A daily blog on the thrills, spills, and frequent absurdities of the world's one and only 'non-imperial empire' - as Barroso himself called it - the European Union.

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Friday, 27 May 2011

The EU Has a Lot to Learn from Libya

Charlemagne, hero of European integrationists. His own empire collapsed into three separate states.
Picture by FoekkeNoppert on Wikimedia.

One of the fundamental problems with politicians is their ability to conceive ideas above their station, to take on vague challenges and ill-considered objectives that, humans being what they are and the world being what it is, are simply impossible to achieve. Modern political discourse is filled with such ideas: the abolition of poverty, the ending of racism, complete egalitarianism in race, colour, and creed. The only thing these goals have in common is that they are all equally unattainable, from a purely realistic standpoint. To achieve them you'd have to do nothing less than completely subvert human nature; and not even the Soviet Union could do that.

The attempts to complete these noble objectives often do more harm than good. Rather than eradicating poverty, all that's been achieved is a lot more money going to warlords and corrupt officials in the Third World, and a lot higher taxes on the poor at home. Rather than ending racism, what we've actually done is enforce quotas and discrimination that increase distrust and suspicion, and in an attempt to celebrate other cultures whilst denying our own have laid the groundwork for major civil unrest and ethnic conflict. But there is one idea that could do far more damage than diversity laws; the idea of the 'non-imperial empire.' The idea that the worst consequences of competing nations can be mitigated by integration into a supra-national authority.

No sooner had news broke from Serbia about the arrest of alleged war criminal Ratko Mladic, than Barroso held an extraordinary press conference to say that a major obstacle to Serbian integration had been swept away, and that, in his own words, it was 'essential on Serbia's path to EU membership.' The former general was actually arrested whilst the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Baroness Catherine Ashton, was en route to Belgrade to warn of the consequences of not delivering Europe's most-wanted man to international authorities. The executive body of the European Union has long maintained that European integration was essential to curbing the worst excesses of Balkan nationalism - only by integration into a multi-national body, they claim, can ethnic nationalism be curtailed.

What, exactly, do they think the former Yugoslavia was before its collapse? Or the USSR, for that matter? They were both artificial political constructs that stretched over national boundaries - nation as in an ethnic, linguistic, or cultural community. Ideology or intention is irrelevant: it is an undisputable historical fact that political constructions, created for temporary political, social, or economic advantage, collapse long before their naturally-evolved counterparts. The latter, the typical nation-state, were created by a community of people with shared speech and customs for the purposes of the divison of labour, the pooling of resources, and mutual defence. The former was created by a political and economic elite, with or without (usually without) the consent of the people, to allow their nations or peoples to work together for an objective: political unity, stability, and economic supremacy. The latter has a strong, stable base, firmly entrenched by mutual consent and a sense of community and society. The former has only temporary political or economic conditions to hold it together, and, when these are no longer relevant, or when the union is no longer in the perceived best interests of the people, they will always collapse.

Take the UK, for example: as it has existed for three hundred years, it is one of the most successful artificial states out there (although even it is facing problems). We often don't regard it as artificial at all, as we don't see our fellow British citizens as foreigners - even Gaelic-speakers and Welsh-speakers are seen by everyone as British. However, Europeans still regard each other as foreign: we don't place the French and Icelanders in the same mental group as we place the Scots, for example, and I'm sure they don't regard us as their fellow countrymen, either. This lack of a sense of community may be outdated, according to some ideologues who subscribe to Utopian ideals, but it is there, and it ultimately means that the disparate groups within any such union will work to their own interests and their own agenda. That's hardly a good foundation for a 'state under construction,' as Elmar Brok once described the European Union.

Other European nations are less fortunate; not united by a common language or a conveniently-placed island, they have to contend with frequent separatist disputes and political paralysis. Yes, I am talking about Belgium, which now holds the world record for the longest time a country has gone without a government in peacetime, beating even Iraq (that's another example of artificial states going up the Khyber, by the way, and my not-so-subtle reference to Afghanistan there was another one) and faces the prospect of being divided between France and the Netherlands. Belgium is not authoritarian, either, it is federal and had a functioning democracy.

The Ivory Coast, a nation divided neatly along ethnic and religious lines between north and south, recently had a civil war. Libya, at the moment, was formerly two countries, and is now split along its previous borders, largely due to tribal affiliations and economic disparities. And what about South Sudan, created as part of a peace deal after a civil war killed millions of people? Even the UK, although less awash with arms and ammunition, with a shared language and culture, could be dissolved if the Scottish electorate vote for independence. There's no way that the European leaders are unaware of these events; they probably know far more about the collapse of these artificial, multi-national governments than we do, yet still they think that the creation of one massive one is the way forward for Europe?

Most of the countries they see collapsing on their television screens have one or two major divisions, with one or two tribes or nations, often speaking the same language. The EU has twenty-seven major divisions, with thirty-five or so major nations, and hundreds of small ones. Most of the countries that are breaking down across Africa and the Middle East have no economic divisions. Europe has several major economic divisions; east and west, north and south, Germany and France and everyone else. What makes Europe or Europeans so special that they won't go the same way as everyone else who's ever tried this - including their own ancestors? The highest honour for a federalist is to be awared the Charlemagne Prize, a reward named for a great Frankish emperor who united most of western Europe. But Charlemagne's empire collapsed into many smaller competing kingdoms, no more than fifty years after Charlemagne himself was dead.

The European Union, in its rush to award itself governmental powers, and in its blind insistence that integration is the way to prevent nationalism, is ignoring events in its doorstep; it is ignoring thousands of years of human experience, and it its ignoring conflicts that are happening now. There is no logic whatsoever behind replacing one collapsed artificial country with another one, on a much bigger scale with many more divisions, and expecting it to work. Ultimately, the European Union will do as every other empire or political union in history has done, and collapse: but it will be the peoples of Europe who will pay the price.

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