Spinning Past the Point

Comments on ‘Lessons for the EU from the Austro-Hungarian Empire’ (The Economist, ‘Charlemagne’ on 01/09/2018). We take issue with the author’s assumptions and the claim that all will be well in the end.

EmpireEven usually uncritical Remainers have noticed that there is something amiss with the EU. The Economist (TE) has a revealing article on this. However, without actually saying so explicitly, the author appears to assume that the Project will be rescued, as it has so many times, and not break up as a result of all the dissent they notice. This unreflective assumption may be true for most Remainers, who must believe that all will be well with the EU in the long run, or why remain? (But Keynes reminded us that, “in the long run we’re all dead”). In what follows we quote from and comment on selections from the article. (See [1] for a detailed analysis of the EU’s failings, how the author believes these can be rectified, and our comments.)

EU officials “huddle around a table. They are fretting about fragmentation: Europe’s north is peeling away from its south; easterners feel like second-class citizens; outside powers are trying to divide and rule. This might be a scene from the final days of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918. In fact it is today, 100 years later. For once more the spectre of European fragmentation haunts Vienna.”

FragilityWe commented on this in our Fragility posts some time ago. [2] A possible hidden provocation in the TE article is that war will follow any break-up of the EU. Project Fear in a new guise perhaps.

In Rome a populist government is preparing to battle the EU institutions over budget rules and to seed a new nationalist block in the European Parliament. Emmanuel Macron, France’s liberal hope, is losing his sheen; his proposals for euro-zone reform have been diluted. Autocracy is gaining ground in Warsaw and Budapest…. The geopolitical centrifuge is spinning European states away from each other…”

The centrifuge is an attractive analogy, though it doesn’t withstand analysis. There is no external machine causing the component parts to separate, it is the design and operation of the EU that are doing the job. Fragility is inherent in the Project and internal forces will, eventually, push it apart.

Vienna is the pivot. Austria is two months into its six-month presidency of the EU Council under Sebastian Kurz, the darling of the continent’s conservatives. To his critics he has cosied up to the far right by bringing them into his government, and indulged Islamophobia. To his fans, he is the smooth diplomat staking out a middle ground between liberalism and nationalism and building bridges between east and west. He will host Europe’s leaders in Salzburg on September 20th and get them talking about the things pulling Europe apart: Brexit, the next EU budget, trade and immigration. “We need to get everyone on board again,” says Alexander Schallenberg, the co-ordinator of Austria’s presidency.”

Fed-up citizensThis misses the point that critics and fans of Kurz represent growing views within the populations of EU member states; it is not Vienna that is the pivot but fed-up citizens who provide the fuel for disruption and fragmentation.

Like the EU, the Habsburg empire seemed to suspend history. Germans, Hungarians, Slavs and sizeable Muslim and Jewish populations mingled in cosmopolitan cities like Vienna and Prague, Trieste and Lviv. … The old order’s full value became clear only after it collapsed, when the dark energy of them-and-us took hold and the region succumbed to petty hatreds, economic disintegration and the whims of outside powers.”

This misleads in two ways: although people mingled they didn’t necessarily mix culturally then any more than they do now. People and their cultures resist miscegenation. And “the dark energy of them-and-us” echoes the earlier provocation and assumes that nothing much has changed in the last 100 years. Trade, travel and tourism have done much to spread mutual understanding, and mutual respect, as the author indicates later.

One lesson above all lives on: do not take the loyalty of a multinational block for granted. The Habsburgs charmed their subjects by giving them relative freedom, material benefits and protection under the law from the whims of local barons. …But when tough times came with the start of the war, … it turned out that these loyalties had been contingent…. When the empire was dissolved after its defeat, it was not greatly mourned.”

SubjectsThis is closer to the point, because it refers to the “subjects”, that is the citizens. Loyalty may be contingent; and it may not even be loyalty but merely acceptance while things are not going too badly. There is no reason to believe that the EU has provided material benefits (youth unemployment remains widespread and GDP is in decline relative to better-managed economies). [3]

Today’s EU is even weaker, … built on good living but without deeper roots.” Good living is for some only and it takes a stretch of the imagination to believe that, such as it is, the EU can be credited.

Europe’s citizens today may have no affection for the bureaucracy, but like the subjects of the old empire they will tolerate it for as long as it generates wealth and preserves their freedoms. Yet complex institutions, second-rate European commissioners, wasteful policies like the common agricultural one and incompetent national governments across much of the continent all undermine that goal. To survive, the liberal European order, of which the EU is a pillar, must become leaner and more capable.”

DisaffectedMany citizens have not noticed that the EU “generates wealth and preserves their freedoms” and are already disaffected (e.g. the Greeks and Italians plus maybe the Cypriots). So far this disaffection has not reached a critical level but even TE has noticed that it is growing. However, Remainers can still claim that the EU will survive if it takes the right actions. [1] They don’t spell out what actions would be necessary and they ignore the fact that EU leaders do not acknowledge the problem and so do not see any need for fundamental reform. They firmly believe that all EU problems lie with the member states and the lack of conviction for Union, so they vacillate between ‘more Europe’ and orbits of integration but can’t decide. [4]

But the fate of Austria-Hungary also showed that multinational units cannot survive times of hardship without a sense of common purpose. Thanks to the rise of English, budget airlines, the internet and university exchanges, today’s young Europeans live much more “European” lives than previous generations. But politics is not keeping up. Nurturing a clearer European identity is not just a romantic goal; it is the only way to make the project sustainable in the long term, hard though history shows this to be.”

IdentityAgain the author misses the point, by ascribing the EU’s difficulties to two different issues; a lack of common purpose and European identity. The confusion is evident in the contradiction between young people leading more European lives (whatever that might mean) and the need for a clearer European identity. We can agree that a common purpose would be helpful; the EU and Remainers are probably right if they notice that the purpose of membership is not common – it is little more than self-interest. And no one can explain what a clearer European identity would look like, unless it is the absence of diversity that is clearly implied in ‘Ever Closer Union’. [5], [6] This is to confuse chickens with eggs and to put the cart before the horse; a European identity may depend on union but union depends on the formation of a European identity. [7]

So Europe’s leaders must face the balancing act that defeated their Viennese predecessors. They must show the pragmatism needed to keep their union afloat in the short term, while cultivating the vision needed to build common feeling in the long term.”

VisionThe EU already has a vision [8], but this is hostile to building a common feeling. Instead they require a common feeling to fulfil their vision of a federal state. And what does the author mean by pragmatism? Should Hungary ban Muslim immigration? Should Italy and Greece leave the eurozone? Should the four freedoms remain sacrosanct? Should Turkey join an outer orbit or Britain a middle one? Should all political positions be directly elected? What in fact are the primary objectives – harmony, prosperity and environment perhaps? Maybe a co-ordinating council fostering a pic-n-mix of bodies like Euratom, EHCR, an FTA, etc. – a bit like the Council of Europe but re-invigorated?


[1]       Collapse: Europe After the European Union-2

[2]       Signs of Fragility (and there are six more ‘Fragility’ posts)

[3]       Did the EU Bring us Growth?

[4]       More on the White Paper

[5]       The Five Presidents Report

[6]       Can EU be Reformed?

[7]       Solidarity

[8]       Multiple Visions



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