24th May 2019


Citizens of partnership, not subjects of an empire

Having now seen the headlines, Mr Barroso, the President of the European Commission, must be regretting his careless remarks about the European Union being an empire.

Europe has not had an altogether happy experience with empires, whether at home or abroad and in any case the idea of empire - a centre that grows wealthy on the resources of the lands it controls - is surely the opposite of what the EU is supposed to entail. His rationale is therefore something of a mystery; more importantly it is a worrying mystery.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Mr Barroso made his remarks at a press conference held to announce the Commission's approval of the recent proposals for a new constitutional treaty. A journalist had asked him how he would characterise the EU? After explaining that the EU was unique he continued: 'Sometimes I like to compare the EU …… to the organisation of an empire. We have a dimension of empire.'

24 point headlines

As might have been expected this exchange was followed by frantic sounds of rowing back - a desperate attempt to unsay what had been said. Too late, the cat was out of the bag. Already editors in the more eurosceptic corners of the continent were setting up 24 point headlines coupling the words 'Europe' and 'Empire.' 'Referendum,' they screamed.

In other words exactly the reverse of what Mr Barroso and his Communications Commissioner colleague, Margot Wallström, had wanted to emerge from the session.

In vain did Mr Barroso explain that he didn't mean that Europe was an imperial empire, getting its way by force; rather it was a non-imperial empire, based on voluntary consent.

Now Mr Barroso's English is second to none. I think sometimes that he speaks his second or third language better than I do my first. So he must know that the phrase 'non-imperial empire' is a meaningless oxymoron. It is like talking of dry rain or a non-automobile motorcar.

In the context of attempting to allay fears about the new constitutional proposals (non-constitutional, constitutional proposals perhaps?) his remark was singularly revealing as well as simply unfortunate.

For it appears that Mr Barroso - indeed the whole Commission - has not even begun to understand the true nature of the wide unease about the future of Europe - an unease that stems primarily from concerns about a lack of control rather than a lack of communication.

Communication with the citizen

'Communication with the citizen' is to be a priority during the next year and a half as member state governments struggle to ratify the new treaty. Mrs Wallström will be publishing a paper in the autumn on how this might be done.

If the benefits of the new treaty are 'explained,' people will be more inclined to accept it without demur, is the prevailing belief. Well, let's hope they do. But this strategy misses the wider point - the point about the loss of control over the European project.

And it is a very large point - a barn door of a point in fact - and one which, whether deliberately or no, both Commission and member states have shown little sign of addressing.

Although this point drives many eurosceptic arguments it is not by any means confined to eurosceptics. There are many with a deep and long-standing belief in the benefits of the European construction that feel it just as keenly. The point can be put clearly in a very simple question: are the good folk of Europe subjects or citizens?

Democratic safeguards

Had this point been understood Mr Barroso would never have made his remark about a European empire - imperial or otherwise. For most folk of an empire are clearly subjects - in thrall to their Emperor. Thankfully the EU is not an empire but - and this is the crux of the matter - there is nevertheless a similar sense of a lack of democratic control . Though we are notionally citizens, we feel like subjects.

We may come to believe (if Mrs Wallstrom's communications are successful) that we live in the best of all possible Europes and furthermore that Mr Barroso's decisions are the best of all possible decisions. But that is poor comfort unless we the citizens have also the real possibility of initiating change and carrying it through. An empire with subjects rather than citizens is the one thing therefore that the EU must never be allowed to become.

The train may be running smoothly towards the land of milk and honey but it is the lack of a brake and the inability to switch points that really concerns the passengers.

What and where and when are the European democratic safeguards?

That is the urgent question. European democracy, mired by lack of a proper pan-European political base, is weak; the media, at European level, is exceptionally weak. What mechanisms do we citizens have to control and amend the evolution of Europe? It is that that we need to debate.

Let us drop this talk of empire

So please let us drop this talk of empire. The EU is a partnership of member states that have joined together the better to achieve important strategic objectives. It is also a union of European peoples concerned to preserve and enhance European ideals and the European way of life.

To this end both - member states and citizens - have seen fit to allow the creation of institutions operating within a legal framework to give substance to their democratic and voluntary co-operation. Like a pre-stressed column these two pillars are bound to co-exist in some tension. That gives the EU strength.

So, in closing, a pat on the back for the European Parliament which has just agreed to give 'official character' to the EU's flag and anthem dumped unceremoniously by member states from the constitutional reforms agreed three weeks ago.

The action put me in mind of the stout words of Captain Smollett in Robert Louis Stephenson's Treasure Island, after the buccaneers had sighted on his flag and were taking pot shots at it.

'Strike my colours! No sir, not I!

The writer is editor of EuropaWorld


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

EU sanctions regime cannot be an 'EU Magnitsky Act'

The debate about the choice of name should not boil down to a political muscle show against Hungary, which opposes the reference to Magnitsky because of its political relations with the Russian government.

Voter turnout will decide Europe's fate

European voter turnout is in deep crisis. Since the early 2000s, the share of voters in national elections has fallen to 66 percent on average, which means that the birthplace of democracy now ranks below average globally.

Can Tusk go home again?

The opposition may not be able to defeat the rulling PiS without him, but if Donald Tusk wants to go home again, he will first have to remember where he came from.

Europe's far-right - united in diversity?

Europe's far-right is set to rise in the next European Parliament election. This vote will not yet allow the populists to build a majority. But it may become another milestone in their process of changing European politics.

The ECB Song Contest?

One can't help feeling that the race to succeed Mario Draghi as president of the European Central Bank has taken on the flavor of the upcoming final round of the Eurovision Song Contest.

EU must hold Qatar to account for World Cup deaths

The EU has a unique opportunity to push its labour rights agenda in the Gulf state, with the tournament throwing the country's dismal record on migrant workers firmly into the spotlight.

News in Brief

  1. UK's May announces June 7 resignation date
  2. Ireland votes for EU election and divorce referendum
  3. Report: May to announce resignation plan on Friday
  4. Leading politicians: time for EU to have female leaders
  5. Poll: Finland's Green party to surge in EU elections
  6. High demand for postal voting in Denmark
  7. Some EU citizens turned away at UK polling stations
  8. Switzerland unlikely to sign draft EU deal

Press freedom and the EU elections

We are campaigning for the next European Commission to appoint a commissioner with a clear mandate to take on the challenge of the protection of freedom, independence and diversity of journalism.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  3. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  4. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  5. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  6. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  11. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  12. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year

Latest News

  1. Don't tell the Dutch - but Timmermans 'won'
  2. EU says goodbye to May with 'respect'
  3. Strache scandal: how big a hit will Austrian far-right take?
  4. Italy train row exposes competing views of EU
  5. Dutch socialists on top in first EP election exit poll
  6. No usage data kept for EU parliament's 'Citizens' App'
  7. EU sanctions regime cannot be an 'EU Magnitsky Act'
  8. Polling booths open in UK's limbo EU election

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  3. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  8. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  9. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  10. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  11. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us