Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s representative in the Brexit talks, was cheered at the Liberal Democrats party conference as he hailed the end of the age of nation-states, and a new “world order” of “empires”.
“The world order of tomorrow is not a world order based on nation-states, on countries — it’s a world order that is based on empires”, claimed the former prime minister of Belgium — which for its own part has a singularly unpleasant history as an imperial power.
Are empires anything new? A century ago, much of Europe was made up of empires. The Austro-Hungarian empire covered much of Europe. And Britain had a global empire. And, on a smaller scale, so did France and Belgium and Holland. And newly-unified Germany was looking for its own empire, its “place in the sun.”
Isn’t the European Union a bit like the Austro-Hungarian empire? And isn’t Mr Verhofstadt another Franz Ferdinand – and quite likely to meet the same fate? For Gavrilo Princip, his assassin, wanted Bosnian independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire. For no sooner do these empires form than the inmates inside them start revolting against the imperial power.
It’s what happened with the British empire and the the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Russian empire and the Spanish empire and the Portuguese empire and the Dutch empire.
These empires all disintegrated. And they all disintegrate for the same reason: people want to govern themselves, and not be governed by some remote and unaccountable imperial power.
It seems to be a ineluctable natural process almost. A political entity forms, and gradually expands, until it attains some unsustainable scale, and then disintegrates, very often quite suddenly, like a popped balloon or a burst bubble.
WW1 and WW2 brought about the disintegration of all the pre-existing European empires. Western Europe (and much of the rest of the world) thereafter belonged inside the US global imperium. Eastern Europe fell inside the Soviet imperium. And now we’re seeing an emergent Chinese empire. And maybe an Indian one too. And of course Verhofstadt’s new European Empire, whose process of gradual inflation has gone from the initial small European Economic Community to European Union and now European Empire (all the while remaining within the US imperium).
Very arguably, the US imperium is becoming increasingly unsustainable. Americans like Donald Trump are tired of fighting “forever wars” all over the world, and also the US global imperium is increasingly being challenged by Russia and China and now Europe as well. It could be that the US imperium is on the brink of its natural and inevitable disintegration, which will result in a newly isolationist America. Isn’t part of the current internal political argument in the USA between the neocon imperialists and neo-isolationists like Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul (and to a lesser extent Donald Trump)?
What will happen if an isolationist US President brings US troops home from all over the world (including Europe)? No longer able to rely on the USA for its defence, Europe would need its own army. And it’s already taking steps to create one.
And while Verhofstadt had called for an empire “capable of defending our interests”, French President Emmanuel Macron made the extraordinary claim in November 2018 that the bloc needs a “real European army” in order to “protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America”.
The French progressive politician’s call for a “real European army” was backed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr Verhofstadt, and the most powerful of the Brussels bodies the European Commission. Two month later, Germany’s then-defence minister Ursula von der Leyen said that “Europe’s army is already taking shape.”
Mr Farage criticised Mrs von der Leyen, now President-Elect of the European Commission, in July as a “fanatic for building a European army” and accused her of readying to lead a European Union that seeks to “take control of every single aspect of our lives”.
But it could be argued that the European Union (now about to be renamed the European Empire) is already showing signs of disintegration. First there’s Brexit, of course, but the rise of nationalist populism all over Europe is in itself a response to the overly-centralised and unaccountable imperial power in Brussels, and the migrant invasion from the south. It could be that this new European Empire will disintegrate almost as soon as it has formed.