Death Throes and Birth Pangs of Empire

We should not be astonished that England and Wales have decided that the United Kingdom should leave the European Union! In the final analysis Brexit is just a last convulsion of a dying empire. That the United Kingdom joined in the first place is more surprising than the United Kingdom leaving.

Many empires have dissolved with more extended pain than the one inflicted by the end of the British one. It took the Roman Empire (East and West) more than a thousand years of decline to die, much more time than its birth and zenith. Endless wars and much mayhem was the accompaniment, and in Western Europe centuries of the Dark Ages followed the demise of the Western Roman Empire. In comparison, the crumbling of the British Empire started in earnest only after WWII and was substantially completed at the end of the sixties (sans Zimbabwe and Hong Kong). The Partition of India brought hundred of thousands, if not millions, of deaths and decolonisation in general was ugly and violent, so the pain caused by the end of the British Empire should not be underplayed, yet in terms of time the process was compressed. Brexit is the imperial equivalent of the chicken continuing to run even after its head has been chopped off. Joining the EU in 1973 was the attempt to keep the head despite the loss of empire. Brexit is the consequence of a nostalgia that was not possible in the troubled seventies, and that can be argued to have been enabled by the EU’s contribution to the subsequent wealth of the United Kingdom. Dreams are much facilitated by a comfortable pillow of prosperity – a pillow that is now being removed.

Despite consternation in Europe the Brexit provides opportunity for the rest of the European Union to overcome some of the structural impediments experienced in the recent past with the refugee crisis following hard at the heels of the Euro crisis. The remedy is obviously ‘an ever closer union’, and with the United Kingdom leaving a major brake on that ambition has been removed. The euroscepticism of the United Kingdom has made the perfectly solvable refugee crisis so much harder to resolve, and the British euroscepticism has poisoned the well of European solidarity significantly even if the Euro-crisis was not of United Kingdom making. Still, Brexit and the Euro and refugee crises are mere birth pangs of a European empire being crafted at the traditionally measured pace of empire creation. What is unique about the European empire is, however, that it is based on confederation principles rather than domination by one nation. The European Union is above all a peace project!

Although largely unrecognised, the forerunner of the European Union can said to be the Habsburg empire of Austria-Hungary that came to a terrifying end with WWI. The Habsburg Empire was never about national domination, never about Austria above all. The Habsburg Empire was all about the ambition of the Habsburg family, and nations came and went as part of the multinational and multi-ethnic empire, not without pain but for centuries without endangering the health of the overall family entreprise. The European idea is all about the wellbeing, not of a family, but of a family of peoples. But just as for Habsburg and most other empires, nations may come and go, and that should not endanger the health of the entreprise. Since the inception almost 60 years ago the European Union and its earlier incarnations have been all about new nations coming into the empire, now the first one is leaving. This is painful, but a disaster only for the United Kingdom. More nations will certainly join the European Union, and although not desirable some more may leave. All the normal order of business, and if those leaving are those standing in the way of the ‘ever closer union’, so be it. Better that than EFTAisation!

Many have lamented Brexit because the staunchest voice of liberal economics will fall silent. This is true, but there are other similar voices, currently that of the Netherlands, for instance. Still, not having the United Kingdom as a member is a loss, even if the attendant of the liberal economics perspective has been the classical Anglo-Saxon inequality syndrome that has gained increased prominence on the Continent as well. What the United Kingdom will be missing is the societally inclusive models of the Nordic countries and Germany. With inequality being a significant and well-defined threat to societies the United Kingdom will lose more than the EU also in this sense.

What we should hope for is that the EU will be able to conquer its stifling bureaucracy (memento Habsburg) and will continue to develop strong societal models with social inclusion and dynamism as leading characteristics. For this to succeed we will need strong advocates of competition, transparency and efficiency and in this respect the United Kingdom will be missed. But Brexit is far from fatal for Europe and it opens new avenues for the European project as long as we understand that building empire is never linear, particularly given the scale of the ambition! It is high time for a toast to the European idea, the European reality, and the European promise!!

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3 thoughts on “Death Throes and Birth Pangs of Empire

  1. I normally enjoy and admire your blogposts but this one left me feeling saddened and even affronted. I am one of the 48% – nearly half the population – who voted to remain in the EU. I woke up on the morning of Friday 24th June to hear the news and felt – like so many of my friends – profoundly sickened, as if having received a heavy physical blow. I have woken up, too early, every morning since with the same feeling. I notice that you disaggregate Scotland from the overall result but not London (and not Northern Ireland), where there was a similarly strong vote to Remain. The population and economic weight of London are nearly twice that of Scotland. Londoners did not vote to leave, neither did the young (75% in favour Remain) nor the populations of Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton, Bristol – cities with the highest proportion of graduates. The fact is that our country is profoundly fractured – perhaps more than at any time since the 17th century – and many of us do not recognise it any more. But you seem to lump us all together and turn your back on us – an understandable gesture in terms of trying to save the rest of the EU, but, I suggest, not a helpful one at this moment of profound crisis in the UK. Perhaps it is worth recalling that at an even more terrible time the UK did not turn its back on Europe. I think it is also premature. There is a constitutional crisis in the UK and a lack of clarity about where power and legitimacy lie. Currently we have a lame duck Prime Minister and a lame duck Leader of the Opposition, from both of whom power has almost completely ebbed. Even the constitutional status of the referendum result is highly debatable; we have parliamentary democracy in the country, not the tyranny of the (small) majority. There was a small majority in favour of Leave but there was not a plan for what Leave meant. We have not triggered article 50 – at least one wise decision by David Cameron – and in my view we may never do so. As Nick Clegg suggests in today’s Guardian, we need time for the current complete confusion to clarify a little, and then we need a general election in which electors get to vote on a range of feasible options, which fill in the current complete blank of what our future relationship with Europe might be, including the option of staying in the EU, which would be supported at least by the Lib Dems, and I hope by Labour with a new pro-Europe leader.
    Harry Eyres
    London

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    1. Dear Harry,
      As you know I have great affinity with the UK. And I tried to make clear that Brexit would be a tragedy for the UK. Nothing would make me happier than if the UK would be staying in the EU.

      I also see that there may be scenarios where this could happen. The reality of a new proposed ‘association’ agreement with the EU may be such that the majority of the UK population would prefer to stay in, and democracy should be able to reflect that.

      I do not think I forgot Northern Ireland. I truly love Scotland and emphatize with their plight. Northern Ireland raises a whole host of additional issues that sadly were not discussed in the campaign. Some of these issues might become extremely painful, should Brexit play out. And in my last blog post I stressed how direct democracy was unsuitable for a question like Brexit, i.a. because one of the consequences is that the old will determine the future of the young, despite their opposition. So I think I paid my dues in terms of the UK tragedy part of the equation.

      My whole point in the blog post is that what is a tragedy for the UK must not necessarily bring tragedy for the EU as a whole, even if it would be much better if the UK would stay. That an important nation decides to leave does not put the overall European project into question. In fact, it should mean that the others, of more congenial orientation, should redouble their efforts to make the European project even more successful. There are clearly structural impediments in the current European set-up and these we should now eliminate. We should also always remember that the EU is a peace project. Trade is important in this respect, but is, in the overall scheme of things, a means to an end.

      I am stressing this point for many reasons, including the completely misguided perception prevalent in many quarters in the UK that Europe needs the UK more that the UK needs Europe. Only a former possessor of an empire can be so delusional. Clearly the 64 million need the 440 million more that the 440 million need the 64 million.

      Finally, reverting to the UK perspective, it baffled me throughout the campaign what the Little Englanders wanted to achieve in terms of ‘independence’. It is my conviction that in the 20th and 21st century the UK war never in a better situation peace-wise, economically or culturally, than after it joined the EU. Surely one cannot be nostalgic about the early seventies, not even the sixties, not the fifties, not the period between the wars. If the assumption is that the UK can go back to the 19th century (also not so great actually) then there is going to be a difficult discussion with the rest of the world that for understandable reasons will not be much in favour!

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      1. Yes, I agree entirely. I also agree that a large part of the emotional appeal of the Leave campaign was an entirely unrealistic and indeed undesirable desire to return to the days of the British Empire (this was implicit in Gove’s words about Britain “getting its mojo back”). Yes, it would be even more tragic if Britain’s exit (which I still hope can be averted, though some say I am in denial) led to a disastrous destabilisation of the whole European project. But that project is already unstable and needs much work to make it fairer and better.

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