4th Mar 2024


How 'imperial' is the EU, really?

Is the European Union an empire? Until recently, the question was considered absurd. An "empire" was something negative, associated with autocracy, conquest, exploitation, and unlimited displays of power.

Everything, in short, that Europe was not.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • As the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once wrote: 'Only he who has no use for the empire is fit to be entrusted with it'

But things are changing. The EU is tough with the UK, it closed its external borders during the pandemic, started screening foreign investment, and fights jihadism all the way in Mali.

Suddenly people say: 'The EU behaves like an empire.' Interestingly, they don't just mean this negatively. It's more like an observation, a new way of looking at things. We're starting to think differently about ourselves and Europe.

This is triggered by external developments, mainly.

Europe is increasingly surrounded by powers and groups out to weaken it. Brexit and the growing conditionality of the American security shield force us to stand up for what we have built and achieved over the decades, and protect it.

In order to do that, Europe starts using power and projecting it beyond its borders.

Economically, Europe has been powerful for many years already. The internal market is one of the largest in the world.

Anyone who wants to sell goods or services here needs to abide by European rules, because they are extremely strict and well-enforced. In those rules European values are enshrined, such as provisions on climate change, good governance or human rights.

Companies from Asia to Latin-America beg their governments to copy EU rules, so they won't face multiple regulatory regimes. Google and Amazon abide by strict European data protection rules, even in the US. In Rwanda flowers are grown for the European market according to EU rules. Rwandans do the inspections, in place, European checklists in hand.

Europe is a standard-setter, worldwide.

This is why, closer to home, non-EU neighbours like Switzerland and Norway are participating in large parts of the internal market. In return, they follow much EU regulation and pay contributions.

Both have carved out some fields in which they can be very sovereign. This has a price.

Cheese and washing machines

In Norway, cheese is very expensive: imported cheeses face steep import tariffs, while Norwegian cheeses are expensive because they only serve a small domestic market. Washing machines cost more in Switzerland than in Germany because the Swiss refuse to subscribe to standardised sizes of washing machines in the EU. The machines have to be manufactured especially for the Swiss market with its unique, 'sovereign' sizes.

For a long time Europeans have hardly been aware of this power.

That is changing now, partly because of Brexit. The UK refuses to copy EU rules, choosing sovereignty over market access. With fish rotting on British quays, unable to go to Europe, Conservative House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg quipped: "They're now British fish and they're better and happier fish for it."

Like a mirror, Brexit makes Europe's power visible. It also shows the damage it can inflict upon others.

Look at Northern Ireland, which remains part of the European single market and customs union.

London didn't want EU inspectors on British soil. But everything that comes into the EU must be inspected. So now EU inspectors are there.

They can check anything, anywhere, unannounced, and even get access to British customs data. There's only one thing the 15 (or so) inspectors cannot do: work in a building with the European flag. So now they work without the flag.

This is reminiscent of the first Palestinian airport in Gaza, built after the Oslo peace accords in the 1990s.

Israeli soldiers completely controlled this airport: passengers, tickets, luggage, access roads. But it was done invisibly. Palestinian flags flew everywhere. Meanwhile suitcases were inspected behind mirroring glass, hiding armed Israelis opening and searching them.

Gaza airport was bombed to pieces shortly after its inauguration. The arrangements in Northern Ireland depend on political trust and craftsmanship, too. The EU must tread carefully. Power comes with responsibility. And restraint.

In 2006, Oxford professor Jan Zielonka wrote in Europe as Empire that Europeans see the EU "too much through the lens of national sovereignty".

National sovereignty is a good concept when the legal and political boundaries of the state coincide with those of the market, military, and migration patterns.

"This is no longer the case," Zielonka argues. "Therefore a European Union with serious power must be "somewhat imperial" - without the authoritarian bit, that is, and with lots of flexibility and humility.

As the EU shows, empires can emerge silently, without brutal conquest and breast-beating proclamations of power. No one is forced to become a member; everyone can leave.

But escaping its power altogether is however impossible, as the UK is discovering. Non-members copy European legislation not because they must, but because they harm themselves if they don't. If you want to measure how powerful Europe is, ask its neighbours.

As Europe now builds borders to protect itself against terrorism, pandemics and cybercrime, its imperial status will become clearer.

Europeans must start to realise that apart from offering protection and managing peaceful coexistence, empires can harm others, too.

We must think harder about the options we have if we hit adversity. How to respond if London violates Brexit agreements? How to react if Moscow continues to humiliate our diplomats? What to do if Turkey keeps drilling in Greek waters and using refugees as bargaining chips? What if our relationship with Switzerland goes further downhill?

Europe must figure out how to be strong and to be benign at the same time. This is what "strategic autonomy", the new buzzwords in Brussels, should all be about.

As the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi once wrote: "Only he who has no use for the empire is fit to be entrusted with it."

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns in NRC. In March, her new book It Will Not Get Better will be published, in Dutch.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


What is needed now: real leaders

Last August, German activists almost stormed the Reichstag building to protest the government's corona measures. In the Netherlands, farmers angry at the government's policies to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions rammed the doors of local government buildings with tractors.


Entrenched in the state villa

Vaclav Havel's 2007 play, Leaving, is about chancellor Rieger, his coterie and their refusal to accept the transfer of power. And now there is Donald Trump, barricaded in the White House. Does farce come first, followed by tragedy?


Last chance for the West

In the coming weeks and months we will find out to what extent president-elect Joe Biden is willing to consider the transatlantic relationship as a vital US interest again, and put it at the heart of US policy.


Why people want to be fooled

The charlatan is "like a doctor who brings relief from suffering and pain". The word charlatan comes from the Italian 'ciarlatano': someone selling herbal brews and rejuvenating waters at street markets, often also pulling teeth and doing magic tricks.

1914 vs 2021

Nobody says war will break out in Europe in 2021. But, just as in 1914, the imminent collapse of the multinational Habsburg Empire was the subject of much speculation, some now allude to the disintegration of the European Union.


Why Germans understand the EU best

In Germany, there is commotion about a new book in which two journalists describe meetings held during the corona crisis between federal chancellor Angela Merkel, and the 16 prime ministers of its federal constituent states.

Latest News

  1. EU socialists fight battle on two fronts in election campaign
  2. EU docks €32m in funding to UN Gaza agency pending audit
  3. 'Outdated' rules bar MEP from entering plenary with child
  4. Commission plays down row over Rwanda minerals pact
  5. EU socialists set to anoint placeholder candidate
  6. Why are the banking lobby afraid of a digital euro?
  7. Deepfake dystopia — Russia's disinformation in Spain and Italy
  8. Putin's nuclear riposte to Macron fails to impress EU diplomats

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us