The European Union is an empire. Empires are often unwilling to describe themselves as such. My own effort would be «numbers of ethnically diverse peoples who have a political and economic history together». To that I would add, «History tells us that empires sooner or later collapse when the benefits of a common economy no longer mask the ethnic strains.» Sprinkled into those definitions I would add «ethnicity never goes away»…
Because so much of world history – indeed all of world history – concerns the rising and falling of empires we tend only to notice when one collapses and when that happens we are astonished, look at the stability of existing empires thus assuring ourselves that what we just saw happen was an anomaly.
It’s easy now to see the break-up of the British Empire yet when I was a young person, 60 years ago, I would look upon as mad anyone who would have predicted its demise. ¼ of the map was in red, wasn’t it? Stirring songs were sung at appropriate moments! We were all brothers under the same banner.
Yet it ended in historical terms, in a flash. As it was when the Roman Empire split, as it was when the Soviet Union, seen by most of the world as impregnable, broke up, relatively peacefully something amongst world statesman except Churchill could not foresee. On that score, however, Churchill couldn’t see the break-up of the British Empire right before his eyes.
Let’s look at the European Union and its brief history as an empire and see what we shall see. Probably its kick-start came from Churchill’s famous Zurich speech in 1946 where he called upon France and Germany to unite economic interests, especially with coal and steel. While he spoke of a United States of Europe he saw the Soviet Union and the «English Speaking World» not as participants but cheerleaders. He also saw the main object as being peace in this long-suffering continent.
Almost from the start, the great dichotomy developed – how much political unity was needed to make the economic arrangements work? And it was at this point where the word «credibility» arises as two essential factions emerged – those who saw a political union and those who saw only an economic one. Neither side had any credibility because both were, constantly, lying through their teeth. During the long «reign» of Jacques Delors as president as starting in 1985 the notion of one political union became etched in stone but – here’s that «credibility» word again – never quite spitting it out. He revitalized the long-stalled EC, pushing through reforms and overseeing the entry into force of both the Single European Act (1987) and the Maastricht Treaty (1993), the latter of which created the EU. The name progressed from implying an economic coalition to a sort of super «confederation». Delors downplayed the political unification while doing all he could to breathe life into it. The UK, under Thatcher and Major saw clearly what was happening and resisted – sort of. Up to a point but never quite to «the» point.
I would argue that the European Union has failed already over the issue of a common currency and again we see the «c» word for how can a union present itself as such if some members refuse to join the common currency? No matter how you paper it over, if you don’t look like an economic union you are not seen as one. And, speaking of appearances, how can you be a fiscal union when member countries have individual economic systems, which must be fiscally coddled by the larger systems, which raises the bigger question – what happens if the larger ones say, «To hell with it, you’re on your own». This problem is exacerbated if the better off «states» disagree as to whether or not a basket case member state should be bailed out and, if so, by whom and in what proportions. At present, Britain wants no part of packages to the poor and surely the day will come and not too long from now when German voters will have had enough of being the Santa Claus that comes down chimneys with packages of goodies all year long.
Now we must deal with the elephant in the room, which gets harder and harder ignore – ethnicity. I have argued elsewhere and do say again «Ethnicity» never goes away. We saw with the break-up of Yugoslavia neighbours who had lived side by side for centuries, suddenly and literally, at each other’s throats. A «nation» cannot, surely, be a nation unless everyone is welcome everywhere. This issue is especially in the forefront in France and the UK. In fact it has already become the major issue for the next British election. How can it be said that there is a union when there is resistance to a common currency and the free mobility of people?
Getting back to the beginning, can it be said that whatever its failings, the EU has kept the peace? The difficulty in making such an assurance is that history shows that most empires that crumble have never looked stronger than in their last days. With hindsight one can see the stresses and strains that only become obvious after the event.
Let me close with a personal anecdote. In 1988 along with a group I was in the beautiful twin city of Budapest. This was a year before the «wall» cane down. I spent an afternoon on my own in the city centre and came back to my group. I reported that the regime was in trouble.
Why? Because the illegal moneychangers were plying their trade right under the noses of the police. The regime no longer had any credibility. Does the EU have credibility within itself and to the outer world? Do those within the union have confidence in one another?
Would I as a Canadian recommend that my country get more involved with the EU? Not a chance.
Are there signs of serious weakness in the EU? Doesn’t the position of the UK now and prospective answer that question? Ironically, where Churchill saw the paramount need for economic thus political peace between France and Germany it might be the failure of those two countries that doom the experiment.