The birth of a new Rome?

One of the founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, once announced: ‘I am persuaded no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self government.’ Indeed, far from being the anti-imperialists the Americans often proclaim themselves to be, the entire history of the United States has been one of almost constant and relentless expansion. Andrew Bacevich, an academic at the University of Boston, has described this expansion as Washington’s ‘Strategy of Openness’—designed to extend American law, American commerce and American order firstly over the North American continent, and secondly, over the whole world. Whether it is through ‘Manifest Destiny’, ‘Arsenal of Democracy’, ‘New World Order’ or ‘Balance of Power that Favours Freedom’, American foreign policy has held considerable normative power, and Americans have often been willing to impose their values of pluralism and democracy through the application of armed force. Likewise, the two great democracies of the Old World—France and Britain—have also aggressively spread themselves across the globe, colonising and disseminating their shared civilisation as they went.

But what about the European Union? Is it, or should it be, a missionary power? Well, today, José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, provided his assessment of Europe’s place in the world in a session at the European Parliament. On being asked by a parliamentarian: ‘What will the European Union be once this new treaty [the Reform Treaty] is concluded?’, the president responded:

That is a good subject…We are not the United States of Europe in the way as we have the United States of America. We are not at the same time…an international organisation like NATO, OSCE or Council of Europe, or whatever. We are in fact a very special construction, unique, unique in the history of mankind. We never had that kind of organisation—or if you want institutional creation—where we have free countries that are united and that they’ve decided to work together with some degree of cooperation, or even integration. That is what we are. And in fact I don’t know why we should be all the time with existential doubts about it.

We need the European dimension…And the more globalisation goes—and it’s quite obvious that it is there to stay—we will need that dimension more. But at the same time we are not doing it in a way that we are creating a superstate that is diluting the national identities, not at all…

Sometimes I like to compare the European Union as a creation to the organisation of empire…We have the dimension of empire. But there is a great difference: The empires were usually made through force, with a centre that was imposing a diktat, a will, on the others, and now we have what some authors call “the first non-imperial empire”. We have by dimension twenty-seven countries that freely decided to work together to pool their sovereignty, if you want to use that concept of sovereignty and work together to add value. I believe it’s a great construction and we should be proud of it.

So it is official: The European Union is now an ‘empire’. Internally, Mr. Barroso is correct: Europe does have the characteristics of an empire, but one that is universal. Its Member States, from the biggest to the smallest, are all treated equally. There is no ‘emperor’ or ‘imperial court’ imposing rules and regulations on the ‘provinces’, as with past empires. And nor are there any grand fleets or great armies ready to quell regional insurrections. But there is a vast and sprawling landmass of numerous cultures and differences, all bound together with European values of liberal or social democracy, rule of law, tolerance, freedom and solidarity. There is some form of central administration in Brussels where the Member States agree common strategies, policies and frameworks for future action. And there are emerging ‘battlegroups’ to protect the European Union by intervening in foreign lands in order to manage, arrest or put down challenges and hostile threats to European security.

Where, then, does this lead us? First, the European Union is rapidly becoming a major power on the world stage. The articles of the ‘Reform Treaty’ will start to enable Mr. Barroso’s ‘empire’ to project the power of its five-hundred million people and a third of the world’s wealth far beyond our common external border. Second, such a level of aggregated strength should make foreign governments not only afford the European Union the respect we deserve, but also—when necessary—fear our wrath. Third, while we may be as unique and exceptional as the United States, the European Union must also operate in a dangerous and complex world. Much of the world is like a hostile jungle, and we must be ready and willing to use power to confront those who wish to usurp our security, interests and values. Fourth, we have to ensure that the balance between Brussels and the Member States does not become itself ‘imperial’, for this will only alienate Europe’s people. Finally, the European homeland must remain a beacon of tolerance, liberty, solidarity and hope. No one will respect our authority if we become more authoritarian domestically—civil liberties, for example, must be upheld and vigorously protected, even and when we are under attack. The remaining scourges of poverty and injustice must be driven away. And the environment is in need of greater protection.

If we can pull it off, the ‘Reform Treaty’, like the Constitution of the United States, may pave the way for a European version of Jefferson’s ‘extensive empire’ and ‘self-government’. This will constitute an empire of hope in a troubled age. We may even be able to build a new Rome—a continental union projecting light onto the world.

• Is the European Union an ‘empire’? Add your vote to our poll!

• A video of Mr. Barroso’s ‘Europe as “empire”’ speech can be found on YouTube.

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