Many of the difficulties besetting our very imperfect European Union have arisen from its territorial expansion, especially to the east and south-east, taking in states that used to be under the aegis of the Soviet bloc. The next on the list are Ukraine and Turkey – the latter of course not part of the old communist world, but semi-attached to another alien (Muslim) one – the ingestion of both of which is proving problematical.
There are two main problems. The first arises from the very unequal development of these ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europes, both politically and economically, with the ‘new’ countries often displaying characteristics which seem at odds with western Europe’s liberal democratic ideals (Hungary, for example); and labouring under economies that are impoverishing their people, and so driving them westwards, in numbers that the west finds it difficult to cope with socially. It’s the rules of the EU, of course – the free movement of labour – that permit this. The second is to create tensions with Europe’s major ‘Great Power’ neighbour to the east, Russia, from whose standpoint the expansion of the EU looks very much like what used to be called ‘imperialism’. That’s my subject.
Defenders of EU expansion point out that the new nations’ adhesion to their club is purely voluntary, which would seem to disqualify it as ‘imperialism’ straight away. Of course they are right if ‘imperialism’ is narrowly defined as the forcible conquest and rule of other countries and peoples by a single ‘imperial’ power – the image that has come down to us from most of the ancient empires, as well as France’s, the Soviets’ and the Nazis’ more recently; but historical understanding of the phenomenon has moved on since then, to include a number of different types of expansion, usually called ‘informal’, which could well, at a stretch, be applied to the modern EU. (The ‘at a stretch’ is important. We must be careful to avoid the Hitler – or even Napoleon – analogy: see https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/05/15/the-hitler-card/).
These include economic and cultural pressures on a country to join, or even what the Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad has called ‘empire by invitation’, where new ‘colonies’ ask to become members of an empire, or to stay with it. Even in the case of the old British Empire there were instances of this: colonies – usually the white settler-dominated ones, but not invariably – which were perfectly content to become and to remain informal or even formal provinces of a wider empire, for various reasons, and usually so long as they were allowed some autonomy. During the early twentieth century this was how the Empire came to be ideally conceived and (mis-) presented, by aficionados of the new British ‘Commonwealth’, which is what it changed its name to in order to comply with the dominant anti-imperial discourse of the time. In this regard it was not altogether successful, with foreigners – and even some Brits – unable to distinguish between the two things, and present-day non-native inhabitants of, say, Australia and Canada presenting themselves as past ‘victims’ of ‘imperialism’, in the same way as Indians and black Africans, because nowadays that is the more fashionable thing to be. That aside, the point is that this is still widely called ‘imperialism’, however ‘voluntary’ it was, or appeared to be. That would seem to conform to the modern European case; which means that applying the word ‘imperialism’ to Europe’s present eastwards expansion is not entirely inapt.
In any case, what does ‘voluntary’ really mean? Referenda are supposed to be the best evidence of whether a people genuinely wants a change in its constitutional arrangements; but we all know how dodgy they can be. People can vote for other things than appear on their ballot papers: to get rid of Cameron, for example, or ensure Boris doesn’t replace him; the result can depend very much on timing: some European referenda can be very close – Sweden’s in 1994 was only 52:47; and indicate the balance of opinion only at that that particular moment, and when the Union took a particular form; ignorance, illusions and trivialities can of course play a part; and the results can be seriously influenced by an imbalance of propaganda, some of it (as in Ukraine) from the outside. This is where ‘informal empire’ comes in. If a country’s adhesion to the EU is a result of what can be called external ‘pressure’, then that counts as a kind of ‘imperialism’ – to us imperial historians, at any rate. Of course ‘informal’ empire is difficult to measure. It was much easier in the old days, when an empire simply consisted of the bits coloured red (or whatever) on the map. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Even if the EU were uncomplicatedly voluntary, how could it be regarded as an imperial threat? Well, alliances – which is what the EU is, in a multilateral form – have always been regarded with suspicion by nations outside them, even when they see themselves in purely defensive terms. It was the Triple Entente between France, Russia and Britain that gave rise to Germany’s fear of being ‘encircled’ before the First World War, and so was one of the causes of that war; just as NATO and the Warsaw Pact both fuelled suspicions of American and Soviet aggression after World War II. In view of the way in which the EU has clearly eaten away at Russia’s old sphere of influence in eastern Europe, and now threatens to do the same in the closest country to Russia, culturally, socially and economically, who can blame the awful Putin for regarding both it and NATO as essentially imperial predators? Especially with the other former superpower, the undoubtedly imperialist USA (see my Empire and Superempire), suspected of being behind it all.
Lastly, here’s one other reason for invoking ‘imperialism’ in connection with the EU. The more expansionary Europe becomes, the more likely it is to suffer the fate of all the great acknowledged empires in history, which is to collapse through what Paul Kennedy called ‘imperial overstretch’. Western Europe was OK: sharing as it did the same history and broad enlightenment values over the whole area, whatever its past hostilities, and so comprising a relatively ‘natural’ blend of nations. As the EU has moved eastwards and southwards, however, it has had to digest some very different cultures, which it may be able to liberalize, which is probably the most laudable reason for it, but only with difficulty, and accompanied by what can be seen as the EU’s most egregious downsides, which are the ideologies of globalization and austerity. Greece has already proved a strain. Ukraine and Turkey could mark the very tipping point of ‘overstretch’.
Which doesn’t mean I’m intending to vote Brexit in our forthcoming referendum. Jeremy Corbyn has genuine anti-imperialist credentials. He might (just might) win a British election after a ‘remain’ vote. Perhaps, allied with other European radicals, he could then put a stop to Eumperialism*, before it implodes. And we could make something better of the EU, which was always a good idea.
(*This is my neologism, by the way. I pronounce it ‘yumperialism.’)