Europe’s Imperial Dilemma

Europe has an imperial problem. Put simply, the European Union, formed as a political union to prevent war on the continent, is slowly morphing into a liberal utopian empire, undermining Westphalian nation-states with its open migration policy and fiscal meddling. Inevitably, this has resulted in the rise of pre-Westphalian ethno-nationalist sentiments. The imperial character of the EU has long term ramifications for great maritime powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as for revanchist land powers like Russia. Put simply, the EU imperium, which started as a prospective solution to the problems of a continent ravaged by centuries of war, is now turning out to be the cause of new and predictable troubles.

As Catalonia stands on the brink of secession from Spain after a controversial referendum, with Spain poised to send in troops to restore “constitutional order,” and terrorism and migration on mass scale result in ethno-nationalist backlashes, their is an increasing and urgent need in for  policymakers in the United States and the United Kingdom, to engage in a serious reflection upon and  reassessment of  the character of EU.

The Forces of Ethno-Nationalism

Historically, Europe was never united, either culturally, linguistically, or tribally. The only way Europe was unified, in temporal phases, was through imperium. But those forced attempts at imperium also resulted in nationalist reaction and inevitable backlash. The Romans fell prey to imperial overstretch, which resulted in differing ethnic tribes waging war against the central authority and, eventually, the dissolution of the Roman empire. From Bonaparte to the Habsburgs, Kaiser to Hitler, all of them tried to dominate continental Europe through sheer strength of arms. Similarly, during the last days of the Cold War, contrary to what liberal historians preached for the last quarter century, it was not liberalism that saw off the Soviet empire, but conservative nationalism in Eastern Europe against Soviet imperium. There’s a reason some countries like Poland are skeptical of a European superstate run from Brussels and similar attempts at social engineering through forced migration and settlements. They hear echoes of the past in this attempt to create a new and benign EU-SSR.

The European Union, however, seemed a necessary idea when it started, after years of conflict ravaging the continent. As Churchill wrote, the aim of British foreign policy for 500 years has been to see that there’s no single dominating hegemony or empire in Europe. After the fall of the British empire, the United States carried on the same balancing principle, which resulted in the United States confronting the Soviet Union. The geopolitical logic behind that was simple. Any single hegemon that controls the entire European landmass is bound to be powerful enough, militarily and economically, to dominate other great powers across the globe.

Just recently, for example, the EU threatened the United States with punitive trade deals, and fined Apple and Google for breaking competition rules. It is not hard to imagine a United States of Europe, with a joint army, independent nuclear deterrence, and ever increasing economic might. The elites in Brussels already are displaying a markedly different set of interests from those of the United States, or, for that matter, those of the United Kingdom.

Utopian, as Opposed to Liberal

We need to distinguish “liberals” in the domestic sense from “utopian Liberal hegemony” in the foreign policy sense. This always follows every time a conservative or a political realist questions liberal hypocrisy, and it is important to clear it up at this stage. Liberals in this sense are not the ones who believe in private property, free speech, and self-determination. Rather,  the liberals in question are foreign policy liberal internationalists, the sort of utopian idealists who prophesied the end of history in 1991. These radicals believe in global institutionalism and rule by technocrats, mass migration and open borders, foreign interventionism and selective usage of human rights rhetoric to justify completely arbitrary foreign policy. Nationalism and sovereignty are poisonous concepts to these liberal ideologues, who refuse to believe that different parts of the globe are culturally very different. In a sense, they are qualitatively no different from Trotskyite internationalists or even neoconservatives. Unfortunately, although these ideas of global governance seem good in theory, research has proven time and again that there is no global order that will follow any norm or rule of law as nation-states and great powers will do whatever they want. Hard power is the only variable that genuinely matters.

The Imperial Paradox

Which brings us to the remarkable similarity between Brexit and the current Catalonian crisis. The British exit and the Spanish crackdown are both a direct consequence of the EU shaping up as an empire, without having the requisite will or capability to manage order across the continent or control the backlash resulting from its idealist and incoherent policies. Undermining state sovereignty has only empowered differing forces within EU. The culturally Catholic conservative Central Europeans, for example, are opposed to Brussels and Berlin meddling in their domestic affairs with  unchecked migration or energy deals with the United States. Britain, on the other hand, left the EU due simply to a rational fear of Germany’s Angela Merkel opening the whole of Europe to millions of migrants. Now, ethnic groups like the Catalans have decided if they are going to be ruled by Brussels anyway, why bother listening to the middle man in Madrid? Also, there’s no logical coherence in the policy of EU supporting humanitarian interventions in Libya, and self-determination of other ethnic groups like the Kurds and Irish, while simultaneously and hypocritically opposing Catalonian independence.

A great Machiavellian paradox now tests Europe.  It is too diverse, differing in language and culture, and never united before other than through forced imperium, to be bound together in the way the EU has envisioned. An empire, or its modern jargon-oriented equivalent, ultimately cannot be sustained, or defended without using brute force. After all, Westphalian nation-states came into existence as the old empires faded. That led to imperial colonial powers, which then ruled the world for centuries, before being dismantled by other regional nationalists. The last empire to fall was the Soviet Union, which kept the Warsaw pact countries under their power not by the strength of Marxist ideology, but by sheer military force. As soon as Soviet economic power collapsed, so too did the strength of their military, resulting in an opening for a nationalist tide. If the EU tries to morph into a full empire, the result would be more nationalistic backlash and chaos—to say nothing of heightened wariness and tensions with the United States, the UK, and Russia. If the EU doesn’t act like an empire, the regional ethnic groups will rebel against their national states.

And that’s the dilemma for humanity’s greatest liberal utopian project. The EU’s imperial obsession with cheap migrant labor from Asia and Africa, imposing liberal mores, human rights for terrorists and migrants, and transgender rights across the continent, sowed the seeds of its own destruction as history in the Hegelian sense proved to be cyclical and continued to repeat itself, as both tragedy and farce.


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About Sumantra Maitra

Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, and a member of Centre for Conflict, Security, and Terrorism. He is also a regular analyst for Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, and a regular essayist for various publications, including The National Interest, The Federalist, and Quillette Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.