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Europe, a Unionized Empire? No thank you, an Imperial Union (and some irony)

Several years ago, the former President of the European Commission Barroso declared about the European Union: “We are a very special construction unique in the history of mankind. Sometimes I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organization of empire. We have the dimension of empire… Empires were usually made with force with a center imposing diktat, a will on the others. Now what we have is the first non-imperial empire”.

In Salerno, debating the future of Europe, political scientist Peter Gerlich, sociologist Han-Peter Müller and philosopher Johannes Weiss discussed in a fascinating manner the issue and generated in my mind the following thoughts.


Empire: “An extensive group of states or countries ruled over by a single monarch, an oligarchy, or a sovereign state”, Oxford Dictionary.


There is no such thing as a non-imperial empire, or at least I see no purpose in trying to discuss Barroso’s understandable timidity in facing a controversial issue. But the issue needs to be tackled nevertheless, especially at this moment, for reasons that will become clearer later on in this article: is Europe an empire or a union?

It helps if you allow me to provide a taxonomy of four possible situations.

First, the one of Imperial Unions. In these, there is no single monarch ruling a united group of states, but rather a tentative common government and possible shared responsibilities among states: indeed, a union. However, they together share an “imperial” trait, a distinguishing characteristic by which we mean the willingness to influence politics outside of their common border to a level that is often difficult to distinguish from a desire to rule such external countries. The United States of America is indeed an Imperial Union of States.

Then the non-imperial Unions. Switzerland and Tito’s Yugoslavia fit this definition. While their internal structure is indeed a Union of different territories with common government and shared responsibilities, their goal is or was not one of meddling into other countries dynamics, i.e. therefore the term non-imperial. While size might seem to be the key element to distinguish between imperial and non-imperial Unions, it might not always be the case: India may also possibly be included in the category of non-imperial Unions, although this can be questioned.

Then there are what I would call Unionized Empires: a group of countries ruled by a “single” monarch, but sharing a common goal. The Commonwealth or Russia (whether we are talking about Caterina the Great, Stalin or Vladimir Putin today) might indeed fit in.

Finally I see non-unionized Empires, where the expansionary or dominating desires of the ruler are not coinciding with the ones of the local countries ruled over: the Roman Empire or Nazi Germany (the one Hitler with all likelihood had in mind) are possibly cases of such an organization of territories.


This taxonomy is useful to understand the current debate on the future of Europe: does it choose to become an Imperial Union or a Unionized Empire? Evidently no other options among the four I described above are relevant.

What would a Unionized Empire of Europe look like today? I imagine we would have a set of countries that surrender more or less “voluntarily” their residual autonomy, ceding it to a ruler who would likely have the task to “standardize” structures, tastes, rules, cultures, possibly even setting in the long-term one only language. In the short-term, it would imply ceding at the national level full decision-making power over fiscal policy, centralizing decisions on budget allocation, local taxes and local spending. Ideally, in the mind of those who cherish this outcome, cultural differences would slowly decrease and a European soul would emerge from such top-driven process of homogenization. You might have noticed that this outcome is more and more cherished and sponsored by many European leaders, including Merkel, Renzi and Draghi himself, who are using it more frequently in their daily lexicon.

It would be, however, a terrible mistake to embark on such a journey at present: not only would it reduce further national economic policy discretion to face idiosyncratic, asymmetric, shocks, but it would also give fiscal power to one actor with little accountability to European voters (would the agenda setter of the budget process be a Greek or a German? A German I am sure.) Furthermore it would occupy lawyers’  and politicians’ agendas for many years to come, distracting them from the true needs of Europe today, removing the PAIN of the sick patient, i.e. putting an end to its disastrous economic performance in some regions (countries).

This process, to be sure, was not the one chosen by the Founding Fathers in the United States of America and certainly not the one that emerged at any point in time in their more than bicentennial history. There, with a lot of pragmatism, sometimes internal war, sometimes luck and the added blessing of some key moments of leadership, the process of keeping together cultures that were radically different (Alabama vs. Massachusetts) in the name of a common goal (initially “protection” from British intrusion, today one might argue ”invasion”, whether by weapons, political pressure or trade) proceeded slowly. They succeeded without centralizing fiscal policy but rather respecting local preferences (federal debt, spending and taxes were minimal compared to state and county ones, until the arrival of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 150 year after the creation of the US monetary union). Today the USA is a proud and strong Imperial Union, not fearful of exporting its values, as an empire is bound to do, respecting its internal, still existing, heterogeneity.

Umberto Eco said once: “the European language is translation”, hinting at the fact that the soul of Europe is in its national histories and cultures and that further integration cannot get away without respecting this proud past and the values embedded in it.

So we do have to contemplate seriously an alternative process, opting for an Imperial Union in Europe, uncherished by the European leaders quoted above. In it, we should forget about centralizing further fiscal policy but rather come to the rescue, as a union among equals must do, of the weakest part of the Union: Greece today, maybe one day Germany. By so doing, the virtuous circle would begin and a greater Unity would ensue thanks to the unanimous and permanent gratefulness that would arise from the assisted countries, willing at that point to even accelerate further on certain reforms that they refuse to do today under threat.

As Professor Weiss said, this second choice would require a quality that he himself believes is “completely lost among the Germans”: irony, the capacity to balance the life of individuals with the one of every community it finds itself bound to. He claims irony to be the “most European of all goods”, when it has not been ignored and done away most violently as in the first half of the past century.

This balancing act of irony, this modesty of understanding that knowledge is limited, has been absent so far in the recent construction of Europe: suffice it to remember the (in)famous words of the Lisbon Treaty that pompously argued for Europe to become the “most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world”, not even noticing how they strongly echoed the words of a great writer of the inter-war period, at loss with the lack of irony of his contemporary Europe which he called Kakania: “Kakania, unbeknownst to the world, was the most progressive state of all; a state barely able to go along with itself. One enjoyed a negative freedom there, always with the sense of insufficient grounds for one’s own existence…” (Robert Musil, The Man without Quality).

Choosing an Imperial Union rather than a Unionized Empire for future Europe would mean we have finally “learned to learn” from the mistakes of our past, freeing us from a sterile internal debate and launching us finally in the global arena: responding, like an Empire would feel obliged to do, to the dramatic issues that life outside of our borders is presenting us with, particularly in Ukraine, in the Mediterranean and in the Middle East, areas that are asking us to provide a European solution based on our values and our cultures.

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