The European Union and the Limits of Empire

December 13, 2018 Updated: December 20, 2018


In the last century, governing elites came to see nations—with their separate borders, traditions, and governments—as sources of conflict and war.

Previously, liberals and progressives from John Stuart Mill to Vladimir Lenin, even Woodrow Wilson, denounced imperial or supranational entities (until Wilson championed the League of Nations). They supported the right of nations to self-determination.

But then, nations were condemned as sources of conflict, irrationality, prejudice, and war. It was necessary to support supranational entities that subjugated peoples and their sovereignty in the name of peace and prosperity.

After the Enlightenment, empires founded on universal values and laws seemed like the rational way to impose reason and peace on a chaotic world of nations with their myriad traditions, superstitions, laws, and war-like tendencies.

But of the three post-Enlightenment European empires that aimed to subordinate the nations to common rule based on universal values—the Napoleonic, Russian communist, and European Union (EU)—only the last survived and was expanding at the end of the 20th century.

By the present day, however, confidence in such entities and ambitions started eroding. Skepticism grew about this new kind of imperial rule of bureaucrats.

There were still those, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, who denounced nationalism (in his case, rudely lecturing the U.S. president on the subject) and sang the praises of the EU. Macron’s own self-assurance was called into question, even as his own regime faced a crisis from mass revolt in the streets of Paris and his public approval ratings sank far below those of President Donald Trump.

Failure and Revolt

At the same time, the British try to extricate themselves from the tenacious clutches of the EU, many other member nations are striving to assert themselves.

Seeking to regain control over their lives, economies, and borders, a growing number of EU countries, especially those of Eastern Europe, signaled that they wouldn’t sign the UN Migration Pact in Morocco on Dec. 10–11. Austria, as current president of the EU, opposed the pact that the EU supports.

Meanwhile, the EU has demonstrated its inability to do the very things that provided its reason for existence. Led by Germany, it tried to resolve economic and migration problems through a central and tightly controlled currency and open borders. But even German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to renounce her own policy of multiculturalism as “an utter failure,” after having once proudly welcomed a million people of other cultures and languages.

The EU’s “democratic deficit”—the insulation of its governing bureaucrats from democratic control and accountability—became ever more galling as its overseers imposed their will on the nations. Their decisions proved disastrous in multiple areas and countries as diverse as Greece and Finland. The replacement of the national currency with a single euro (with nine of the 28 member states staying outside the eurozone) was a political attempt to integrate the very different nations of the EU.

By sticking to a model that the EU’s dominant power, Germany, insisted on against all economic experience and advice, the EU did immense damage to European economies and antagonized millions of citizens. For example, the European Central Bank’s (ECB) control of interest rates and the value of the shared currency prevented Finland from managing its economy to steer it out of the crisis that began there in 2008.

As a 2016 New Yorker article explained: “Thanks to the euro, the ECB controls both of those things [currency value and interest rates] and also sets targets to prevent any other kind of stimulus through deficit spending. Finland has a technologically literate, hardworking, and well-educated workforce, with little corruption, low levels of government debt, and no home-grown oligarchy—in other words, none of the factors that are sometimes seen as the source of problems for the troubled Southern European economies. Even so, the Finnish economy contracted by 8 percent, more than it did during the Great Depression.”

Its growth has been sluggish since then. As the article sums it up for the EU as a whole, “By creating a single currency without the institutions to sustain it, the EU wound up with low growth, high unemployment, and popular disaffection.”

‘Soulless Mass’

The thinking underlying such supranational developments as the EU was flawed from the start. It was wrong in blaming an independent order of nation-states for the horrors of that blood-soaked period. While World War I was a struggle for empire and between empires, World War II was a struggle to establish a Third Reich, that is, a German empire to succeed the Holy Roman Empire established by Charlemagne and the much shorter-lived Prussian-led German Empire (1871–1918).

The post-Enlightenment empires of Napoleon and the Soviet Union weren’t nationalist in ideology but universalist. They were efforts to establish an imperial order of nations under a unified rule with universal values and laws. War arose not out of the existence of independent nations but out of inter-imperialist rivalry and the drive to subjugate all to a common rule and vision.

Peace and prosperity—not war—were the goal, but one to be achieved through submission, uniform law, and the subjugation of nations. The EU is an imperial project in this sense.

Some 20th-century leaders pointed to the failure of supranational entities, empires in the making, and pointed to precisely what they lacked compared with nations. The great British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher predicted that a unified Europe would become “a materialist, soulless mass, with no idealism left.”

Transnational entities lacked “legitimacy,” France’s great leader General de Gaulle argued. They didn’t have the historical and cultural depth of nations. They were without the ties of mutual loyalty that bind nations together. They left people unable to defend themselves against the technocrats who dominate such institutions.

As de Gaulle’s biographer, Julian Jackson, puts it, “His intuition that a European project built by technocrats would have difficulty in creating a durable sense of common destiny and collective identity seems more compelling than it did 30 years ago.”

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social-welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.


Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.