European Empire?

Describing the European Union as an empire is a widespread argument among, for example, anti-EU politicians. Journalist and historian Péter Techet has put this idea into a historical context and reflects on how realistic a European Empire really is.
Peter Techet

By Péter Techet

In the summer of 2016, an article appeared in The New York Times, the author was a certain Marine Le Pen. She welcomed the outcome of the Brexit vote, which she believed would lead to the “People´s Spring”.

Marine Le Pen compared anti-European movements and tendencies with the liberal Vormärz era when peoples had rebelled against empires and supranational dynasties. She even used a word – perhaps unconsciously – nationalist agitators had also used against the Habsburg monarchy: “Prison of peoples”. According to Marine Le Pen, the EU has become a “prison of peoples”. Nationalists of Eastern and Central Europe rejected the Habsburg monarchy with similar vocabulary.

Describing the European Union as an empire is a widespread argument among anti-EU politicians. Thierry Baudet, a Dutch right-wing dandy and politician, wrote in 2012 that not the nationalisms but the idea of a united Europe were dangerous for peace. And Viktor Orbán, Hungarian prime minister, recently called “his people” to fight against “the Empire” – i.e. against the European Union. Such arguments are also supported by some left-wing “anti-imperialists”. However, cities such as Srebrenica and Auschwitz are located in the area of the former Habsburg Empire, and not the multicultural imperialism, but the homogenizing nationalism made these cities places of terror.

Not a spring but a winter of peoples

Two years ago, Robert D. Kaplan advocated for “more empire” in Europe in The New York Times – and he did it during a trip to the Upper Adriatic cities of the former Habsburg monarchy. Ljubljana, Trieste or Rijeka are places that clearly demonstrate how the idea of national homogenization causes conflicts, oppressions of minorities, but also economic collapse and cultural boredom.

Journalist and historian Péter Techet.

Those who refer to the European Union as an empire and reject it as such, should therefore study more the history of the successor states of the Habsburg monarchy. Although all such historical parallels are of course exaggerated, one thing is certain: In Europe, where homogeneity among peoples and within states can only be reached by war and deportation, the end of supranational structures and cooperation would mean not a spring but a winter of peoples.

I am dealing both as a researcher and a journalist with Trieste and Rijeka – i.e. with two cities which are more than only “Italian” or “Croatian”. In Trieste, the project Zeno, where I partly participated, aims to cultivate the imperial heritage not as pure nostalgia or souvenir for old Austrian tourists, but as a mental background for establishing a dynamic, multilingual culture scene which overpasses the boundaries – both in terms of geography and ideas.

The European Union cannot become a nation-state

The European Union cannot become a nation-state: There is no European nation, no European language etc. Those who see the nation-state as the only framework of democracy (such as the German Federal Constitutional Court did) will never accept the European Union as a democratic project. However, a supranational framework beyond the nation state can be built on local identities, such in Trieste or Rijeka. Not in the sense of the historical empires of course – but with the goal of enabling different cultures, languages in the same political space. And in this regard, the memory of imperial time, especially in Eastern and Central Europe, is very helpful for us.

Péter Techet, studied law and history in Budapest, Munich and Regensburg, holds a PhD in Law; he is freelance journalist and researcher in Frankfurt am Main and Budapest, but he is at home in Trieste or Vienna as well. He is dealing with the Habsburg history but also with actual political issues from Central, Eastern and Southern Europe.