Sunday, November 20, 2005

The EU and Lessons from Rome

I read from time to time that the European Union is compared to the Roman Empire. Most of these comparisons are not very apt, but here is one that I find intriguing. Julius Caesar was assassinated because he wanted to crown himself king, and openly threatened and challenged the established order in the Roman Republic. Not a popular move among the powerful elite in the Senate, who reminded Caesar that Rome had become a Republic precisely because they had rebelled against the "tyrant" kings of old.

His successor Octavian
, better known today as Caesar Augustus, had seen what happened to Julius Caesar. Although no less ambitious, he was smarter than Caesar. He understood that openly overthrowing the old order would trigger a lot of resistance from the established power elites. He is considered the first and one of the most important Roman Emperors (27 BC to AD 14), but he downplayed his own position by preferring the traditionally oligarchic title of princeps, usually translated as "first citizen". He also preserved the outward form of the Roman Republic. He thus paid lip service to the old elite of the Republic, and veiled the changes to make them seem less threatening and upsetting to the public. He was king, but did not call himself king.

Some might see a parallel to present-day EU. Up to 80 per cent of national laws come from Brussels, and many of them are made in secret, as in dictatorships such as North Korea and Cuba. What is then the point of holding national elections, and is Western Europe still truly democratic? Just as in Octavian's Rome, the real power has been moved elsewhere, but the old order is retained as a democratic fig leaf in order not to upset the public too much.

Of course, this is where the similarities end. Octavian's rule marked the beginning of the most powerful and dynamic period in Roman history. That is hardly the case with the EU today. The Jihad-riots in France look more like the fall of the Roman Empire several centuries later, when the barbarians immigrated in huge numbers and caused the now weakened civilization to collapse in large parts of Western Europe. Then, the strongest part of the Empire, the eastern half, lingered on for centuries more under the name "the Byzantine Empire," before it was overrun by Muslims. Will Eastern Europe go on even if parts of Western Europe do collapse, or is the strongest half of the West represented by the USA today?


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