“Neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.


The Roman Colosseum
The Ruins of Rome

The EU is Roman

The European Union is a self-avowed political project. The forerunner of the EU, the European Economic Community (EEC), was founded by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, in order to “lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” and “preserve and strengthen peace and liberty”. In 1957 Europe was still reeling from the destruction and upheavals of the Second World War, which had swept over its founding members: Belgium, The Federal Republic of Germany (“West Germany”: Germany was two countries at the time, and the Warsaw Pact German Democratic Republic was not a party), France, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

The “European Union” itself was only formerly created by the Maastricht treaty in 1992, with the objective of continuing the process of “ever closer union” - albeit the UK had an opt out for that political aim. People of my generation who were in the UK at the time will remember it was the great political subject of the day (as well as the butt of many Spitting Image jokes), and the origins of the UK Conservative Party’s great schism over Europe, which ultimately led to Brexit.

The EEC’s overriding aim was to prevent another destructive European war, albeit predominantly through a series of economic measures: but even these had a political aim for the Members to reduce “the differences existing between the various regions and the backwardness of the less favoured regions” amongst other things. With this grand project of European integration in mind, it was not a coincidence that Rome was chosen as the location and name for the EEC’s founding treaty. The EEC wanted to conjure the image - the fantasy perhaps - of the last time Europe was politically and culturally coherent; under the Emperors.

Ukraine in, Turkey Out

Although the EU had its origin in the romance of Rome - or perhaps for the extract same reason - it mattered which “Emperor” one followed. The European project was always just that, European. The inheritors of the erstwhile Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, ruled from Constantinople by “Roman” emperors for a thousand years after the fall of Rome itself and the Empire in the West was (and is) not invited to the party.

Byzantium fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 (in fact is was a process of decline, culminating in the fall of Constantinople). The Ottoman Empire ruled the Balkans, large parts of what is now Ukraine and much of the Middle East until it collapsed after the First World War, and Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk” created the modern, secular state of Turkey in 1923.

Turkey applied for EEC membership in 1959, and it still waiting to be admitted. Turkey has customs and cooperation agreements with the EU, which smooths some trade, and in recent times it was paid by the EU to absorb refugees from Syria and Iraq. Turkey is the 6th largest economy in Europe and its airbases were used by Coalition forces in the “war on terror”. However after many attempts at joining the European club Turkey has not been admitted, nor has it yet been flatly refused. The EU was implicitly designed as a Christian club, or at least - explicitly - with Western European Christian culture at its core.

Last week Ursula von der Leyen, the German politician who is current President of the European Commission (the EU’s permanent administrative infrastructure and civil service), advocated that Ukraine be admitted to the EU as a Member, saying “Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country’s aspiration and the country’s determination to live up to European values and standards” and that “Ukrainians are ready to die for the European perspective. We want them to live with us the European dream.” So it appears Ukraine, which has an unenviable record as far as perceived corruption goes (see the “The Forge of Institutions” paragraph in my last Scriber https://the-perspective-pool.scriber.to/article/the-jubilee-and-the-end-of-the-elizabethan-age) has done enough in its defiance of Russia to be European. However, it seems that Turkey has not.

The EU may ultimately go the way of the Eurovision Song Contest, in which geography has become irrelevant and far away Australia has been admitted; one must assume because it lives up to “European values and standards”.

“Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and I have founded empires….” (Napoleon Bonaparte)

The 207th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo was on Sunday. The main battle took place in Belgium on 18 June 1815, and British, Dutch and Prussian troops defeated the army of the Emperor Napoleon, another man who was trying to create a unified Europe and liked to invoke the glories of the ancient world. His quote above ignores the empires of Atilla, Genghis, the Ottomans, and the Mughals: he cared about Europe and a European political vision. At the time the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland made a single country of all the British Isles. The UK exerted economic and military force to prevent the domination of Europe by one power; in fact preventing a single power dominating Europe has been one of the UK’s main foreign policy aims for centuries.

Now the aftermath of Brexit seems to have imperiled the Union of the British Kingdoms further, with another Scottish independence referendum being suggested, political stalemate in Northern Ireland as the UK government considers introducing legislation to reverse elements of the “Protocol” it agreed with the EU and Republic of Ireland at the time of its exit.

Part of the problem with the British political class since 1975 is that it convinced itself that the EU was about economics, not politics. Their political predecessors knew all too well that Europe is always about politics.

The Return of the Emperor

The narrative of the EU has always recalled the distantly echoing glory of the Roman Empire. However, like Napoleon it is not the first European leader to invoke the power and glory of Rome to support their own legitimacy. In the Dark Ages, nostalgia for the relative peace and order of the pax romana of earlier centuries led French warlord Charlemagne to travel to the crumbling Rome, centuries after its fall, to be anointed “Emperor” by the Pope amidst the chaos of the 8th century and to use Christianity as a political weapon to create order; a political technique repeated by the German warlord Otto who was similarly anointed Emperor by the Pope in the 10th century.

Voltaire wittily remarked that the Holy Roman Empire, was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”. It will remain to be seen if the European Union actually ever becomes a union or stays European.

Further Reading