Europe’s Empires don’t survive: This is something the European Commission still needs to learn

Nothing lasts for ever: Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austro-Hungary greets his subjects (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)


The European Union will have to decide: Does it want to give in or resist the temptation to turn into an empire?

The recent actions taken by Brussels against Hungary seem to indicate the former, and this could become a problem for the entire sustainability of the Union. There will never be a unified European superstate, and the more European authorities want to pressure member states in that direction, the greater their resistance will become.

Withholding funds or excluding Hungarian students from participating in student exchange programmes is not the policy of a federalist union with equal members, but resembles the punitive expedition of an imperial core against its periphery.

The bureaucrats in Brussels forget that the entire project of the EU needs the consent and support of every single member state, which means that countries must keep their sovereignty in key areas, or otherwise they will seek to go it alone.

It seems as if a significant part of the EU leadership has still not realised that with the 2004 expansion eastwards the rules of the game have changed.

Central and Eastern European nations have lived long enough as the periphery of Moscow’s empire, so there is not really any appetite to replicate a similar situation with Brussels playing the role of the former Soviet capital. To be clear, nobody fears that the EU will commandeer Belgian tanks and role into Budapest like the Red Army did in in 1956.

Yet imperialism does not always comes on tank-tracks, and Brussels is attempting to perfect the art of what I would call “managerial” or “bureaucratic” imperialism: It is not troops that are being deployed, but regulations or the withholding of funds – with the purpose to force the will of the bureaucratic class on the member state who happens to be the target.

An empire in its most basic form is a political arrangement that tries to unify different communities under a centralised authority, even though these communities would prefer to be independent.

Russia, for example, is still an empire: Moscow needs to use force to keep control over a variety of separatist movements, from Dagestan to Chechnya.

The United States, on the other hand, has a population more than twice as large as the Russian Federation’s (331 million compared to 143 million), but Washington does not have to use imperial methods to rule domestically.

Since the Civil War ended in 1865, the United States has been able to shape a national identity strong enough to keep the country together by peaceful and decentralized means. Other countries have been successful in such an endeavor as well, often to such a degree that we forget how young certain nations are.

Germany became unified in the early 1870s, replacing the distinct identities of Bavarians, Saxons, Prussians and others with a pan-German identity. In 1871 the so called “Risorgimento” gave birth to one of the most popular countries in the modern era: Italy.

Neither Berlin nor Rome in 2024 have to fear that a separatist movement will tear their countries apart: Even Matteo Salvini, the leader of the populist Lega Nord and current minister of infrastructure and transport has turned into an old school nationalist, with the once popular idea of the Lega creating an independent State of Northern Italy mostly gone.

Others, however, have a less successful track record: Austria failed in its attempts to keep a multi-ethnic empire together; in Latin America Simón Bolívar saw his Gran Colombia dissolve first into chaos and then into the independent states of Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. 

The current EU leadership should read a history book from time to time and decide in which direction they want to go.

The promise of the “ever closer union” will not be achievable if policies are pursued that continuously alienate member states, reducing their willingness to stay within the Union to mere economic interests.

While Europe certainly exists as a historic and cultural entity, political unification will always run up against the wall of different historical experiences.

In a sense, the entire continent is a conglomerate of individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder from wars (both hot and cold) that are now trying to create a functional family. This will take time, and a careful calibration of national and EU interests, ensuring the active participation and integration of nations that have dual identities due to being shaped by their national and European histories. 

As every conqueror from Charlemagne to Napoleon to Hitler had to find out, Europe cannot be ruled as an empire. The EU would be wise not to repeat their mistakes, no matter how well intended.