326. Europe as Empire: The Nature of the Enlarged European Union
Jan Zielonka is Ralf Darhrendorf Fellow in European Politics at St. Antony's College of the University of Oxford. He presented his new book by the same title and published by Oxford University Press in 2006 at an EES event on September 21, 2005. The following is a summary of his presentation. Meeting Report 327.
For the last decade, I have tried to understand the evolving nature of European integration and the process of EU enlargement. These two themes led me to the topic of empires. An empire is for me a complex paradigm describing the nature of the emerging European polity. My paradigm is empirically grounded, and it relates to the situation of today. I do not intend to suggest any historical analogy by using the term neo-medieval. There was hardly any democracy or market economy in the Middle Ages. There was at the time a Holy Roman Empire, but students of the Middle Ages argue that it was neither Roman, nor holy, nor even an empire.
So, why use the term neo-medieval empire? I find the alternative terms currently used to describe the European Union (EU) to be rather inadequate. Thus far, the EU has been popularly described as an "unidentified political object" and as a "post modern polity." Neither of these phrases explains much about the EU: both terms are rather mysterious and suggest that any interpretation is possible. This is not good enough, in my view.
This book was written as a polemical response to the mainstream literature on European integration, which tends to apply statist analogies to the EU and treats the EU's eastward enlargement as a routine institutional operation that is unlikely to change the course and nature of European integration. Although hardly any work explicitly claims that the Union is a state in the making, the European integration process is widely described as the kind of state-building process that follows the model of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. The Union is said to be gradually acquiring the major characteristics of a state, through the creation of a central government, external borders, a common currency, citizenship, a constitution and even a European military force.
My book argues that we are actually getting something entirely opposite to the Westphalian kind of state. The Westphalian model is about the concentration of power, hierarchy, sovereignty and clear-cut identity. The neo-medieval model is about overlapping authorities, divided sovereignty, diversified institutional arrangements and multiple identities. The Westphalian model is about fixed and relatively hard external borders, while the neo-medieval model is about soft border zones that undergo regular adjustment. The Westphalian model is about military impositions and containment, while the neo-medieval model is about exporting laws and modes of governance.
There are many factors behind the neo-medieval scenario starting with globalization and ending with the ongoing cultural shift, to use Ronald Inglehardt's term. In my view, however, the recent wave of EU enlargement was decisive in tipping the balance. This is partly because enlargement represents an enormous import of diversity that can hardly be addressed by the new members' formal adoption of the entire body of European laws and regulations: the acquis communautaire. It is also because policies of new member states from Eastern Europe are likely to reinforce the neo-medieval scenario.
If the new Europe is neo-medieval, is it also imperial? Here again, enlargement, with its comprehensive and strict policy of conditionality, suggests the Union's external policy is truly imperial. Through enlargement, the Union was able to assert its control over unstable and poor neighbors. I should hasten to add that at the end of this process of conditionality, these neighbors gain access to the EU decision-making system and resources.
What are the main implications of the neo-medieval scenario?
One implication is geo-strategic: the Union, like all empires, is doomed to enlarge ever further despite public anxieties in several member states. Several EU members are exposed to instability outside EU borders and enlargement proved to be the only effective tool for pacifying the external environment. The decision to open accession negotiations with Turkey is a clear manifestation of this, but Ukraine and Belarus may require a similar solution in the not too distant future, not to mention several states in the Balkans and North Africa.
The second implication concerns governance capacity of the Union. I contend that hierarchical governance is doomed to failure in the neo-medieval environment. The Union would have to adopt looser and more flexible forms of economic and administrative governance to remain competitive and coherent. Soft, rather than hard, law would have to be the norm. We would have to rely on liberal economic policies to stimulate growth rather than central redistribution from Brussels. Incentives and shaming would have to prevent free riding, rather than sanctions and commands.
The third implication concerns the Union's democratic legitimacy: parliamentary representation can hardly work in a neo-medieval setting. This means that giving more powers to the European Parliament, for instance, may prove not only irrelevant, but even counter-productive. The Union would have to construct democracy on principles other than representation, such as deliberation and contestation. We already have a rapid growth of various types of litigation within the Union. And we can think about various new ways of giving citizens the ability to contest European decisions.
The problems with the statist paradigm
I seek a contrast to the Westphalian model partly because it is the only serious paradigm on the table. As mentioned earlier, fancy terms and metaphors, such as "unidentified political object," which are currently employed are not serious enough to properly explain what the EU is or how it functions. More importantly, a majority of politicians and commentators see a kind of a European state as the only workable and legitimate solution for Europe. True, the idea has never been popular among the European electorate and only a few politicians openly called for the creation of a European federation. However, the support for a kind of European federation is widespread, although expressed in an indirect, if not concealed, manner.
First, and most obviously, the state-centered argument always emphasizes the state and its institutional structures, rather than the nation, politics or markets. As Jean Monnet famously said: "Institutions govern relationships between people. They are the real pillars of civilization." According to the statists, institutional engineering, rather than cultural and economic factors, should be given priority. Statists assert that the democratic deficit should be tackled by reorganizing the European parliamentary system rather than by creating a truly European demos. Peace and security are to be assured by setting up intergovernmental institutions (CFSP/ESDP), rather than through the balance of power politics or by mitigating cultural prejudices and historical fears. Trade is more about central regulations (positive and negative alike), than about spontaneous exchanges between economic actors. The underlying assumption behind this argument is that it is easier to engineer or manipulate state institutions rather than culture, politics or economic markets. One can probably envisage the creation of a European state, but not a European nation, for instance.
Second, the state-centered argument proposes giving the Union more and more responsibility for market, money, security and solidarity in member states. Ultimately, the Union should have a single central government in charge of a given territory with clear-cut borders, a common European army and police force, a single European citizenship, a common market and a common social policy. The government may well have a federative rather than unitary nature, but it will basically resemble a modern version of the sovereign, territorial state that emerged in Europe following the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. When the Union's efforts to acquire all these functions and powers falter, the proponents of a European state talk about a dangerous stalemate in the process of European integration as if no other more flexible solutions could suit the purpose of integration. In other words, statists believe that European integration is making progress only when the Union is gradually acquiring all the major prerogatives of a Westphalian type of state.
Third, the state-centered argument would like the Union to provide an overlap between its functional and geographical borders. If one looks at the historical process of state formation following the Peace of Westphalia, success has largely been determined by the degree to which states were able to assure overlap between administrative borders, military frontiers, cultural traits and market fringes. So the friends of a European state oppose a Union which is made up of concentric circles or variable geometric patterns resulting from various opt-outs negotiated by individual member states in the areas of foreign, monetary or social policy. They believe that European integration should be about increased convergence across various functional fields and within a given territory. Since such convergence is unlikely in a broader European setting, the idea of a "core group" has been launched in various forms and shaped by the statists.
It seems beyond any doubt that the statist arguments described above dominate the present European discourse. But is the Westphalian scenario a viable option for the EU, especially after the last wave of enlargement? At present, the EU contains elements of both the Westphalian and neo-medieval models. On the one hand, the Union is anything but a Westphalian type of super state. Several member states do not want to see the Union in charge of their foreign, monetary or social policy, for instance. The Union lacks a strong and coherent sense of cultural identity, much less a European demos or patria. Globalization, with its massive labor and capital flows, makes it difficult for the Union (or in fact for any other actor) to maintain a minimum degree of sovereignty, hierarchy and order. On the other hand, the Union is trying hard to regain a degree of control over the forces of globalization and to assert its sovereignty within its borders. In spite of all the resistance, it is gradually introducing some forms of central European government, not only in the fields of foreign, monetary and social policy, but even in the areas of defense and justice and home affairs. The Union is also trying to improve its democratic credentials and enhance a common European cultural identity, for instance through the European citizenship project.
According to official rhetoric, enlargement is not going to reverse this latter trend, as Joschka Fisher argued, but actually reinforces the determination to accomplish the construction of a European federal state. The official EU policy is that widening of the Union goes hand in hand with deepening. The enlargement process has been accompanied by efforts to deepen EU integration through the expansion of the acquis communautaire, the creation of a single market and the imposition of a strict external border regime. New countries can join the European Union, but only after meeting an ever-growing list of conditions to make them compatible with current members and allow for their adaptation to the existing system. Those who are not yet EU members are supposed to be kept at bay through custom quotas and tariffs and the Schengen regime.
But this is not what we see on the ground. For instance, Norway and Iceland are part of Schengen but not the EU, while EU members such as Poland, Ireland or Slovenia are not in Schengen, albeit for different reasons. Will it ever be possible for the enlarging Union to secure a strong overlap of various cultural traits, market transaction fringes and administrative boundaries? And if not, how much internal diversity can the Union withstand without compromising efficiency and legitimacy? Can a single authority be in charge of jurisdiction, taxation and social questions in a Union increasingly acting in concentric circles? Today these are the most hotly debated questions and I try to address them by looking at the impact of enlargement on three fields: economics, democracy and foreign affairs. In all three cases, I found that the enlarged EU is more likely to embrace what I have identified as the neo-medieval rather than the neo-Westphalian alternative. My book demonstrates that the Union is likely to have an ever more multi-layered and multi-centered governance structure. Various non-majoritarian institutions are likely to dominate over a weak European parliament. And we are likely to see neither the assertion of a European demos nor consolidation of a European public space. Finally, in terms of Europe's external affairs, Foreign and security policy is still largely in the hands of member states, which means that the Union is not on its way to becoming a Westphalian type of international actor. Moreover, the member states are often hopelessly divided and eager to use various non-European institutional tools for their foreign and defense policies. Finally, the emerging international system in Europe also looks more medieval than Westphalian. The system is not anarchic, and collective bargaining over laws and procedures rather than balancing and ganging up over territorial gains, is the essence of interstate politics at present.
Europe as empire
Empire is a popular term, which is used and abused in various discussions. Amazon.com lists no less than 10,513 books with empire in the title. Most of these books assume that empire is about control by the metropolis of various peripheral actors through formal annexation or various forms of economic and political domination. However, here the consensus ends. Control can be exercised through a combination of military, economic and cultural means. It can be formal or informal to various degrees. It can be based on coercion or incentives, or a combination of both. The periphery status within an empire can also differ. Some actors are given access to the metropolis's decision-making and resources, while others are kept at a distance or even subject to open discrimination and exploitation.
The nature of both metropolis and peripheral actors can also differ. In most cases, the metropolis has a centralized government, differentiated economies and shared political loyalties, while the peripheries have weak governments, undifferentiated economies and highly divided political loyalties. However, the imperial metropolis can also have a relatively weak, limited and decentralized government, inefficient economic system and multiple cultural identities. In particular, medieval empires characteristically had limited and decentralized governments, performing only a few basic governmental functions. They were ridden by internal conflicts between a king or emperor and the lower aristocracy, whether feudal or bureaucratic, while the persistent divergence of local cultures, religions and traditions implied a highly divided political loyalty.
The metropolis does not always have a master plan for imperial conquest. States can become empires by default because they try to bring some order to unstable neighbors or try to convert barbarians into "good" citizens or Christians. Likewise, an empire does not need to arise via outright aggression. Some empires rose quietly through uneven modernization and social differentiation.
The EU is a sort of civilian, rather than military, power and it offers economic help to its peripheries, rather than trying to exploit them. Yet, when we look at the ever further extension of the EU's borders and at the "aggressive" export of EU rules to its neighbors we cannot but conclude that the EU is (or is becoming) an empire of some sort. In fact, EU's latest enlargement looks like an imperial prototype. In its essence, it was about asserting the EU's political and economic control over the unstable and impoverished eastern part of the continent, through the skillful use of political and economic conditionality.
It is true that the postcommunist countries were not "conquered," but invited to join the EU—and they did so quite eagerly. Moreover, at the end of the accession process they were offered access to the EU's decision-making instruments and resources. Nevertheless, the discrepancy of power between the EU and the candidate states was enormous and one wonders how much actual freedom the candidate countries had in the accession negotiation process. In fact, the Union has from the start made it clear that the candidate countries must adopt the entire body of European laws before entering the Union. Of course, their compliance with EU laws was often more apparent than real, but cheating is the essence of imperial relations characterized by structural asymmetries. The fact is that, within empires the peripheral states operate under de facto (if not de jure) constrained sovereignty. This is also the case when we look at the set of relations between the EU and its new members and would-be-members.
Is an imperial EU good or bad news for Europe and the outside world? Of course, some see medievalism as a symbol of chaos and conflict. Yet for someone living in the medieval cities, such as Florence and Oxford, the medieval story is more positive. A flexible neo-medieval empire in concentric circles would be in a better position than a European state to cope with the pressures of modernization and globalization. It would also be in a better position to compete with other great powers by pulling together vast European resources, but without eliminating Europe's greatest strength: its pluralism and diversity. A neo-medieval empire would also be well suited to provide conflict prevention in its neighborhood by shaping behavior of those countries through the mechanism of EU conditionality through the accession process. A neo-medieval empire might even be in a good position to be seen as democratically legitimate by bringing governance structures closer to the citizens, and making the system more transparent and open.
This optimistic scenario will only materialize if we are able to adjust to change. The EU needs to adopt more flexible and decentralized modes of governance to run its economy and administration. The EU can no longer run European foreign policy in the style of Matternich or Bismark. And it should find new channels of political representation and participation to make democracy work in this neo-medieval setting. This will not be easy. However, applying Westphalian solutions to the neo-medieval environment would certainly be worse.
About the Author
Global Europe Program
The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting the European continent, U.S.-European relations, and Europe’s ties with the rest of the world. We investigate European approaches to critical global issues: digital transformation, climate, migration, global governance. We also examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our program activities cover a wide range of topics, from the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE to European energy security, trade disputes, challenges to democracy, and counter-terrorism. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media. Read more