Notion of EU empire clouds treaty debate

Sat, May 24, 2008, 01:00

WORLD VIEW:THE WORD empire is often thrown around in debates about the nature and policies of the European Union, especially by opponents of the Lisbon Treaty during the current referendum campaign, writes PAUL GILLESPIE.

Empire has a potent historical resonance in Ireland, but can it validly be resurrected to describe an entity that is variously characterised as post-imperialist, post-nationalist or, indeed, post-modern by friends and foes alike?

The issue is symptomatic of a wider problem: how to find an adequate vocabulary for the EU's unprecedented sharing of sovereign power, that has no parallel or exact historical precedent. The easiest way to do so is to seek out analogies with previous state formation processes and, in world politics, with the history of empires.

This is felt to be all the more necessary because of the increasing multi-polarity of world politics. The "unipolar moment" that gave the US such overwhelming power at the end of the cold war has passed as its leaders struggle to retrieve the influence lost during the Bush years since 2000.

Although the US retains more military power than most of the rest of its allies combined, its "soft power" - defined as the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals - has substantially diminished.

World politics has to adapt to the emergence of new powers such as Brazil, India and China, as well as to the adjustment of US and Russian roles and the emergence of regional groupings in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

EU member states see the need for collective action to preserve their own roles in this emerging system. They know their capacity to influence it depends on mutual action and co-ordination. The treaty accordingly rationalises existing legal bases for the EU's external relations into a more coherent whole; develops its institutional structure by creating the post of high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy and formalising the European External Action service; and sets out new, more comprehensive rules for its security and defence policy.

This new framework does not replace but supplements existing national capacities and remains subject to intergovernmental methods of decision-making rather than majority voting. Its overall purpose is defined in Article 21 of the treaty as the same ones that have inspired the EU's own creation, development and enlargement and which it seeks to advance in the wider world: "Democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, the principles of equality and solidarity and respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law."

Applying historical analogies to the emerging structures yields a discourse of superstates and empires among treaty opponents. Even when the qualified legal and voluntary character of the system is pointed out, it is assumed there is an inevitable transition towards such outcomes, that a hidden federalist purpose determines leading states and political actors, and that constitutive principles such as these are a false consciousness disguising baser interests.

This is a lazy style of arguing that should not be accepted without rebuttal or responded to defensively just because it seems to resonate with Ireland's colonial and post-colonial past. It naively confuses legal forms with real political capacities; disregards the legal and political balance of forces between EU institutions and member states; sweeps the EU's world role into a seamless transatlantic mould without any regard for the growing evidence of conflicting interests and values between the EU and the US; and overlooks the ways Ireland has achieved independence by pooling sovereignty.

It also distorts and disguises more interesting analogies with previous imperial systems. There are lessons to be drawn from these - and from emerging cultural and political patterns that recall affinities and belongings laid down before nation states were installed after the first World War. Among these are the surviving commonalities between Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman regions in Europe that have re-emerged as barriers to economic and individual mobility are broken down under the EU's new umbrella.

The literature on the EU contains a vigorous debate about such analogies. Among them, the notion of a new medievalism is one of the most stimulating. In his book Europe as Empire, the Nature of the Enlarged European Union, Jan Zielonka argues that a distinction must be drawn between two models of the EU's potential future as an international actor: a neo-Westphalian state and a neo-medieval empire recalling political patterns typical of medieval Europe.

A neo-Westphalian state would be modelled on the large modern states and some of the modern empires with hard and fixed borders; a single European police force and army; defence against external aggression and maintaining the balance of power; military-civilian means of acting; and a legitimising strategy of might makes right. In contrast, a neo-medieval empire would have soft border zones in flux; a multiplicity of overlapping military and police institutions; diffusion and pacification of conflicts; civilian-military means; and a philosophy of soft power saying our norms are right.

Zielonka argues convincingly that the EU's enlargement and restricted budgetary capacity rule out a neo-Westphalian outcome and make a neo-medieval one more likely and desirable.