In recent years, given its centenary, I’ve been thinking about WW1, and how Europe was made up back then of a set of rival empires. There was the British empire, the French empire, the Belgian empire, the Dutch empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and the Russian empire, and the nascent Italian and German empires as well. Pretty much the whole of the rest of the world had been divided up between these various empires. Anyone who wanted to be anybody had to have an empire. If you didn’t have an empire, you were a complete nobody.
But at the same time that all these European nations had been building themselves empires with colonies all over the world, many of these colonies were beginning to demand independence from whichever European nation to whose empire they belonged. And the British colonies in north America were the first to gain their independence. And the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in south America followed shortly afterwards, so that by about 1900 the empires of Spain and Portugal had largely evaporated. They had become ex-empires.
The desire for independence extended to the nations in the Austro-Hungarian empire, which was itself a patchwork of European states, many of which also wanted independence and autonomy. And it was the assassination in 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Bosnian separatist that triggered the outbreak of WW1, and the four years of carnage that followed.
That’s an outline sketch of the state of affairs 100 years ago.
And in many ways, this is more or less exactly the same state of affairs today.
For today what we see in Europe is a new empire, the European Union, which emerged about 70 years ago as a collection of European states – principally Germany and France -, and has gradually expanded until now it extends almost as far as Russia and Turkey. The European Union is rather like the old landlocked Austro-Hungarian empire, only much larger. And as with Austria-Hungary there are growing calls for independence from the EU empire in growing numbers of its member states.
The clearest example of this has been the Brexit vote of 2016, in which the British voted to leave the EU, to the consternation of many people in Europe (and many people in Britain). But this growing demand for independence is a quite natural response to the centralisation of more and more power in Brussels, the nominal capital city of the European Union. Most people want to govern themselves, and not be governed by remote authorities hundreds or even thousands of miles away. So it should come as no surprise to anybody that, as Brussels has grown in power, that there are growing demands for much of that power (and perhaps all of it) to be handed back to member states. In recent years European internal politics has become a tug-of-war between the core European states (France and Germany) and the peripheral new member states. Only last week German chnacellor Angela Merkel was calling for yet more centralisation of power:
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that European Union (EU) member states must be prepared to transfer powers over to Brussels at a debate on the ‘tensions’ between globalisation and national sovereignty.
“Nation states must today be prepared to give up their sovereignty,” Merkel said, speaking at an event organised by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin on Wednesday.
“In an orderly fashion of course,” Merkel said, explaining that — while Germany had given up some of its sovereignty in order to join the EU, national parliaments were in charge of deciding whether to sign up to international treaties.
Exactly the same tensions were present within the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1914, and were present in all empires in every other era of history, including the Roman empire. And these internal tensions always eventually lead to the fall of empires. And so it can be predicted with certainty that this latest European empire, the European Union, will sooner or later go the same way as all the empires that preceded it.
And the same might be said of all the other empires in the world, including the largest of all empires, the US empire (which seems to be in a state of near civil war at the moment). And if the Russian Federation, and China, and India, can all be regarded as continental empires much like the European Union (which is actually a sub-empire of the US empire, with aspirations of independence from it), then all of these are sooner or later likely to exhibit the same internal tensions as always accompanies empire.
The growing tensions within the European Union might be depicted as being between the central, founding states (blue) and the peripheral, latecomer states (pink. In an equivalent map of the Roman empire, Italy would have been the central founding state, with all its colonies as peripheral members.
At present the European political class (who might be regarded as a modern aristocracy) are united in their determination to hold the empire together. But with growing nationalist/populist movements in nearly every single member state, the current European political class is gradually ceasing to represent its peoples. And so there are likely to be populist governments elected in one country after another, each of them demanding independence from Brussels. And Brussels (as just illustrated by Angela Merkel) will be trying to retain and even increase its powers.
And at some point, inevitably, the breaking point will be reached. For the more that Brussels acts to re-assert and extend its power, the more determined the peoples in the members states will become to regain their independence and autonomy. These internal tensions can only grow, and must eventually become overwhelming.
The current attempt of Britons to escape the European Union looks set to be thwarted by the pro-European political class in Westminster. But if that happens, the likelihood will be that British popular secessionism will only get stronger, and re-emerge a decade or two later even stronger than before. And it may well have allies in several of the other EU member states. For such alliances are beginning to be formed:
Italy’s Salvini allies with Hungary on anti-migration manifesto
And so we’ll soon see a Triple Entente of some sort emerging among European member states, and corresponding Triple Alliance opposing them.
It’ll be just like Europe in 1914. The only thing missing are the armies they all had back then. But this is about to change too.
Merkel joins Macron in calling for EU army
It won’t be long long before the secessionist member states start building their own armies in response to this EU army.
And then everything will be in place for another European war.