Brexit and the Decline of a European Union Empire?

Discussion of the UK’s negotiations to leave the European Union has evolved around the British side’s problems of extrication. Rather less has been revealed about how the process has affected the European Union. What kind of institution is it? It is not a state as it lacks a common army and police force, hierarchical governing institutions, a common currency and a national identity. Its constituent parts, the member states, retain powers over significant areas of political life: foreign affairs, the management of national budgets, and control of the armed forces and police. 

Some contend that it is an empire. Empires have in common a metropolitan centre exercising power over dependent peripheries. The British and French colonial empires were distinguished by the imperial powers having direct control over the making and administration of laws and a monopoly over trade in their colonies. There was a clear demarcation of the central sovereign powers and the dependent periphery. 

Nineteenth century empires have been replaced by a more subtle form of political hegemony. Territorial power enforced by armies has been superseded by states or groups of states exercising normative power legitimated by ideology – a form of non-territorial power. In this latter sense power is exercised by dominant states to further their values and institutions - such as democracy, communism or a capitalist free-market economy. 

Discourse considers whether the hegemonic power asserting such values is acting altruistically or exploitatively: whether these new ‘empires’ had rulers presiding over subject peoples; or whether power was exercised by political leaders in a benevolent way to promote the well being of all the constituent parts. Such control may be legal, cultural or exercised through the use of force. Some view the United States as a leader of the free world motivated to maintain universal values, whereas its critics consider it a form of domination. Both sides, however, concede that the USA presides over an empire.

The European Union as Empire

Those who consider the EU an empire point to the establishment of borders, the ‘othering’ of outsiders, the powers vested in the Commission exercised over the member states, the propensity of the Union to enlarge and dominate neighbours, and, most important of all, its ability to force member states to conform to its laws. While the member states, at some time, may have agreed to the laws, they cannot unilaterally change them.

But the EU cannot be an empire similar to the former British and French imperial domains. In 2007, Jose Manuel Barroso (President of the European Commission and Prime Minister of Portugal) put its character as an empire in a new positive context. "What we have is the first non-imperial empire," he declared. "We have 27 countries that fully decided to work together and to pool their sovereignty. I believe it is a great construction and we should be proud of it." The EU is a ‘liberal’ empire in the sense that it promotes markets in the single economy, and legitimates politics through electoral processes, primarily based in the member states.

The European Union from its foundation has been based on the neo-liberal principle of a self-sustaining single market and the unimpeded movement of the factors of production in which member states (guided by the Commission and legal precedents) provide a regulative function. As the Preamble to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union puts it: ‘The Union…seeks to promote balanced and sustainable development and ensures free movement of persons, goods, services and capital and the freedom of establishment’ [1]

The market coordinates activities: capital moves to where it is most profitable, goods and services to places where there is the greatest demand, and people move from where there is unemployment and poverty to more prosperous areas. Or they move to better themselves - migrants get new jobs and labour costs are reduced. These principles ensure the unrestricted rights of capital to purchase assets, to establish companies in, and receive profits from, any part of the Union. They also prevent states from controlling capital flows and migration. 

The Acquis Communautaire

In order to promote an ‘even playing field’, the EU has laid down in the thirty-three chapters of the acquis communautaire the laws and comprehensive regulations which bind together the member states. The acquis is the instrument which defines the Union as an empire. Its non-territorial power is predicated on its underlying neo-liberal philosophy, the consequences of which are binding legally, and enforced through economic and political sanctions – but not military intervention. As it has no armed forces to enforce its laws, it can claim to promote peace. In practice it utilises economic sanctions as a form of war. 

Whereas the EU’s supporters have championed its altruistic motives to promote ‘sustainable’ development, critics claim that the Commission has promoted the interests of dominant European corporate economic and political elites. As early as 1975, in opposing the proposed membership of the United Kingdom to the Common Market, Barbara Castle, then a Labour Minister under Harold Wilson, argued that it was ‘an exclusive association’ which would deprive the UK government of exercising policies in the national interest. She contended that joining the EU, ‘gives them priority in everything, priority in access to our markets, to trading relations, policy making, [the definition of] civic rights, the rights of movement, the rights to work and priority over the rights of people of every other country in the world…’ (Speech to Oxford Union). 

Hence the relationship of the UK to the EU would be that of a subject dependent on the rules and jurisdiction of the Union – a condition of empire. Since then the Union has enlarged taking in New Member States from the east and south – all bound into the EU by the acquis. All pool their sovereignty, but some pool more than others. 

What Kind of Empire?

Are there hegemonic and subaltern states in the Union? Clearly at the centre is a hegemonic bloc: formed by Germany, which is economically dominant, both in terms of GDP and industrial capacity, partnered by France and the UK which have political substance – both being permanent members of the UN Security Council and nuclear powers. While legally each member state in the Council of Ministers has one vote, in practice, these three states are hegemonic. The states in the south and east (particularly the New Member States), given their relative economic backwardness and weak political clout, are subaltern. 

In the neo-liberal world, when democracy comes into conflict with law, law is primary and, as Friedrich von Hayek has put it, democracy has a ‘hygienic’ function: ‘it assures that political processes are conducted in a sanitary fashion…’ As clearly indicated by the recent history of Greece, when confronted with the economic power of Germany and the Commission of the EU, subaltern states are powerless. The Union has effectively integrated the economic and social life of the member states and subjected them to the laws and regulations administered by the Commission. Rather than a regional association or commonwealth, the EU had the character of an empire as it can enforce sanctions against any member state. 

Divisions within Empire

Problems arise, however, when the effects of the empire’s policies are beneficial for the political elites but have detrimental consequences for the citizens of the member states. Numerous academic studies, over a long period of time, have shown the political separation between the political elites and political classes in the member states who generally favour membership of the European Union, and the electorate, who are sceptical. This becomes even more pronounced when the latter has sufficient electoral power to challenge the legitimacy of the empire. 

Member states within the empire still have residual democratic powers and governments can choose to leave. However, it is economically and politically unsustainable under current circumstances for any but the three hegemonic states to leave. There are enormous costs to states which seek to depart and these would not be mitigated by the European Union which cannot afford to allow former member states to have access to its markets and assets on the same terms as it members. By amplifying the costs of exit, the EU plays into the hands of the political classes in the member states who, by and large, have been in favoured by the empire. 

Exit of the UK

Consider the case of the UK. Rather than promoting a withdrawal agreement concurrently with an arrangement about future trade and political relations, the EU insisted on a ‘withdrawal agreement’ first. The objective of the EU’s negotiations is to promote conditions which cannot favour the leaver, and some would contend that they seek to penalise the leaver. This is a continuation of the EU policy of binding members into the EU in such a way that it is economically and politically unsustainable for states to leave. 

The major fault for the current impasse to an orderly departure of the UK from the EU lies in the conditions offered by the centre of the empire in Brussels. The EU seeks to maintain its current favourable terms to enter the UK market and to retain the large positive financial contribution to the EU budget. It must show potential leavers that life outside the empire is fraught with difficulties. 

The present clash between the EU Commission and the British government is not only a confrontation between the hegemon of empire and a nation state but also one between the European political class and countervailing national elites and publics. Currently, between 60 and 80 per cent of the UK’s members of Parliament identify with the Union and are in favour of remaining. The objective of many is either to sabotage the exit process or to secure an exit agreement formally honouring the results of the referendum but nevertheless keeping the UK bound to EU rules. 

Such an outcome would discredit not only the British political class but would reveal the electoral process as a mere ‘hygienic function’. This is because the leaders of the major British political parties as well as their election manifestos have endorsed the results of the referendum – to quit the European Union. Electoral democracy is said to have one advantage – the results of elections are binding on all participants. In such a political vacuum might arise anti-systemic movements similar to those in Germany, France, Italy, Poland and Hungary and a further weakening of the integrity of the European Union. 

David Lane is a Fellow of the (British) Academy of Social Sciences. He is currently an Emeritus Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, UK. His recent work includes, Changing Regional Alliances for China and the West (With G. Zhu) (2018)

[1] The freedom of ‘establishment’ gives the right to members of any state to set up businesses, to provide services in, or to move to any other member state.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.