The Imperial Dilemma: Europe at a Crossroads Conference
A consolidating liberal empire faces an inevitable difference of interests with maritime great powers and nation-states. But it lacks either will or capability to enforce a new order.
One of the puzzles that bothered me ever since I read Dr. John Fonte’s outstanding text on the future of an American, conservative, sovereigntist foreign policy post-Trump was the question, What were the American conservatives doing when President Obama was moving the United States inexorably toward transnational progressivism, an order ruled by a small coterie of hyper-liberal technocratic elite and institutions? For that was the thesis of the article in the Texas National Security Review. Put simply, President Obama, like his other internationalist counterparts across the globe, regardless of his domestic politics, internationally was focused on binding the United States under rules and institutions. The aim wasn’t a favorable balance of power. The aim was simply to chain Fenrir voluntarily.
I had a chance to pose the question to the panelists, including Fonte (Hudson Institute), at Europe at a Crossroads, a conference organized by the Bow Group, Common Sense Society, and host of other conservative think tanks in London. It also featured the UK book launch of the conservative bestseller The Virtue of Nationalism by Dr. Yoram Hazony (which I reviewed here), his speech covering its rise, or return (depending on where one falls in the political spectrum), as well as panels on the EU and liberalism, and a speech by Sir Roger Scruton on the collapse of classical Western university system. Hazony’s book launch was curiously late for the United Kingdom, given that the book is already available across the Anglo-sphere, and is already a bestseller. But it was predictable. Nationalism as a political philosophy is a borderline taboo among British liberal elites.
“Conservatives internalized the opposition and imitated them,” Fonte replied to my question. Arguably, the American conservatives, much like their cousins across the pond, got swept up in the “End of History” dogma, where institutions and market forces were considered the future. “Conservatives turned liberals,” Hazony was even blunter.
Given the timeliness of the debate and nationalism being the key variable, the European Union was a central theme. What was visible, however, was the difference in interests between the key nation-states, even when everyone agreed to the threat of an EU imperium. And that in itself demonstrated a key paradox of national sovereignty: Where does sovereignty end, and compromise and cooperation begin, in the face of an all-devouring entity? Balázs Orbán, the minister of the state of Hungary, for example, identified the European Union ruling class as similar to if not the same as the Soviet Union. “EU tells us that there is no other form of democracy, other than liberal democracy. Forty years back, the Soviets told us there is no other form of democracy than social democracy.” The actors change, the game remains the same.
But how to tackle that? Polish Senator Anna Maria Anders agrees that the EU is a German imperium. “Almost all the problems of EU can be attributed to Germany, from mass-migration to EU military, to Nord Stream,” she complained, adding that even when analysts focus on negligible actual anti-Semitism in Hungary and Poland, almost no one says anything about the rising anti-Semitism fueled by mass-migration in Western Europe. But the commonality of threat perception ends there, and no policy uniformity arises.
If you ask the Poles and the Hungarians, they want to change EU from within. The British Eurosceptics, on the other hand, are not convinced. According to Daniel Kawczynski, himself a Polish-born British Conservative Party MP, the problem with the Poles and the Hungarians are that they are so indoctrinated (a characterization both Anders and Orbán opposed) that they can’t see the push for one EU army, under one flag, ruled by one parliament, guided by one foreign policy. The only difference is, in this new system, the people deciding the course and direction are unelected. Take, for example, one of the fundamentals of Anglo-American jurisprudence: in any trial, a party to the trial cannot judge himself, due to the idea of fairness and neutrality. Except in the case of any EU dictum versus a nation-state, it is judged in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), and an overwhelming majority of the judgments favor the EU.
But why? Why is Westphalian sovereignty under constant assault by the neo-Kantians of the EU? “Europe is not just post-Christian, but also, post-democratic, post-national and even post-liberal” according to John Fonte. According to Dr. Melvin Schut (University of Amsterdam), however, it is cultural. “Liberalism is not compatible for every society in the world,” not just in the Middle East where we have tried to impose it through force, but also parts of Europe which are far more traditional and conservative. Liberalism is a product of culture; more specifically it is a product of Anglo-American law and Western European reasoning, and to impose that on the rest of Europe would mean there would inevitably be a reactionary backlash, which in turn would lead to imperial enforcement and a spiral of conflict. And that, in sum, is the root cause of clashes between the EU and the sovereign nations within the EU. Like every empire in history, the EU is faced with a situation, where the centrifugal forces are trying to break open the imperium, and the problem of every order is that it needs, for lack of a better word, ordering.
I managed to catch Hazony for a brief moment prior to the conference. “Is it then inevitable,” I asked, “that the EU would turn to an empire, and what does that entail for transatlantic relations?” “The EU is already a German-dominated empire in terms of the ideology of its leadership. What prevents that from being completely obvious is American defense commitments to protect Europe. These establish an artificial shield, behind which the Germans are free to use their economic strength to coerce the rest of Europe—even as they insist that they are pacifists, not imperialists.” It is therefore inevitable that in future it would come to clash with maritime great powers like the United States. “If the United States insists on an international order based on independent nations, this will bring the EU and the US into inevitable confrontation. The US is, at heart, an independent national state. And independent nations cannot co-exist with a European liberal imperialism that is unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of national independence and national borders.”
And sooner or later, therefore, the United Kingdom will also have to choose whether it wants to live under a European, technocratic, top-down, liberal-imperial order, or in a Westphalian, national-sovereign order as an independent, maritime, free-trading power siding with the United States.
Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham.
Photo Credit: European Parliament in Brussels, via Flickr.