By Daniel Atherton
Comparing the demise of the European Union to the collapse of the Roman Empire.
“A rising power on the peripheries in the North East, an overreliance on imported labour, a faltering economy, the rise of an inhumane enemy from the Levant, overexpansion, political instability, corruption within constituent members, the loss/lack of a uniting identity, mass migration including refugee influxes, and the weakening of central authority.”
Evan Andrews, The History Channel
You’d be mistaken for presuming that the above text is describing the demise of the European Union. You’d be wrong – but forgivably so.
Strikingly, it is describing the factors that led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Indeed, in examining the composition of both blocs, we can see a striking reason to be concerned. In this article, I will seek to address these factors, and evaluate to what extent we should be concerned by the looming shadow of uncertainty.
As emphasised by Dr David Gwyn, Royal Holloway Lecturer on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, each factor as described above was not big enough individually to cause the collapse of the empire, but rather it was a combination of all of these flaws and weaknesses that inevitably weakened the empire to such a point that an external factor could have drastic consequences for the Empire.
For the Roman Empire, whilst the economy had been in constant growth up until practically the point of collapse, corruption was writhe and the bureaucracy, though large, was inadequate to service an empire larger than the European Continent. In the 3rd century, having grown too large, the empire was split in two succinct regions of economic unity. This bears an interesting similarity to the rise of a Northern and Southern divide in the European Union. Indeed, it was in part because of this division that the Western Empire collapsed in the 5th century, whilst the Eastern half continued for another millennium well into the 15th century.
Similar to the Western Roman Empire, the European Union has simply grown far too quickly to sufficiently support itself. The fractures have been apparent for years. Examples range from the Monetary Union of which led to the Eurozone Crisis of 2009, to the Schengen Area which has seen its recent demise in the migrant crisis. None of these factors are critical enough to be the sole reason for the collapse of the EU, but rather, as a whole create a wide network of fractures, fragile enough to be shattered by an adequate external factor, just as the Western Roman Empire found in the 5th century.
The success of the Roman Empire was its ability to unite such a large mass of population and land into a relatively peaceful and stable empire. Rightly so, the European Union can be commended for achieving to some extent, this same success. It has peacefully quelled what had once been the most intensely contested area of land in history, preventing a third World War from once again descending on the continent. Similarly, it has been highly successful in economically uniting a large range of communities and economies. Dr Gwyn emphasises that the economic homogeneity pursued through the EU’s common market and monetary union is most akin to the social and economic pursuits of the Roman Empire. Both blocs had succeeded in bringing together large swathes of distant resources, ranging from ores from the Iberian Peninsula to fruit from the Levant. When stagnation and other crises hit the Rome Empire, the constituent states were drained of their resources in order to make up for its losses, something certainly noticeable in the EU’s attempts to soften the hit of the 2009 Economic Crisis, as Laqueur expresses in his 2007 book, The Last Days of Europe.
However, there are also stark contrasts between the two blocs. The Roman Empire managed to unify its population under a Roman identity, something that unquestionably the European Union has failed to do. This acted to soften the scepticism and fragmentation that we’ve noticed in recent years across the EU. Of course, the factors underlying this are that it’s much easier to create a universal identity when dealing with savages and tribes across disparate lands than it is to unify a collection of sovereign states that have existed separately for several centuries.
Furthermore, history had been on the side of the Roman Empire. Having existed for well over five centuries, generations had grown up knowing no different, and saw no plausibility nor benefit of it ever changing. There was no divide in desires to keep the empire going strong, contrast this with today, where whole generations can still look back to a time without the EU with rose-coloured spectacles, and ambitions of national greatness (Laqueur 2007). Take for instance the UK Independence Party, who’s entire 2015 manifesto revolved around the idea that the EU has taken away the UK’s power and left us desolate and demoralised.
This argument raises a very unfortunate reality for the European Union – it lacks a completely unifying identity. A recent Eurobarometer Poll found that only around 60% of EU residents feel a commitment to the European Union (Eurobarometer 2015). Indeed, the range of a sense of citizenships ranges significantly between around 50% in those born before 1946 to 73% in those born after 1980. Likewise, in 2014, over 70% of EU citizens surveyed felt a stronger connection to their state than to the EU (Walt 2015).
As emphasised by Dr Gwyn, there is no single point at which the Western Roman Empire collapsed, but rather a long enduring spiral of fracturing events leading towards a point in which it could not protect itself from even the smallest of outside factors. The point of no return cannot be quantified, it cannot be predicted, nor can it be rectified when realised.
Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union could be the first step in the spiral towards desolation witnessed in the Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire’s focus was on internal conflicts, it failed to prevent its own collapse from the peripheries. If the EU’s focus comes to be solely on preventing further dissention, perhaps it will lose sight of its aspirations and fall into same trap as the Romans.
The 27 Member-States should heed warning from the example of the Roman Empire, to maintain a bifocal awareness of their present and their future. We cannot know for certain whether the EU has already passed the point of no return, or whether there is still time to prevent its regression. But what we do know for certain is that the shadow of uncertainty still looms over the European continent, and will continue to do so until as predicted by Mark Leonard, another Augustus Caesar or Jean Monnet rises to the forefront of European politics (Leonard 2006).
Daniel J. Atherton
Walt, S (2015) Does Europe Have a Future? Foreign Policy. Available Online: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/16/does-europe-have-a-future-stephen-walt-testimony-house-foreign-affairs-committee/
Eurobarometer 83, (Spring 2015) European Citizenship Report. Available online: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb83/eb83_citizen_en.pdf
Andrews, E. (2014) Why Rome Fell. History Channel. Available online: http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/8-reasons-why-rome-fell
Laqueur, M (2007). The Last Days of Europe. New York: ThomasDunne Books.
Leonard, M. (2006). Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century. New York: Public Affairs.