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The Holy Roman Empire and the EU

Our article for today posits a fundamental similarity between the Holy Roman Empire and the EU; and, moreover, predicts the demise of the EU because of recent proposed changes (see this document).

Although the author asserts that comparisons between the HRE and the EU are commonplace, I see very little in common with them. The HRE was, at one time, a centralized empire that saw power devolve over a long period of time to territorial sub-units. By the 16th century, at the latest, virtually all meaningful decisions were made at the level of estates (duchies, counties, Imperial Free Cities, and other units). The Empire as a whole collected some minimal taxes and managed judicial disputes that could not be settled in a single state. Theoretically, it conducted foreign policy, but in practice the Empire rarely acted as a whole and most wars were fought by or among estates. There was little force behind the central government; neither the Emperor nor the Diet could impose laws that would affect the internal affairs of particular estates, and were generally hard-pressed to maintain peace and order between estates. What held the Empire together was the sense of community, especially by the German members. It had existed for nearly 1000 years and it was the main reason that powerful neighbouring states did not expand into Imperial territory more aggressively.

The EU is the opposite on almost all counts. It is not a formerly centralized state that has fallen apart, but a confederation of individual states that have gradually ceded it more power. The EU interferes in fundamental internal matters of its member states and does not seem to have any theoretical limits to its power. The one thing it does not have is a military structure, something that is provided by NATO. But NATO membership is not at all coterminous with EU membership, and notably it is dominated by the United States. EU members have very little history as part of the organization and even less sense of attachment to it.

The author of the article in question has detected in the EU’s latest plans for a different level of membership the sort of breaking up that happened to the HRE. I’m not sure why this is the case; the HRE never had different formal levels of membership or participation. Those units that qualified as “estates” had different rights and responsibilities than others: they had to pay taxes, in exchange for which they had representation in the Imperial Diet. But estates and non-estates were all equally part of the Empire and subject to its laws.

Having different levels of membership may turn out to be a crucial turning point for the EU, but I doubt it. The EU already has members in and out of the Eurozone, and Denmark has opted out of several parts of the EU. The UK is also going to have a special form of membership. The point of the different levels, as the author admits, is to allow the EU to admit new member states without having them meet the strict criteria of existing states. As long as the new level of membership does not become something that core members begin retreating to as an attempt to lessen EU control, I doubt having different levels will significantly weaken the alliance.

This is a particularly interesting subject because of the fact that neither the HRE nor the EU fits into a traditional conception of sovereignty. To the extent that the EU represents a supranational form of organization, it violates the sovereignty of its signatories on a whole host of measures. However, if we were to consider the EU its own state, it would lack sovereignty in many areas as well, notably in defense. The HRE was in a similar situation. This is a good reminder that all categories of human understanding are mere approximations to reality; in some cases they correspond to reality quite closely, but it is always possible for there to be marginal cases. This is especially true in human affairs.

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