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EU an Empire or a Federation?


Having working federations in the world today, we associate with them positivity and democracy, however empires we associate with repression and violence and thus label them negatively. Federal US – good…Imperial US – bad.

Is one democratic while the other is authoritarian?

Let’s forget about the EU for an moment and focus on the US and other empires turned federations to further define the differences.

The first modern federation, the US, was formerly a colony of the British empire. This newly founded US, discussed the possibility of forming their own colonial system, but later rejected the idea preferring a system in which new colonies would gain equal standing in congress along with older colonies, granted that they fulfilled certain requirements. The colonies created a confederation and this evolved into a federation.

The German empire became a federation and the Austrian federal state is what is left of the Austro-Hungarian empire. What these three histories seem to tell us, is that federations seem to appear as successors to empires.

So is federation the democratic heir to empire? Well in this modern era a federal model wouldn’t be taken seriously unless it was introduced in the context of democratisation processes’. In simple and basic terms then, a federation is democratic or it is not a federation. How democratic is the EU? There are democratic processes involved, so the concept of empire should not be applicable right?

Well that depends on how one defines empire.

Definition of empire: a hierarchically organized political system with a hub-like structure–a rimless wheel–within which a core elite and a state dominate peripheral elites and societies by serving as intermediaries for their significant interactions and by channelling resource flows from the periphery to the core and back to the periphery.

The ‘core’ the definition refers to does not have to be a state, it can simply be a city as in the Roman and Byzantine empires. A parameter for empires; empires expand, federations don’t. Scholars address that empires are unstable and seem doomed to collapse. At any point shocks can lead to loss of territory and ultimate collapse. Basically empires seem fragile, always struggling to preserve an unstable equilibrium.

What seems to be correlated to an empires duration though, is the speed of its expansion. The faster they expand the faster they tend to fall.

History of empire tends to bring repression and violent episodes to memory, but in their time empires are seen as forces for peace and prosperity. Selective memories tend to give us false views on empires of past, but in reality they were actually more complex polities than we sometimes wish to believe. The only difference between states and empires is that, states have survived the diffusion of democracy while, as of now, empires have not. Whether there tends to be a factor between democracy and empire is not really known though, as it’s considered economic sustainability tends to be the cause of their collapse, so democratisation of the empire could be a coincidental cause.

A successful empire is one that implements its identity policy onto member states, while preserving and respecting the local identities of the individual populations. This imperial identity of the empire stresses the homogeneity of the empires population. This creates a two-level identity similar to a federation.

Ok, so what defines a federation?

There are 6 main characteristics to define a federation:

1) A federation is a state with a single people which is characterized by the accommodation of the constituent units of the union in the decision-making procedure of the central government on some constitutionally entrenched basis;

2) Federation is based on unity and diversity which are formally recognized by the combination of self-rule and shared rule in a written and supreme constitution;

3) Self-rule and shared rule are combined in at least two orders of government/governance, each acting directly upon its citizens, in which the constituent units enjoy significant autonomy in matters of local concern but have voluntarily agreed to pool their sovereignty in matters of common concern;

4) The federal constitution incorporates a formal allocation of powers and competences between the central and constituent units with a firm basis in sources of revenue and expenditure which provide the framework for fiscal federalism;

5) The constitution of the federation is not unilaterally amendable by any single order of government. It can be amended only by an overwhelming majority of both the central legislative institutions and the legislative institutions of the constituent units of federation;

6) The federation has an umpire in the form of a supreme court to regulate the relations between the central authority and the constituent units, and between the constituent units themselves. It has the unchallengeable legal authority to adjudicate on disputes regarding the constitutionality of respective actions.

So, is the EU an empire or federation?

There are 4 major differences between empire and federation. Firstly, federations tend to have high levels of equality and empires tend to have low levels of equality. Secondly, federations tend to have fixed borders, while empires suffer territorial instability (expanding and shrinkage). Thirdly, empires have a high degree of multiculturalism, whereas federations tend to have limited multiculturalism. Finally, the political link between the citizens and the political centre differs between federations and empires; the former being ran in a matrix like system, and the later being ran from a political centre state or city.

The EU take in new member states that adhere to values set in the Treaty of the European Union, in this case it follows the rules of federalisation. However, the states have to be within the European border as stated in article 49. The problem is, Europe doesn’t have a clear border to the East, therefore the final border can only be the result of political bargaining. Also since the inception of the EU the process of expansion hasn’t yet ceased, this presents a pattern of imperialisation (trend towards empire). So as far as territory is concerned, the EU seems to be in empire mode still.

The next main point is the organisation of political power. Federalism’s matrix model of self-rule and shared-rule, tend to create lower levels of inequality in the system. We can see a version of this within the EU, but on the other hand we also see the empire model, of city rule, where periphery states hardly exchange with each other and the core has authority. There is also the trend of older states being more powerful than the newer weaker states, as new states had to get their houses in order and financially sound, some like Greece even tricked their way into the EU. This territorial inequality is typical of empire. So on the one hand we can see a move towards federalism, but on the other a sway to imperialisation.