The cheerleaders of the European Union like to think of it as an entirely new phenomenon, born of the horrors of two world wars. But in fact it closely resembles a formation that many Europeans thought they had long since left to the dustbin of history: the Holy Roman Empire, the political commonwealth under which the Germans lived for many hundreds of years.
Some might take that as a compliment; after all, the empire lasted for almost a millennium. But they shouldn’t. If anything, today’s Europe still has to learn the lessons of the empire’s failures.
The similarities with the Holy Roman Empire — which at its greatest extent encompassed almost all of Central Europe — exist at many levels. Today’s European Council, at which the union’s member states gather, reminds one of the old Reichstag, where the representatives of the German cities and principalities met to deliberate matters of mutual concern.
And like the European project, which originated in a determination to banish war after 1945, the “modern” Holy Roman Empire, which was reformed by the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, was intended to defuse the domestic German antagonisms that had culminated in the traumatic Thirty Years’ War.
But most similarities are less flattering. Both the European Union and the empire are characterized by interminable and inconclusive debate. The German phrase for delay, which translates as “shoving something onto the long bench,” stems from when imperial bureaucrats pushed their uncompleted paperwork farther and farther down a long bench in the Reichstag council chamber.
And like the European Union, which is rived by tensions between larger and smaller states, the Holy Roman Empire proved too weak to contain over-mighty members like Prussia and Austria. Fears of partition and collapse abounded. The Reichstag was paralyzed; the emperor was hamstrung by rival princes.
Granted, in a world of increasingly absolutist neighbors, the empire stood out in its respect for the law and a high degree of personal freedom. But the truly powerful states of the 18th and 19th centuries were those that learned from the empire’s mistakes.
The German experience was a cautionary tale for the American colonies after the Revolutionary War. They, too, were profoundly divided over how to defend themselves, and above all on the question of how the huge debt accumulated during the war should be repaid.
The existing Articles of Confederation were too weak for the task, and the founders cast about for alternative models. In the Federalist Papers, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton looked at the federal system of the Holy Roman Empire, but they found it to be “a nerveless body, incapable of regulating its own members, insecure against external dangers, and agitated with unceasing fermentations in its own bowels.”
Instead, the patriots embraced the model of the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707, when the two kingdoms, formerly so divided, had come together by merging their debts, parliaments and collective efforts on the international stage.
The resulting American Constitution created a powerful executive presidency and a representative legislature and made possible the creation of a consolidated national debt, a national bank and eventually a strong military, all of which in time turned the United States into the superpower it is today. The Holy Roman Empire, by contrast, failed to reform and disintegrated after it was defeated by Napoleonic France in 1806.
Some 200 years later, this history has been forgotten. Today’s constant round of European summit meetings and reform initiatives remind one of nothing so much as the interminable and futile German “imperial reform debate,” and they are likely to have a similarly unhappy, if less spectacular, end.
Like the old empire, the union has become preoccupied with legality and procedure at the expense of participation and effectiveness. This renders the euro zone cumbersome in the face of competition from the east and causes the bond markets to doubt its creditworthiness. Indeed, everything that Madison and Hamilton wrote about the empire then is being echoed today in Washington, albeit sotto voce.
Fortunately, there is a solution from history. The euro zone faces the same choice as the Holy Roman Empire and American patriots of old: how to overcome discredited forms of confederation. Rather than digging themselves into a deeper recession and democratic deficit through austerity measures, the states in the common currency need to form a full and mighty union on Anglo-American lines. They must create a strong executive presidency elected by popular vote across the euro zone, a truly empowered house of citizens elected according to population and a senate representing the regions.
The existing sovereign debts should be federalized through a “Union Bond,” with a strict subsequent debt ceiling for the member state governments. There will have to be a single European military and one language of government and politics: English.
This is the only framework that will endow the euro zone with the democratic legitimacy to reassure the bond markets, underpin the implementation of good financial governance across the entire union and defend its interests and values on the world stage.
More than 200 years ago, the choice was between the Holy Roman Empire and Britain. The Americans opted wisely and prospered; the Germans continued to muddle through only to see their empire extinguished. History thus holds out both a great opportunity and a terrible warning for the euro zoners.
Brendan Simms is a professor of history at Cambridge University and the author, most recently, of Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy From 1453 to the Present.