The Empires Strike Back in Europe

A new World View contribution from Europe should begin at the beginning. What is going to happen in 2013? There have been plenty of well-informed predictions for how Europe's debt crisis will unfold this year, most of which, as a simple fact of mathematics, will have to prove wrong.

More interestingly, some of the continent's best thinkers have been going back to the future, following that portentous aphorism of U.S. philosopher George Santayana that: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So what, and from which piece of the region's long and fractious history, can the past teach us about Europe's future?

The Economist magazine, in its Christmas issue, plumps for a comparison of the European Union with the Holy Roman Empire in the period from the mid-17century to its demise in 1806. But, says the writer, don’t think of this as a warning from the “chaotic mess of rotted imperial forms and unfinished territories,” quoting Heinrich von Treitschke, a 19-century Prussian historian, on the empire. The Economist takes a more positive, revisionist approach.

Its interpretation draws inspiration from the work of Peter Claus Hartmann, a German historian at the University of Mainz, who says that “the old empire, though not powerful politically or militarily, was extraordinarily diverse and free by the standards of Europe at the time.” Referring to the Reichstag, or imperial diet, of 1652-53 that the Economist compares to contemporary EU summit meetings (only "more fun"), it says:

EU leaders today need not fear a "looser union." They could welcome the crisis as an opportunity to refine and fix the EU’s federalist structures. This would mean embracing the reality of dual (meaning ambiguous) sovereignty, shared between emperor and princes then, between Brussels and member states now.

If the Holy Roman Empire worked well, why then did it fall apart? The answer is that two of its members -- Austria and Brandenburg-Prussia -- “outgrew the empire." The lesson again today is to watch Germany, which with the acquisition of much of the old Brandenburg-Prussia (aka the former communist East Germany) has become so much more powerful than before, that when it broke the rules of the euro area's Stability and Growth Pact it was not disciplined, as it should have been and as smaller nations such as Ireland and Greece have been since. The Economist argues that these two facts, the sudden expansion of Germany and failure to make it bend to rules, lie at the origin of today’s euro-area crisis.

Until last year, Robert Cooper was the EU’s senior foreign-affairs strategist. He draws his inspiration from the Habsburg monarchy and Austro-Hungarian Empire, which collapsed in 1918. “It was both solid and flexible,” he wrote last month in Transit, an online journal by the Vienna-based Institute of Human Sciences. Habsburg rule lasted 500 years and “it aroused genuine affection among its citizens. But it vanished in a puff of smoke. Should we expect the European Union, shallow in history and unloved by those it serves, to do better?”

Actually Cooper corrects himself; the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not so much vanish in a puff of smoke as in a four-year inferno of artillery during World War I. “Like the Habsburg Monarchy,” he says, “the EU is not a nation state but a complex confection of states, nations, centralized bureaucracy and local autonomy.” He goes on:

Above all both the Habsburg Monarchy and the EU have provided a home for the small nations of Europe who would have difficulty surviving alone: in the nineteenth century, their need was to avoid being at the mercy of the less liberal German and Russian Empires. Had it not been for the catastrophe of war, the Habsburg Monarchy would have continued to develop in its haphazard way.

And the lesson of history? What brought down the empire was the “uncontrolled expansion of armies and navies," according to Cooper, "when few understood the implications of the new military technology.” Today the equivalent threat comes from “uncontrolled global financial markets dealing in instruments that few comprehend,” and the resulting crisis “strikes at the heart of the EU," he says. If, as a result:

The EU ceases to be a bringer of prosperity but becomes instead a cause of impoverishment, it too will collapse. Because, unlike the Habsburg Monarchy, the EU is not a state but a collection of states, its collapse will not begin at the center, but at the edges…the fish rots from tail, not the head. The explosion will come not in Brussels but on the streets of Athens, Rome or Madrid.

Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian and one of Europe's smartest thinkers, seems to differ. Over the past year, he has written several essays in which he counselled drawing lessons from the demise of the former Soviet Union, to help avoid a collapse of the EU. One of his points is that, “in the absence of war or other extreme circumstances,” disintegration “comes not from destabilization on the periphery but from a revolt at the center. According to Krastev, "it was Russia’s choice to get rid of the union rather than the Baltic republics’ ever-present desire to run away from it that determined the fate of the Soviet state.”

Today, it is Germany’s view of what is happening in the European Union that will more decisively affect the future of the European project than the troubles in the Greek or Spanish economies. When the "winners" of integration start to view themselves as its major victims, then it is certain that big trouble is imminent.

So less an historical crystal ball for Europe's future than a snow globe populated by historical characters, from which you can pick your lessons for the future: an ever-looser Holy Roman European Union; an Austro-Hungarian disintegration triggered from the periphery; or a Soviet breakup from the center. History is invaluable and only fools ignore it, but with due respect to Santayana, I would offer the same advice as lawyers tag onto investment-fund marketing materials: Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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