Reply to Andrew Roberts on the European ‘Empire’

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On May 18, 2012, the Financial Times published an article written by Mr Andrew Roberts titled “Europe’s hubristic imperial overstretch”, in which the author argues that European integration has gone way too far and, as was the case with previous empires, the European project is certainly going to fail. By confounding voluntary political integration with imperialism; by providing disparate references to history combined with europhobic presumptions and by propounding tissues of egregious fallacies concerning the European integration process, Mr Roberts is led to the following conclusion (emphasis mine):

Germany and France should, therefore, in as orderly and honourable way as they can return to the safety of the original Treaty of Rome, reinstitute the “six” and keep the euro only for those countries that deserve membership on the logical grounds of genuine economic synergy. These are utterly removed from the commission’s hubristic fetish of global hegemony.

Mr Roberts errs fundamentally in taking for granted that the European Union, previously the European Economic Community, was and is an empire. What evidence does he have to justify such a preposterous statement? None whatever, apart from his vast antipathy to European integration. In his futile effort to make a case against the EU he tries to compare the “overstretch” of various empires of the past with the accession of Greece and latter Spain and Portugal to the EEC. He even proceeds to draw parallels between the “big push” of the military expansionism of Napoleon and Hitler towards Russia, with the accession of Greece into the eurozone! In his anxiety to prove how up to date he is on current political events he even makes the unfortunate and completely off-topic remark on US politics, the possible re-election of Mr Obama and the controversial issue of the healthcare system (to prove his unflinching devotion to some ideology?).

Mr Roberts’ article contains a tangle of fallacies ranging from the actual institutional role of the Commission, the common practices in EU politics and the economics underpinning European integration. Yet his core mistake lies in his striking misunderstanding of the concept of “empire” and its derivatives. From time immemorial empires have existed through the use of brute force and there has never been an “economic” empire in the strict sense of the term. Their expansion was always an act of aggression. Their means were slaughter and enslavement. The absolute authority of the emperor and the ruling elite was enforced by a vast machinery of crime and oppression. On the contrary the European Union, or the European Economic Community that preceded it have no such features. The freedoms that people in Europe enjoy today are far superior to the conditions that prevailed a hundred years ago in this war-torn continent, largely due to the European integration process; and things will only get better as the European Union evolves into a genuine political union that will eliminate its temporary imperfections and greatly expand its democratic scope.

What needs to be stressed as a corrective to Mr Roberts’ europhobic fantasies is that European integration is carried out on a voluntary basis.

Greece, Spain and Portugal for instance, whom Mr Roberts seems to consider as mere hubristic annexations to the “Brussels empire”, did not become members of the EEC by means of coercion, but by voluntarily signing treaties, which were ratified in their respective national parliaments by the democratically legitimized representatives of the people. These countries agreed to abide by the rules of the EEC in exchange for abandoning their economic nationalism. They opened up their economies to the rest of the EEC, so that they could enjoy the benefits of membership, such as access to structural/cohesion funds, economies of scale for businesses, more opportunities for skilled workers etc. At the time they pledged to respect and implement the principles of the single market, especially the four freedoms: free movement of goods, persons, capital and services (also note that the European citizenship has greatly expanded the scope of the free movement of persons and their freedom of establishment).

There was no coercion in this process, no aggressive expansionism either by use of hard or soft power, no trench wars, no bombings of cities or massacres of civilians, no people starving to death and children left orphans on the street, no refugees, no members of the opposition jailed and persecuted etc. as a true empire would be expected to do in its ruthless quest for “global hegemony”. No sir! There only was the conscious political decision of democratic states to voluntarily join a community of other states. This is the sovereign right of every nation, of every people, either some like it or not. Whether these states were right or wrong in their choices can only be answered by an accurate cost-benefit analysis of all aspects of political, social and economic life, using actual data, not some dubious references to a non-existent empire.

After all this alleged apparatus of imperialism, whose voracious appetite will only be sufficed by global hegemony is liberal enough to allow its member-states to withdraw their membership: a right that is expressly stated in the Treaty of Lisbon and which international law and jurisprudence (the Doctrine of Necessity) would anyway confer, even in the absence of such an article in the Treaties. Thus Mr Roberts’ arguments, fallacious and inconsistent as they undoubtedly are, also lack any sense of proportion, which is essential in making just comparisons and legitimate criticisms.

To speak therefore of a “Brussels empire” and to attribute to the European Commission a “hubristic fetish of global hegemony” is, by all means, a sign of stunning ignorance that cannot be grounded on any particular criterion other than that of blind fanaticism.

It is one thing to argue persuasively against the occasional flaws of the European Union, by pointing out existing weaknesses and omissions; and another to obliterate the distinction between coercion and volition -between empire and union of states- which is essentially what Mr Roberts did in the most distasteful of ways.

His slanderous arguments constitute a crass misinterpretation of reality that might be fashionable enough for those who oppose the European integration process for whatever reason that may be – they have every right to do so after all. However even the most vociferous critics of the EU and the most fervent detractors of the idea of a political union in Europe ought to base their arguments on actual facts and reasonable arguments. Instead, Mr Roberts presented before the public an amalgamation of absurdities, groundless fears, cheap propaganda and flatly false remarks for the sake of indicating to France and Germany the appropriate way of doing politics.

The true hubris is not that of the Commission’s “fetish of global hegemony” but Mr Roberts’ multi-illegitimate assertions against the authority of reason and of facts.