28th Sep 2023


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.

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  • 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.


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