“…no amount of power can withstand the hatred of the many…For fear is but a poor safeguard of lasting power; while affection, on the other hand, may be trusted to keep it safe for ever”.
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Alphen, Netherlands. 14 December. Ten days ago on a flight from Amsterdam to Rome I re-read some of the Phillipicae; the fourteen great orations made by Marcus Tullius Cicero between 44 and 43 BC condemning Mark Anthony for his campaign to replace the Roman Republic with a permanent ‘Dictatorship’ in the wake of the March 44 BC assassination of Julius Caesar. One of Cicero’s many conceits was his belief that he could protect the Republic by supporting the adopted son of Caesar, Octavian. It was to prove one of history’s great miscalculations. Octavian went on to become the emperor of emperors and destroyed what was left of the Republic, albeit in the very name of the Republic. A crude form of representative politics was thus replaced by the executive power of one man; Octavian became Caesar Augustus.
Last week in Bucharest I warned of the dangers of power without strategy. Watching Europe’s leaders and the EU fail to grapple with a succession of crises - the Eurozone, Libya, Ukraine, the migration crisis, IS, and Syria - reminded me of the dangers of making strategy without power. This week one of those seemingly interminable EU Summits will take place after another momentous year of momentous elite failure. One reason for the serial strategic failure of both the EU and European leaders is a Europe that hovers dangerously and ineffectively between an uber-pluralistic ‘Republic’, an ever-more centralised ‘Empire’, or just plain chaos. Europe really is at an historic tipping point.
The EU has become a bloody awful way NOT to do things. This week’s Summit will no doubt continue that dubious tradition. EU leaders will no doubt talk at great length about the Eurozone crisis, the migration crisis, Syria, Russia, and no doubt agree some Euro-technocratic issues. David Cameron will no doubt prattle on about Brexit and plead with his politely-disinterested fellow leaders to get him out of a political mess that is entirely of his own making. Never has a leader believed less in a policy of his own making, or defended it so badly. The Presidency Conclusions of little Luxembourg will then be briefly discussed, before the Netherlands is invited to sort out this unholy mess during the first half of 2016…and report back next June.
However, the one thing assembled leaders will not discuss will be the greatest challenge the Europe and the EU faces; how to aggregate enormous effective power through new ‘architecture’ without in so doing rendering said power so far from the individual citizen that the EU becomes a bureaucratic empire, and a representative democracy in name only. One of the many reasons the Roman republic collapsed was the inability of Rome to govern an increasingly diverse empire, preserve the delicate balance between Rome’s aristocratic families who held power through the Senate, and hold meaningful elections that gave the Roman citizenry some sense that they too had a say in and over power.
The essential question is what balance to strike between collective and common action. The High Priests of Project Europe would suggest the only way is for the collective approach itself to be abandoned and ‘common’ policies be adopted in their place. In other words, if Europe is to deal with big challenges it must create a big new state called ‘Europe’. However, the notion of ‘Europe’ is theology not action and in any case its very forced creation (for that is what it would have to be) would effectively mark the end of ‘Republic’ and the creation of ‘Empire’.
The genius of Caesar Augustus was to continue with the form of representative politics, but destroy the substance. Citizens stilled queued on the Campus Martius to vote, and Senators still met to debate. However, neither group had any power or any real influence. Indeed, the ballots they cast were meaningless, and the ‘laws’ they enacted simply rubber-stamped the will of Caesar, much like the European Parliament does today.
Rome’s Imperial system worked for a time because it was led by able emperors who understood that efficiency and effectiveness were vital to ensure and assure one-man rule via the ‘legitimacy’ of delivery. Indeed, Roman ‘virtue’ became for a time equated with imperial efficiency, effectiveness and, indeed, expansion. In effect Caesar Augustus offered Roman citizens the same deal the Chinese Communist Party offers the Chinese middle classes today – slavery in return for prosperity and stability. However, the moment the emperors were no longer able to offer such a deal, or when absolute power corrupted insanely and the likes of Nero and Caligula gained power by right of succession, then Rome began its long descent to collapse and chaos.
Liberal democratic state power is the key to meeting Europe’s crises. Indeed, Europe needs less common action and more collective action. Indeed, if Europeans are to be led back to safety, starting right now, it is vital Europe’s power states – Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain - act. Only then will decisive action be at all possible and even vaguely legitimate. The EU would continue to function as a Senate and debate and advise power. And, of course, this new power oligarchy would need to be utterly sensitive to the views of other Europeans. It would also help if the three seriously big powers - Britain, France and Germany - could actually agree on big things and the need for solidarity at this time of crisis. However, as the risks and threats Europeans face together become ever more apparent Europe’s big powers will have little alternative but to stand together or fall divided. As for the EU, it is incapable of dealing with the crises Europe faces today, and too often is part of the problem.
Getting that balance right between power, action and legitimacy is the single most important strategic and political challenge the EU faces today. It is a challenge that must be met by power.
The EU: republic, empire, or just chaos?