thinks power projection based on consensus and shared commitments is the best way forward in a fragmenting world, which makes it ideally suited for our times.

Or that in a world of chess players, it’s better to be playing scrabble.

How will the EU fare in a fragmenting political world?

In the latest Spot Markets Live, Marc Ostwald of ADM Investor Services commented on the novel imposition of a forced default on Russia, ‘it seems this is another part of a fracturing global payments system’.

Russia-related events have shone a spotlight on global questions surrounding fragmentation. Notably, they have highlighted the weakening of the US-dollar hegemony, and the brutal impact of rising multipolarity on our 90s-era globalised trade norms.

Considering that such events are taking place with Europe as centre-stage, and with Ukraine’s admission into the Western camp as the central ring, the question of Europe’s future in a fragmented world rises inevitably.

Many try to answer how the European Union and its member-states will fare; how will they face off against the rising power of China and the military impositions of Russia, while not being too dependent on the United States’ non-stop global adventurism. Surprisingly, most inevitably fail.

One cannot compare the EU and its member states to China, Russia, or the United States.

If countries are flocks of geese, a tight geese pack cautiously leads China’s flock. A quarrelling, strong and heavy-set pack of geese lead the United States. One scruffy, mischievous, and aggressive goose seems to lead Russia’s.

These flocks are what academics would call ‘Westphalian states’; states with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, a low degree of economic, cultural, legal, and military divergence together with a strong set of functional and territorially defined borders. Essentially, we know they are geese, they know they are geese, they fly like geese, towards what geese like.

The EU is certainly a flock – but it is a flock of geese, cocks, mallards, pigeons (and more), chaotically flying on different wind streams.

Nobody seems to be leading; nobody really knows the destination. Nobody really knows the goal.

But mysteriously, the pack holds together. And most surrounding geese eye this muddled flock with envy.

The EU is in many ways the opposite of a Westphalian state. Despite calls for a European army, despite its having a centralised currency, despite having a Parliament, and a Council, it fulfils almost none of the conditions for a modern nation-state. The EU has no monopoly on legitimate means of coercion, no real centre of authority, and consistently fluctuating borders.

It is composed of Westphalian states, spoken of as if it were a proto-Westphalian state, but it is no Westphalian state.

Any seeking to place the EU and its geopolitical rivals in the same analytical basket are therefore comparing apples to oranges.

And yet, the EU is a competitive geopolitical rival.

Despite the cries of nativists concerned at the erosion of national member-state sovereignty and critical of its liberalising softness, the Union’s sole focus, making friends, means it plods along, adding new members every decade – new deals, new rules, and new borders.

Its simple mission means those beyond its borders, or only partially inside, yearn for entry.

We’ve also seen how admission into this Union essentially tore Ukrainian politics apart, split between its Russophile and Europhile elites, having neared collapse in the Euromaidan protests. Choosing between an undefined blob and a defined state, Ukrainians chose the former.

The mainstream seem reticent to accurately qualify the power projection capabilities of the European Union because they seem so soft. But what if they are anything but?

Our imagining of the EU as an empire would typically flow from a European army, perhaps, or a fiscal union… but what if that were impossible. What if we needed to see the European Union’s power as coming from a completely different source?

What if, contrary to conventional political instinct, EU member-states have unwittingly found themselves as members of one of history’s largest and most confusingly powerful empires? One that is perhaps well-suited to the fragmentation of the unipolar, globalised world?

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