Chief commissioner Michel Barnier wags his finger at the media conference. An uprising in a major European country has forced his hand, as attacks on police and politicians lead to desertions and defections. Unlike the British government, which was pummelled into submission over the Brexit deal, these plucky secessionists are undermining the authority of the formidable Eurocrat. So he threatens to send in the EU Army.
It’s 2027, and the EU is more powerful than ever, yet also more detached. It reigns supreme in the cosmopolitan cities, in the financial centres, and on university campuses: Berlin, Heidelberg, den Haag, Frankfurt-am-Main, Gothenburg, Barcelona, Fiorentina. These islands of the liberal intelligentsia look condescendingly on the masses, whose unpredictable and uninformed votes put progress in peril come each election. The provincial hinterlands are stifled by backwardness, with rising tension between nostalgic nationalism and expanding ethnic enclaves. Among the commoners, rule by Brussels is at best tolerated, at worst despised.
Consulting historians, political commentators begin to see what the EU has become: a latter-day Holy Roman Empire. And Barnier and fellow commissioners are behaving like the ‘enlightened despots’ of the European past.
The HRE was a revival of the old Roman Empire, but with papacy to the fore. Founded in AD 800 when the Pope crowned Charlemagne as emperor, its domain comprised France, Germany and most of modern-day Italy. After the French left in the tenth century, and the Italian parts were given away, the empire centred on Germany. Successive emperors looked east to expand their territory; the pagan Prussians, Slavs and Balts were suppressed by brute force, and fiefdoms were established in Hungary, Poland and Bohemia. But the intent to rule Europe was confronted by the forces of national identity, the Reformation and Thirty Years War, and the HRE gradually retreated to a federation of principalities.
Maintaining order over the many petty oligarchies of the HRE was awkward, but Joseph II, emperor of the late 18th century, had a master plan. He was an arch-centraliser, who cloaked his zeal for control in Enlightenment values. Determined to create a state apparatus that would banish feudalism, Joseph II levied taxes to pay for institutions and representative bodies operating under his jurisdiction.
Just as the European Union is becoming less united, the HRE was not really holy. The rich statelets presented themselves as hubs of intellectual enterprise and the arts, but as the princes sought to fortify their privileged status against popular rebellion, survival was prioritised over aesthetics or virtue. The Vatican with its papal bulls was a hindrance, and religious fervour was regarded from the castle ramparts as dangerous populism. With his Secularisation Decree, Joseph II banished the Jesuits, cut the number of saints’ days, and his anti-clerical stance led to a testy visit by Pope Pius VI. Joseph II didn’t care much for God: leave superstition to the ignorant plebs.
Joseph II overstretched himself. He signed a treaty with Russia and Prussia to divide Poland among the three, but faced serious revolts in Hungary and Belgium. The end came soon after Napoleon declared himself emperor of France. As la Grande Armée marched across Europe, German princes seceded from the HRE to accept Napoleon’s protection, and in 1806 Pope Francis formally rescinded the empire.
The HRE ended as an embarrassment of corrupted ideals, and the EU may be going the same way. It has extended beyond coherence, having incorporated the same parts of eastern Europe that caused so much trouble for the holy emperors. Economically it is stagnating, and it has created a cultural timebomb with its mass migration from Muslim lands. For now, the EU seems to have strength and resilience: the combined might of France and Germany, its neoliberal multiculturalism an inspiration to youth. But ten years on, and the view from Barnier’s bastion looks less assured.
Breaking news from a burning city: protesters surround the old parliament building, the EU flag is ripped off the pole. Inside, worried officials burst into a wordless rendition of Ode to Joy. The soldiers, experienced only in handing out food tokens to crowds of migrants, are refusing to fight. And this is how the most apparently impermeable and permanent regimes end: not with a bang but a whimper.