An Empire Without an Emperor? The EU and Its Eastern Neighbourhood
The metaphor of ‘empire’ has been applied not infrequently to the European Union—most notably by Jan Zielonka (2006)—and there is indeed a growing, though not necessarily very well interconnected, body of scholarly literature on the topic (see Behr and Stivachtis 2016; and e.g. Waever 1997; Gravier 2009; Marks 2012). The extent to which the EU has been, or can be interpreted as an ‘empire’ clearly depends on what is meant by the word. It is often used in a negative sense to indicate the ‘imperialist’ ambitions and policies of the ‘Brussels bureaucracy’, allegedly to subjugate its member states, or how the bureaucracy or the leading member states dominate the continent and some other parts of the world, particularly the former European colonies. On the other hand, there are people who see ‘empire’ as a more positive concept, implying the diversity of the constituent units, with multiple loyalties and overlapping authorities. An example of this is Zielonka (2006), who defines the EU as a neo-medieval polity, or Robert Cooper (2002), who sees it as a postmodern one. Those who embrace ‘imperialism’ also stress the civilisational aspect of developed and enlightened imperial communities, though more often this mission is seen in a critical light. Even the EU Commission President, Manuel Barroso, once noted that ‘sometimes I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empire. We have the dimension of empire’ (Mahony 2007). However, he distanced himself from the negative aspects of the concept by adding ‘what we have is the first non-imperial empire’. Given these loaded meanings, it might be difficult to refer to ‘empire’ as a purely analytical concept. Nevertheless, ‘empire’ can be seen as a vast territorial unit larger than a nation-state, consisting of a centre and peripheries but often without definitive outer borders, or even more nominally as a territorial unit ruled by an emperor. If the EU is an empire in the former sense, it is definitively an empire without an emperor.
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