Brexit and the Decline of a European Union Empire?

By David Lane, Cambridge University

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. Nineteenth century empires have been replaced by a more subtle form of political hegemony. Territorial power enforced by armies has been superseded by states or groups of states exercising normative power legitimated by ideology – a form of non-territorial power.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.

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, José 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’.

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.  

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 has 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.  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 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 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, what Friedrich von Hayek termed, 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 and such procedures secure peaceful political change. If members of the Parliamentary political class cannot abide by democratic decisions, why should the public?

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