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The EU as Empire? by Balázs Orbán

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Issue 21, Winter 2021

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The EU as Empire?

The eastern side of the portico of the ancient Roman temple, the Pantheon, seen from Piazza della Rotunda, Rome.

Photo: Darkroom Daze, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

How should we define empire? This question is not as straightforward as one might imagine. There are ancient, medieval, and modern forms of imperialism, as well as geographical and civilisational differences. We can speak of Western (Euro-Atlantic), Eastern (Asian), and South American empires. Some empires, expanding their borders through devastating military campaigns, make dependencies of conquered territories. Others prefer to grow through trade, gradually bringing nearer and more distant regions within their sphere of influence. Some empires follow a path of cultural expansion, while still others are ultimately created through the will of their individual components (think of German unification in the 19th century). These are archetypes but, in reality, no empire adopts any strategy in its ‘pure’ form, yet all are tools in the imperialist’s repertoire. An empire, also, may arise out of any given form of state.

It is possible to identify certain common characteristics that make an empire an empire. One might take a look at the relevant article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a study by the imperialism scholar John M. Mackenzie entitled Empires in World History: Characteristics, Concepts, and Consequences, and—among more critical works—Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism. The definitions therein agree on the following:

An empire is a political entity based on conquest, which seeks to extend its sovereignty over peoples or ethnic groups whose identities differ from the people of its own core state.  The resulting political system is divided into two parts, the dominant centre and the subordinate periphery. The hegemony of the centre over the periphery is aimed at further increasing political power, accumulating wealth, or maintaining long-term peace and security for those who reside in the centre. The worldview of most empires is based on the desire for universal governance, and as such, most empires can be maintained only at the cost of continual expansion. The means by which this is achieved may be military, economic, administrative, or cultural. The resulting centralised imperial model, however, may prove vulnerable.  The indecision or erroneous decisions of the central government, the improper functioning of the bureaucracy, the resistance of provincial peoples, or the expansionist intentions of competing empires can all easily undermine the long-term viability of the empire.

The charm of being imperial

The most original and substantive critique of empire among today’s thinkers has been presented by Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony. In his interpretation, empires are typically advantageous only for the citizens of the imperial centre, while they restrict the freedom and self-determination of those living on the periphery. Hazony helpfully identifies phenomena that may be considered signs of imperial subjugation. For instance, one phenomenon is that of universalist thinking, according to which the same cultural structures and moral and legal norms must prevail throughout the world. In practice, this means that, in imperial thinking, the centre should seek to impose its own way of life on the peripheries, supplanting the culture and norms of the indigenous peoples. It is also an important feature that the values that result from this way of life are not open to debate within the framework of imperial politics, especially in political debates between the centre and the periphery. Thus, one sign of imperial dependence is that, although there may be points of contention between the two parties, the periphery is not free to engage in a value dispute with the centre, and dialogue is conceivable only within the framework of the value choices specified by the centre. 

In an empire, the inhabitants of the centre and the periphery do not in practice enjoy equal rights: the citizens of the centre receive a greater proportion of the economic benefits, and the political position of the elite at the centre is more important than that of those on the periphery. An aspect of this phenomenon is a centralised decision-making structure. That is, the most important decisions are made by the imperial elite, and their implementation in each province is the task of the imperial bureaucracy. The whole system cannot function without an imperial ideology, which essentially proclaims the superiority of the elite at the centre in terms of values ​​and way of life. The adoption of this elite culture is—according to official ideology—also salutary for the denizens of the periphery. To those who adopt the values of the centre, two key benefits are frequently promised: first, lasting peace, and, second, a level of material prosperity closer to that of the centre. After all, the ability of the centre to endure and expand is surely proof of the excellence of its lifestyle. At the same time, such imperial ideologies are unable to respond convincingly to failures or mistakes made by the centre, or even to events which do not fit the official narrative, so an imperial ‘newspeak’ emerges that reframes the weaknesses of empire, the mistakes of its political leadership, or anything that does not fit well in the empire’s self-perception.

All very interesting, but how does this affect us? After all, we do not live in an empire!  True, technically speaking we do not live within the confines of a political structure that defines itself as an empire. At the same time, given these imperial characteristics, it is clear that the policies of Brussels in recent years have given rise to worryingly imperial trends within the once-beautiful EU. And we need not rely on Hazony’s expressly critical statements or negative connotations to reach this conclusion. The political agenda of a federal Europe— a ‘United States of Europe’—has never been as clearly on the agenda as it is today. Based on the above definitions, this can clearly be considered the emerging of an empire.  For this reason, it is worth examining whether or not Brussels truly aspires to the other criteria of empire.

Ten reasons why Brussels can be said to be building an empire:

1. Brussels undermines the sovereignty of EU member states: This is a delicate issue. Typically, every imperial centre wants to extend its dominion. However, this is not so clear in the case of the EU. When the Union was founded, it was set up as a supranational organization in which member states voluntarily agreed to exercise a portion of their sovereignty jointly. The relevant literature explicitly emphasizes that shared sovereignty does not reduce, but in fact increases the scope of the member states’ sovereignty. What has changed in recent years? Both the economic crisis of 2008 and the migration crisis of 2015 shook Europe, highlighting many weaknesses in the operation of the Union. The response of the Brussels elite to these problems has always been that more powers should be transferred from member states to the centre. We have now reached a point where an increasing number of Western politicians are calling for the abolition of the member-state veto, which would ultimately be a fatal blow to national sovereignty. But the plans that crop up from time to time to increase the role of the European Parliament are equally ominous. In the European Parliament, MEPs currently represent the EU as a whole.  If such a body, in which the interests of member states cannot, in principle, be represented, is given a meaningful decision-making role, that will mean the end of member-state sovereignty.  This process is already underway. Fritz W. Scharpf of the Max Planck Institute has found in a study that member states have fewer and fewer independent policy choices open to them.  This narrowing of independent policy competences is likely to continue until nothing remains in the hands of member states.

2. There can be no value dispute with Brussels: A new, German-language ‘sword-and-sandals’ television series entitled Barbarians is currently on Netflix. One of the principal conflicts arises when a Roman governor executes a ‘barbarian,’ ignoring the customs of the local Germanic tribes, because the man refused to bow down and kiss the golden eagle symbolizing Roman power. An adviser warns the governor that the tribes will not understand this punishment, as the death penalty is unknown under their laws. The governor, however, dismisses all this by saying that there is only one true law, and that is Roman law. Of course, 2,000 years have passed, and fortunately such brutal methods have disappeared from the political repertoire. Nonetheless, it is becoming increasingly clear that the technocratic EU elite is becoming ever more insensitive to the legal, social, and identity values ​​of individual member states. The logic underpinning the double standards in EU rule-of-law debates, in which Brussels is attempting to regulate the internal affairs of newly acceded member states (with the oft-repeated threat of suspending funding), is the same as that which underpins the behaviour of the Roman governor— the values of Brussels are not up for debate.

3. Brussels universalism: Most empires require an ethos of universalism to function, namely a unified government, a unified legal order, unified values, ​​and a unified way of life. This is based on the premise that the same principles must apply in all areas of the empire. During his conquests, Alexander the Great took special care to establish Greek-Macedonian values ​​in newly controlled territories. He even compelled his Greek and Macedonian soldiers to take Persian wives.  The name of Qin Si Huang-ti, the first Chinese emperor, is associated with the standardization of Chinese writing, language, and units of measure, with which he laid the foundations of present-day China. But there are more recent examples of the same phenomenon. In 1989, at the end of the Cold War, The National Interest published an article entitled “Universal Dominion: Toward a Unipolar World” by foreign policy thinker Charles Krauthammer, in which he argued that the aim of American foreign policy should ultimately be that of ensuring the spread of liberal democracy and the universalization of American values. Brussels operates according to the same principles and criteria. For this reason, any attempt by Eastern European states to organize their everyday lives differently, on different principles, provokes outrage in Western Europe.

4. Brussels ‘newspeak’ as technocratic jargon: This point is closely linked to the previous one. Every empire seeks to justify its pursuit of universality. The point of this is, in general, to persuade the inhabitants of the empire that the spread of the dominant centre’s lifestyle benefits not only those at the centre but also those across the periphery.  In other words, by accepting these dominant values, a region may progress towards the level of development enjoyed by the centre.  A glaring example of this is the former Soviet Union, which, through its ideological exports, sought to steer its colonies along the path of progress. A specific image of the ideal inhabitant of such a state, Homo Sovieticus, was even put forward to serve as a model for the subjugated citizens of the empire.  Of course, such ideologies can never adequately describe reality, so an imperial myth emerges alongside them that attempts to build narratives and frame events in correct ideological terms. In the past, such instances of rhetorical newspeak included the concepts of a ‘peace war,’ ‘socialist morality,’ ‘new economic mechanism,’ and ‘perestroika.’ Although the EU did not formerly have such a rigid ideology, or a ‘newspeak’ to accompany it, today’s debates are increasingly characterised by these.  Well-known terms such as ‘genderfluid,’ ‘Willkommenskultur,’ ‘social dumping,’ or ‘European democracy’ are typical examples of this new discourse.

5. Brussels pursues an economic policy favourable to core states: An empire ultimately serves the people living in the centre— the imperial elite. A unified economic area is often characteristic of empires, and common economic regulation primarily serves the interests of economic actors operating from the centre. The EU was envisioned from the outset as only a unified economic area, and this aspect has unquestionably been of great economic benefit to member states. Moreover, resource transfer in the EU is far from one-way. The EU’s cohesion and other development resources for less-developed regions have great potential for helping them to catch up. But it is also worth bearing in mind that a significant portion of the resources distributed—through allocations to Western companies—go back to the core countries. In return, therefore, Eastern states must compete with their more highly capitalized Western counterparts, not to mention the brain drain and loss of workforce that result from the free flow of labour. The problem has been considered by a wide range of authors. Celebrity left-wing economist Thomas Piketty has devoted entire chapters to this phenomenon, but the Bertelsmann Foundation, which can otherwise hardly be considered a Eurosceptic institution, has also come to the conclusion that the single market is of greatest benefit to the inhabitants of core EU states. A recent Polish study reached a similar conclusion, finding that Poland lost a sum equivalent to more than €112,000,000,000 in financial transfers within the EU between 2004 and 2020.

6. The Brussels bureaucracy is a tool of power politics: The first thing that most of us think of when we hear the word ‘Brussels’ is bureaucracy. Whether one sympathizes with the EU or inclines towards scepticism, no one denies the existence of a multitude of professionalized representative bodies. Of course, there is nothing surprising in this: when the perspectives of so many international actors have to be handled under a single roof, a great deal of bureaucracy is the inevitable result. Many historical empires also maintained extensive civil service organizations. Take the mandarins of imperial China, for instance, the chinovniks of Tsarist Russia, or the famously precise officialdom of Prussia, which gave that kingdom a competitive advantage over the hostile states and alliances that surrounded it. The task of these institutions was to implement the decisions of the imperial centre, even in provinces far from the centre.  If we look at how the EU administration works, it clearly operates along very similar principles.

7. Brussels’ unification plans are aimed at centralized governance: Napoleon wrote that his greatest achievement was not his military success, but the Europe-wide adoption of the French code civil. In the territories he conquered, he enacted a local copy of French law, thus changing the continent forever. Although his military conquests were relatively short-lived, the spirit of the code civil has become an integral part of European culture. But a common legal system not only has consequences when it comes to civil law, it also helps in the already-discussed process of economic unification, the establishment of an administration based on common standards, and the adoption of values ​​and lifestyle exports. EU law now has an increasingly broad regulatory scope.  In some cases this can appear to take the form of pointless attempts at standardization, such as the proverbial cucumber curvature law. The EU also, however, seeks control over such ostensibly sovereign issues as the regulation of immigration. Just as in Napoleon’s time the goal of a common legal system was ultimately to serve as the foundation of a new, united Europe, so today’s EU operates according to similar principles when it comes to legal matters. It is revealing that even Andrew Moravchik, who regularly argues for a common European constitution, has referred to the current workings of the EU as a form of bureaucratic despotism. Not a very encouraging development.

8. All are equal in the eyes of Brussels, but some more equal than others: In a classic empire, the citizens of the centre have more rights than the inhabitants of the periphery. In the Roman Empire, obtaining citizenship was a prize sought by many. It even benefited, for example, the Apostle St. Paul, who, being a Roman citizen, could travel more easily and freely within the empire, thus helping to spread Christianity.  We could also cite the American citizenship system, which has many ‘degrees,’ such as the green card, the work visa, and so on, below full citizenship. This is not the case in the EU, where citizens of all EU member states are automatically granted EU citizenship. This by no means implies true equality, however, at least when we look at the issue of political representation. The advocacy capacity of the Eastern states lags far behind the capacity of the core EU states. Moreover, as noted, it is becoming increasingly common to suggest withdrawing the power of veto from certain peripheral member states, or, in some cases, to suspend their voting rights altogether. These are instances which indicate a decline in the sense of equality within the EU. A tangible example of this can be found in a study entitled Geographical Representation in the EU Leadership Observatory 2021, which found that only 8% of the EU’s senior officials come from Central and Eastern European states, though these states make up 40% and 20% of the EU’s population, respectively.

9. The conflict between the Brussels centre and the peripheries: Increasingly, intense disagreement between the core states and the periphery is virtually inevitable. This is also characteristic of empires. In Rome, there were almost always one or two rebel provinces which could not be controlled without garrisoning troops there. Similarly, the Soviet Union regularly intervened in countries within its sphere of interest so that these countries could not break away. The EU does not have its own army, so fortunately military conflict is not a possibility. At the same time, the tensions between the centre and the periphery are becoming ever more intense, as the EU itself increasingly begins to show imperial features.

10. Expansion and competing empires: The biggest challenge to an empire is often the emergence of another, more successful empire. So it was with the Aztec empire of Central America, which ended at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors. Something analogous can be seen in the rapid population migrations which eventually brought down the Roman Empire. Today, the EU faces many challenges, from an ostensibly friendly United States to Russia and China. So far, however, the EU does not seem to be performing well in this contest of empires. In addition, though migratory pressures are particularly strong at the Union’s south-eastern borders, the Brussels leadership seems to wish to avoid dealing with this issue. 

Closely related to the problem of the emergence of competing empires is the empire’s general compulsion to expand. New areas and resources must be mobilized to enable and sustain the growing imperial state. It is worth considering the Ottoman Empire, which, after reaching its zenith, was incapable of further conquests and in turn slowly lost its military capabilities, then its territory, and finally ceased to exist. Deepening European integration, that is, increasing Brussels’ influence over member states, is always on the agenda. Interestingly, however, this aspiration currently has a seemingly contradictory effect: admitting new members would be an impediment to greater unity, so proponents of further integration prefer deeper integration over enlargement, while member states committed to preserving member-state sovereignty prefer enlargement over integration. 


Anyone who knows me, knows that I have a great admiration for the original ideas on which the EU, or rather its precursor, was founded. What this Union has become, however, is something quite different, and it is beyond doubt that it now possesses all the hallmarks of an emerging empire. Many of the member states, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, had bad experiences being part of previous empires.  They decided to join the EU as sovereign states, which implied that they would be able to exercise some aspects of their sovereignty together, through the EU institutions. But they never intended to renounce their sovereignty in favor of a new emerging empire.

Official ceremony of the raising of the colours on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the European Flag.

Photo: European Union 2011 – EP.

If Brussels wants to keep the project of the EU going, it must abandon its imperial trajectory. In the coming years, I hope to see more member states assert the sovereignty that truly belongs to them—but to do so within the EU. In turn, I hope to see the EU move away from an empire model and towards something like a commonwealth model: a collection of truly autonomous and sovereign states bound together only by the pursuit of each other’s flourishing.

Balázs Orbán is political director to the Prime Minister of Hungary.

This essay appears in the Winter 2021 edition of The European Conservative, Number 21: 22-29.


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