hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 24 October 2014

Imperium: Why Europe Must Re-establish Equilibrium


Alphen, Netherlands. 24 October. Henry Kissinger in his brilliant new book “World Order” writes: “The vitality of an international order is reflected in the balance it strikes between legitimacy and power and the relative emphasis given to each…If the balance between power and legitimacy is properly managed actions will acquire a degree of spontaneity…When that balance is destroyed, restraints disappear, and the field opens to the most expansionist claims and the most implacable actors; chaos follows until a new system of order is established”.  This week newly-confirmed Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker demonstrated just how he sees the role of his European Commission; an Imperium founded on three dangerous principles - false legitimacy, intolerance and implacability. 

This week in Vienna I stood next to the car in which on 28 June 1914 the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian Empire Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo together with his wife Archduchess Sophie.  A small hole still evident in the rear door of the car was the “shot that rang around the world” and triggered the collapse of European order and World War One.  That such a small hole could lead to a Europe engulfed in chaos and destruction reflected a Europe that had lost the essential political equilibrium between power and legitimacy that Kissinger identifies as critical to order. 

The Europe of 2014 is fast losing political equilibrium.  Within the EU this slide is most obviously represented by Britain’s growing estrangement from Brussels.  Often this debate is expressed simplistically as symptoms of politics rather than reflections of structural and strategic change, such as immigration.  Many Britons fail to realise that pan-European migration is as much a consequence of the West’s victory in the Cold War and the downing of the Iron Curtain as it is EU rules that enshrine free movement.  Indeed, something like free movement would be apparent EU or no EU because it was one reason why the Cold War was fought. 

Sadly, the British also fail to see that political disequilibrium across Europe is being driven in part by an EU that is today neither alliance nor federation but a strange amalgam of the two, albeit with only one direction of travel.  Worse, a divided London also fails to understand that the implicit anti-Britishness of the European Commission (see the number of Britons working for the Commission) is in part driven by a desire by Brussels to replace Britain in the traditional role of power balancer. With a properly strategic view Britain could still act as the traditional balancer of implicit power that is the EU.  The strategy is clear; punish Britain for dissent and ‘reward’ Germany and France to signal to Berlin and Paris that the Commission wishes to ‘rule’ Europe in conjunction with a re-invigorated Franco-German axis.

This drift towards Imperium and the Commission’s role as balancer is all-too-apparent in today’s announcement Britain must pay a surprise additional levy of £1.7bn (€2.1bn) to the European Commission, adding a fifth to Britain’s EU bill whilst at the same time France and Germany will be offered rebates.  Britain is of course not alone in being asked to pay more.  Ludicrous though it is Greece too has been asked to cough up.  However, Britain has been hit with by far the biggest bill.  The Commission suggests (as it always does) that this hike in Britain’s payment is a purely technical matter.  In fact the timing and the manner by which the Commission has ‘calculated’ the ‘growth’ in Britain’s wealth since 1995 is entirely spurious and utterly political.   

As equilibrium evaporates within the EU the Commission is instead trying to reinvent itself as a form of Imperium in which it is the sole guardian of the 'rules'.  Imperia are about power and they express power usually in various forms of taxation that are designed to both confirm power and maintain an imbalance of power.  The EU today is fast consolidating around the Eurozone as for Juncker and the federalists the single currency for all its disastrous flaws remains at the centre of the European Project and the move towards “ever closer union” as enshrined in both the 1951 Treaty of Paris and the 1957 Treaty of Rome. 

The idea of the implacable Imperium Commission was reinforced by an absolutist speech by outgoing Commission President Jose Manual Barroso in London this week. Barroso told his audience he wanted a ‘fair’ deal for Britain before telling the British people that resistance is futile.  Specifically, Barroso told the British that there can be no re-visiting of the 1957 Treaty of Rome because the treaty enshrines the four fundamental freedoms; goods, services, capital and people.  This is nonsense.

The founding treaties were drafted in a very different age and a very different world.  However, for an increasingly political Commission power is justified and codified by the Commission’s maximalist interpretation of those self-same founding treaties.  Any treaty amendment now could only mean less power for the Commission.  Therefore, implicit in this week’s raft of Commission actions is not just recognition of the coming power struggle but also the political method of Jean-Claude Juncker; “divide et impera” (“divide and rule”).  A core function of Imperia is to re-distribute wealth from the dissenting margins to the faithful core.  Such actions also demonstrate why David Cameron’s efforts to reform the EU are almost certainly doomed to fail and that the best he can hope for are a few political fig-leaves.  Much will depend on Berlin and which side it takes.

Britain is not alone in expressing concern.  The May 2014 elections to the European Parliament revealed growing popular dissent at the centralisation of power in Europe.  Democratically the elections were a chance for the European Parliament to evolve from a rubber-stamping, cheer-leading puppet of the Commission into a real legislature imposing accountability on power via checks and balances.  Instead, this week Euro-sceptic groups representing up to 30% of the electorate were systematically denied leadership of key parliamentary committees by Juncker’s fellow federalists.  Indeed, there is now a very real danger that the European Parliament will become much like the Roman Senate under imperial rule in first century AD Rome; a political facade for illegitimate action. 

The problem for Juncker and his ilk is that they fail to see that if they implacably try to impose ever-closer union from the top-down they will exacerbate political disequilibrium between Europe’s core and periphery and between the elite and the people.  Implicit in the Juncker Strategy seems to be a political gambit.  Confront those states outside the Eurozone with the consequences of marginalisation by taxing them to the point they conclude that their best interests are served by joining the Euro and thus the Imperium. Certainly, today’s surprise levy moves Britons ever closer to a dangerously simple choice; vassal state or Brexit. 

Imperia do not just exert pressure on their margins.  They also impose order on neighbours in the form of tribute.  Russia’s actions in Ukraine and aggression against Eastern Europe are utterly unforgivable.  However, when I speak to senior Russians they clearly see themselves cast in the role of Sparta to what Moscow sees (and not without irony) as Brussels’s Athens.  In the fifth century BC Thucydides argued that the attack by Sparta (the Peloponnesian League) on Athens was a pre-emptive strike to halt the growth in Athenian power that would sooner or later eclipse Sparta.  

So can equilibrium be restored?  The great adage of the American Revolutionary War “no taxation without representation” is as good a starting place as any.  For that reason now is precisely the moment when the EU treaties SHOULD be revisited.  First, a new balance of obligations and responsibilities must be established between those in the Real EU (the Eurozone) and those not. Such a treaty would tidy up the huge number of inconsistencies and unfairnesses across the Union that is helping to accelerate disequilibrium.  Second, new treaties will be needed with the powerful non-EU peripheral powers such as Russia, Turkey and Ukraine that have a direct interest in the changing nature and reach of the EU and which are reacting more or less competently to Europe’s new disequilibrium.   

For me the greatest tragedy is that I still believe deeply in the ideal of Europe and the idea of sovereign European states working closely together in pursuit of peace and prosperity.  However, the over-concentration of power in a few elite hands ‘legitimised’ by a one-view-fits-all European Parliament 'majority' that marginalises dissent however obnoxious is not the Europe I can believe in.  Indeed, as the gap between power and legitimacy grows and with it Europe’s loss of political equilibrium a very real danger exists is that the EU will take on much the same form as the Roman Republic in the aftermath of Octavian’s coup.  As the Great Henry suggests sooner or later “chaos follows until a new system of order is established”.

Europe must re-establish political equilibrium before it is too late and that means real fairness, proper accountability and the encouragement rather than punishment of political diversity.  

Julian Lindley-French

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