The last Eurocrats? (KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images)

October 6, 2023   6 mins

On 6 August 1806, an imperial herald climbed to the balcony of the Viennese Church of the Nine Choirs of Angels and, after summoning the city’s inhabitants with a silver fanfare, proclaimed the legal dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. By that point, the last Emperor, Francis II, had already signed the papers dissolving the Reich, even though the imperial parliament, the Reichstag, was only formally told on 11 August. By abdicating the imperial crown, Francis II became merely a national rather than a transnational leader — liege of his own assorted territories in Austria, Hungary and the Balkans. The days of a Holy Roman Emperor, claiming to invoke the mantle of Charlemagne and, distantly, Augustus, were over.

Recounting this story, the historian Peter Wilson argues that, although the Empire could perhaps have survived a few more decades past this point, it is unlikely to have survived the “levelling and homogenising forces unleashed by capitalism and industrialisation [by] 1830”. A month in advance of the Empire’s dissolution, 16 of its members had already seceded to join a rival bloc, the Napoleonic Confederation of the Rhine. Napoleon himself, then at the height of his power, had withdrawn French diplomatic recognition from the Empire in May, following his great victories at the battles of Ulm and Austerlitz in 1805.

In short, by the time the Empire ended it had in fact already corroded from within. Some historians go further, claiming that the Empire had effectively ceased to exist as an independent actor even earlier — at the Treaty of Lunéville in 1801, for instance. Others have held that the Empire had long been a corpse that would crumble to the touch, a decline dating back to its internal political reorganisation at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Whatever precise date one might choose, the point is that by the time the end of the Empire finally came, it was almost an afterthought, the formal recording of a death that had happened years, if not centuries, before.

Comparisons between the European Union and the Holy Roman Empire have been a common trope since the founding of the Coal and Steel Community in 1952, and the comparison remains embedded in modern scholarship on the EU. The analogy is structurally justified: both the EU and the Empire are geographically expansive systems that are nonetheless devolved and multiplex structures, with numerous and sometimes even rivalrous centres of political and legal power, very distinct from the political centralisation embodied in the modern sovereign state. And, although we are still far from hearing the trumpeters deliver the blessed fanfare, with the EU summit in Granada yesterday, we can make the comparative claim that the end of our latter-day Reich has also come into view.

In advance of the summit, France and Germany, the bloc’s two most powerful member-states, have staked out their vision for institutional reform of the EU with a report titled “Sailing on High Seas: Reforming and Enlarging the EU for the 21st Century”. And what has been overlooked in the extensive discussion of the report is that it effectively consigns the EU to the same slow oblivion as the Holy Roman Empire — to be corroded from within by centrifugal dissolution. This is quite different from the end of the EU that had been envisaged in recent years. For a brief period across 2015-2019, it seemed at least possible (if still unlikely) that the EU might have been blown apart by a series of populist explosions en-chaîne across its territory. But the Union survived this sequence of ballot box revolts, with its core structures long since insulated from any popular incursions.

Since that abortive period of uncertain and confused national revolt, and with the sole exception of Brexit Britain, national-populists around the continent have all surrendered to Brussels. This began with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s ignominious capitulation to the Troika, in 2015, in defiance of his own voters, and has continued to the present day with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s calm acceptance of the strictures of the eurozone. National-populist leaders continue to bleat about the threat of a federal Europe, but this is only to disguise how much sovereignty they themselves have already surrendered as member-states.

Nonetheless, despite the dismal failure of the populists, the Franco-German report makes clear that it is politically impossible for the Union to survive in its current form. If its recommendations are implemented, their logic will inevitably corrode the Union from within, allowing it to disperse itself into a more diffuse entity. It will gradually lose its coherence and purpose over time, and its eventual demise might well be an afterthought — akin to Francis II’s dissolution of the Reich in 1806.

Of course, the scholarly comparison between the EU and the Empire is generally intended as a benign and flattering one. Perhaps this is because, much like the Empire itself, the convolutions of the EU necessitate a large clerisy of lawyers, bureaucrats and scholars to divine its mysteries to its unfortunate subjects. Not only do such comparisons indicate the comfort that the EU’s supporters have with the Union’s supranational imperialism, they also reflect an enduring hostility to the nation-state, the political unit that came to supplant the Holy Roman Empire on its own territory. But if we are to accept the logic of comparison between the Reich and the Union, it behoves us to consider whether there will be a similar logic of imperial decline for the Union as there was for the Empire.

Although a so-called “multi-speed Europe” has been discussed before, what gives the proposals of the Franco-German report more impact is the geopolitical bind that the EU now finds itself in. The logic of combatting Russia is seen to necessitate granting rapid entry to beleaguered Ukraine and Moldova. And the EU’s commitment to Ukraine was confirmed with an impromptu meeting of foreign ministers in Kyiv on 5 October — the first such meeting outside of the EU itself. Rapid entry for Ukraine however, risks underscoring just how far EU expansion has stalled since the 2010s, with the aspirant member-states of the former Yugoslavia now having to endure the humiliation of seeing Ukraine being sped along the path to membership even as they languish in limbo outside (to say nothing of Turkey’s long purgatory as a candidate nation). It is the difficulty of absorbing the poor and dysfunctional protectorates of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Northern Macedonia, as well as Albania, Montenegro and Serbia that has impeded EU expansion in the region.

Such problems would be multiplied many times over by trying to absorb the part of rump Ukraine that has not been annexed by Russia — a territory which is not only embattled but also significantly more poor and no less corrupt than the Balkan states. To compound these external challenges on its borders, the EU also contains a recalcitrant group of Central and Eastern European countries — Poland, Hungary and Slovakia — who have been so persistently at odds with imperial diktat from Brussels that they were recently even denounced as “rogue states” by the Financial Times. The nominally equal standing that these Eastern rogues share with their Western peers gives them significant spoiling power within the EU’s structures.

It is this geopolitical context that makes the Franco-German report’s proposals so significant. While there are controversial suggestions (such as the call to extend qualified majority voting in order to overcome sovereign vetoes), the most important one is to dilute the ties of membership. This would see membership dispersed across several concentric rings layered around a dense core of “deep integration” comprising the Schengen and eurozones. This would then diffuse into an outermost layer of loosely aligned states in a “European Political Community” (a community which Brexit Britain already joined in October last year).

The proposed new model of tiered membership solves many political problems for the core states of the Union. Most straightforwardly, it allows the Union to absorb Ukraine and the Balkans, without the economic and political costs of granting these potentially troublesome states equivalent rights to current members. Perhaps more significantly, the prospect of tiered membership also gives Paris and Berlin the scope to downgrade the membership of Eastern rivals in future while still keeping them in the Union, thereby allowing for punishment of “rogue states” while avoiding the  awkwardness of actually expelling them from the Union.

Denounced in the pro-Brexit British press as a “Franco-German plot” to draw Britain back into the Union, the proposal could just as easily be seen as a Franco-German plot to strengthen their bilateral alliance while cutting loose the Union’s awkward squad. If implemented, this new model will not only dilute the appeal of the Union to aspirant states, it will also dilute the benefits of membership for existing member-states. Although the current path of EU accession is both humiliating and tortuous, at least it grants the redemption of full membership at its end. Tiered membership will replicate the logic of the Holy Roman Empire in its long, slow diffusion of power and authority to emergent nation-states across 1648 to 1806.

Where does this leave us? Europe’s populists will have fewer excuses for their obeisance, as the phony threat of an “ever stronger”, centralised, federal Europe recedes ever further into the distance. The question now is whether we can take advantage of this new era of “differentiated integration” to break the Union apart and establish newly sovereign nation-states — and whether we can do this without the despotic expansionism of a Napoleon, or the authoritarianism of a Bismarck.

Certainly, the idea of “associate membership” of the Union is more threatening to its coherence than any populist demagogue. The end of Europe’s postmodern empire is now in sight. The challenge for democrats is: can we speed the Union along to its demise, so that we do not have to wait a further 150 years to restore Europe’s sovereign nations?

Philip Cunliffe is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London. He is author or editor of eight books, as well as a co-author of Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (2023). He is one of the hosts of the Bungacast podcast.