Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt (pictured) brought a big cheer at the Liberal Democrat conference this weekend with a speech in praise of empire. He said:
In fairness he wasn’t quite calling for Europe to become an empire, but he was certainly implying it. The word has unfortunate and almost entirely negative connotations but historically many empires have been more cosmopolitan, progressive and outward-looking than small nation-states.
The idea of the EU as a liberal empire has been suggested before, while Piers Paul Read compared it with the Holy Roman Empire, a Catholic vision which many of the Union’s founding fathers would have agreed with. The EU does, after all, give out the Charlemagne Prize, for individuals who have helped promote European integration, in commemoration of the first “Emperor of the West”.
But while historically China was an empire, centralised from a very early stage, Europe has since the fifth century been divided into dozens or hundreds of sovereign states; and that, more than anything else, helped the West to catch up and overtake the East.
If one state declined into cultural stasis, tyranny or religious fanaticism, another would profit. When France turned to absolutism under Louis XIV it didn’t drag the whole continent down with it, because England took advantage to race ahead. The British system of government was better and, by 1815, had finally won out. Competition and political diversity are the key to Europe’s historic success, even if – tragically – this competition often ended in violence, horrifically so in the 20th century.
Europe was spiritually united, or at least for much of its history, which allowed for cross-cultural fertilisation and economic development (international banking was often run by religious institutions like the Templars). But this cultural unity was different to political unity.
And large empires don’t tend to be hugely pleasant places to live for their actual subjects. Of the rival empires Mr Verhoftstadt listed as dominating the 21stcentury China is a horrific Black Mirror-like dystopia and Russia is back in its traditional role as authoritarian neighbourhood bully; India still suffers terrible poverty while the United States is in many ways dysfunctional, beset by political polarisation and intractable social problems. Forgive me if this little European does not look forward to this exciting new world of empire.