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“It’s an empire Jim,” said José, “but not as we know it.” July 11, 2007

Posted by franklittle in European Politics.

Anthony Coughlan must have spluttered into his cornflakes this morning. Along with other opponents of the EU in Ireland, he has often made the argument that the EU is developing into a ‘super-state’, a charge denied by the slavishly gullible pro-EU Irish political and economic establishment.

Turns out, it’s not a super-state, it’s an empire.

At least according to European Commission boss Jose Barroso, who should know.  “Sometimes I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empire. We have the dimension of empire,” he told the EU Observer. He goes on to claim it’s a “non-imperial empire”, a political concept I have a certain difficulty in understanding it must be admitted.

For me the use of the phrase is interesting in what it tells us about some of our EU brethren. For years, the concept of an empire, even the word itself, has had strong negative connotations.  Generations have grown up supporting or being part of the struggle against imperial ideology. Music and film have generally portrayed empire as oppressive, cruel, morally repugnant and an unmitigated evil for its subjects.

Recently however, there has been the stirrings of an intellectual backlash led by the likes of Niall Ferguson, trying to portray empire, and the British Empire in particular, as being a positive contribution to the development of humanity, going so far as to argue that the US is a de facto empire, nothing those of us on the left would deny, and that this is a good thing, which we would.

Most of our EU partners were, at one time or another, empires, including Barroso’s Portugal. I recall a couple of years ago discussing the Iraq war with a somewhat older Irish Times journalist. While discussing the atrocities carried out by the Americans on one side and the Islamic fanatics on the other he mused, “Still though, they’re not as bad as the bloody Belgians” before recounting for me stories of the Congo and Ireland’s involvement in it. Plucky little Belgium looting, pillaging and massacring it’s way across Afric, severing the hands of natives and filling Leopold’s coffers for decades.

Ireland is almost unique within the European Union of never having had an empire, though we certainly sacrificed enough of our people to support the extension of Britain’s. Instead, we were ourselves an imperial colony for centuries. While the notion of an empire might be a positive one for some of the European elites who look back on golden ages when they ruled Africa or Asia, for Irish people the word doesn’t quite have the same positive implications.

In a slightly related development, the European Commission has announced that ‘communicating’ the new EU Constitution to it’s subjects…..sorry, citizens…..no, wait, subjects is going to be a priority. With the Treaty now written, the EU now wants to ‘structure the debate’ on it and Margot Wallstrom, the EU communications commissioner, wants to ‘discuss’ the Treaty with ‘citizens’. Fascinatingly, she claims it is not enough for the Treaty to be a ‘project for the political elite, citizens have to be there.’ Considering the citizens were never asked if they wanted a Constitution in the first place and the negotiations around them took place in secret, it’s nice to know now the text is largely agreed we’re allowed into the debate.

Of course it will be a one-sided debate. We, the citizen-subjects of Barroso’s non-imperial empire can discuss the proposed Treaty to our heart’s content. We’re only allowed draw one conclusion though, and there is only one right answer.

As Doc McCoy might have observed. “It’s an empire Jim, but not as we know it.”


1. WorldbyStorm - July 11, 2007

Jose was a Maoist in his earliest political incarnation. And of course Marx saw colonialism (but not the term imperialism) as an aspect of capitalism. Lenin elevated it to the highest form of capitalism (personally I don’t buy into that thesis, seems a bit glib somehow). But even that sort of familiarity doesn’t entirely explain why he would use such terms 🙂

Still, it is incredibly foolish of him to do so. A sort of McDowell-like moment.


2. Karis Muller - August 14, 2007

The US is an empire, China is one too as it spreads its influence and money into Africa, Libya would like to dominate Africa, Iraq wanted to rule the Arab world some years ago, -why the paranoia about the EU? It is the fashion. Seems the EU is less brutal and may even ( with help from the Council of Europe) stamp out abuses against minorites and women here and there .


3. franklittle - August 14, 2007

Gee Karis, why would people who were a colony of an empire less than a hundred years ago be a little suspicious of a new one?

Firstly, it’s not the fashion to be critical of the EU. SLavish, gullible, blind loyalty to the EU is more the order of the day. Secondly, there’s no such thing as a ‘progressive empire’. The two are mutually incompatible, and considering the right wing economic approach of the EU and it’s aversion to democracy, it’s hardly something to get excited about is it?


4. Margot Wallstrom and the concept of ‘debate’ « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - October 12, 2007

[…] Commissioner. She is also, for me at least, a valued source of entertainment. Last July, we reported that she had started an initiative to ’structure the debate’ around the proposed EU […]


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