The European continent has through ages past known empires, from Roman imperialism, the Carolingan reign to the Spanish and Austrian Habsburg empires, the Holy Roman Empire and the Third Reich, not to forget the European colonial empires which lasted well into the twentieth century and have left their legacy. From this perspective, one could see the EU as the latest attempt of imperial government in Europe. Yet there are important differences between imperialization now and then. In European history the imperial core was a state that extended its zone of political control to neighboring or overseas territories or states. Paradoxically, member states of the EU are not part of either core ór periphery, they are both core ánd periphery. On paper there is no geographical located core. It is a core consisting of all that exerts its control on all. Yes, Brussels is the capital of the European Union, where most of its central administrating organs are located. But no, Brussels and Belgium are as much part of the periphery as the rest of the Union’s member states. All member states are constrained by EU laws and regulations. Though at face value there are certainly some problematic remarks to be made when one would consider the European Union an empire – since it is not formed by one core state annexing by force neighboring or distant lands, it is at least indirectly democratic, and there is no emperor or one central figure ruling even symbolically over his realm – it can nonetheless be said that it is undergoing a process of imperialization. The Union certainly classifies to a degree as an imperial polity when it is compared to characteristics of empire. It is a composite polity where a dominant core and a dominated periphery can be differentiated. The EU practices territorial expansion and diffuses an imperial identity or culture.
The ongoing euro crisis in all its forms might change this conception of both core ánd periphery into a practice of core ór periphery. States on the brink of economic collapse are in need of support of the richer member states. Today’s practices do think of and have remarkable similarities with the functioning of the Holy Roman Empire, where constituent members of the Empire actively coordinated on basis of their interests outside and subsequently inside imperial administrative and governing organs, like the governing Kreis, the imperial circle and its administrative agencies the Kreistag and secretariat. Like in the history of the Holy Roman Empire, it seems there is no single core that coincides with imperial power. Rather than derived from one central entity, power in the EU is diffused among a group of economically stronger states based on shared economic interests. Thus one could consider two dimensions of a core. The first dimension concerns the institutional and political setting where all member states are to a degree peripheral zones, since all have to comply with EU regulations and laws. The second dimension does in this case oddly not coincide with the former one. The latter dimension is based on economic, industrial, demographic, and financial power. A core not based on a single entity, but rather a group of stronger states coordinating with each other. Contrary to the first dimension, there are some member states who are in this aspect certainly peripheral, whilst others are increasingly not.
In any case, every empire needs some legitimization to survive. There is a European flag and, although unofficially, Beethoven’s Ode an die Freude goes through for an anthem. What would be European is still not answered, though. The idea of Europe has been predominantly the idea of Europe as a community with common values and institutions. Today, the idea of Europe has become more utilitarian and has taken the classical form of the promise of peace and wealth. Although European integration, or imperialization for that matter, started as an offset of the second world war, new generations in most parts of Europe have no memory of lethal war and punishing occupation. But it is in the East where this civilizing mission still does apply. In the former Yugoslav republics the results of war can still be seen. Here, the promise of peace and wealth is heard. One could wonder whether the enlargements of the Union feeds a discrepancy between the older and relatively richer member states and new but poor member states in need of economic and financial aid. As was mentioned before, the economic and monetary crisis gives rise to the question whether there is forming an actual core of a group of rich member states. For these states the costs of European imperialization are rising. Financial aid is transferred from richer member states to the states in crisis. Amid the euro crisis, nationalist parties are on the rise in many of the member states. Combined with a lack of utilitarian reasons for the will of imperialization in Europe, this could endanger the legitimacy of the EU.
In the case of the European Union, when depicted as an empire or undergoing at least a degree of imperialization, it is conceptually problematic to apply concepts of nations. Imperial ideology does not compare per definition with nationalism. Imperialism is the acknowledging of different peoples, whilst nationalism is a process of unification. Even more problematic is that nations and the nation-state principle are deeply entrenched in European cultures. Kulturnations or elements thereof can be found across Europe, perhaps giving an explanation of a long history of war on the continent. But elements of the elective nation could also be important for the legitimization of the EU. Yes, although imagined, nations are very real in Europe. But one could also wonder whether these nations can chose to be in a Union. Not because of a common origin, but because they identify themselves with shared ideas, values and find themselves to have in a globalizing world common challenges, but also a common future. Although very different in origins, shared challenges and opportunities give legitimization to European imperialization. One could see these two views combined in European policies protecting local languages, religious and philosophical beliefs, and cultural practices and institutions.
Although there is not a single core from which a imperial culture or identity can be derived from, there are certainly shared norms. Liberal democracy and accompanying norms as equal access to office, the right to choose one’s own political representatives, and equality before the law are embraced in all member states and are a condition for accession. Often, empires are considered to be undemocratic. Not in the core, than in their relationship with its periphery. That known empires have been autocratic in this sense, can be explained that before the 19th century very few states were democratic. Empires have thus been pre-democratic polities. Magali Gravier argues that like “states can be pre-democratic, democratic, or authoritarian […], empires can be pre-democratic, authoritarian, or, why not, republican, or democratic”. A modern day example of empire would point to the EU. Not only are the member states democratic, the supranational level is experiencing a process of democratization. The establishment of the European Parliament in 1952 was a first step. With the introduction of direct elections in 1979 and the citizens initiative in 2012, giving people the possibility to call directly on the European Commission to propose a legal act, the nations of Europe are not only bound together at the elite level, but also directly to the supranational level. With increasing public appeal for further democratization, besides opposition in various degrees against the EU, European peoples are increasingly bound in a common future they selves can shape in a democratic process. Legitimization of this Empire is not forced by one dominating core. Legitimization is derived from member nations who wish to participate, or not to, in a democratic Union. A novum which fits best an empire which expands by voluntary agreement.
*”The beloved Holy Roman Empire, what still unites you?”