“If classified according to the rules of political science,” Samuel Pufendorf wrote about the Holy Roman Empire, it would appear “an irregular body resembling a monster.” Similar to today’s European Union, the Empire was neither a unitary state, nor a federation, “but rather a cross between the two. This condition is the constant source of the fatal disease and the internal upheavals.”
Given that the Holy Roman Empire outlived Pufendorf by more than a century, perhaps the predictions of the EU’s impending demise should also be taken with a grain of salt. More importantly, the parallels between the two are not merely accidental. Instead, they reveal something deeper about the European condition. Our present globalized world shares a number of characteristics with the Middle Ages and Early Modern period in Europe: overlapping sources of political authority with sometimes universal claims, and multiple and fuzzy political loyalties.
Like the decentralized European continent that shared the common anchors of Christianity and classical thought, today’s world embeds diverse countries in a shared setting of an integrated global markets, convenience communication and transport, global consumer patterns, a common business culture, and English as the world’s lingua franca. This is especially evident in the EU, where the depth of shared economic and cultural ties surpasses any comparable political project, save for actual unitary or federal states.
The Empire, which existed for over a millennium, was a response to the combined reality of Europe’s highly decentralized politics and a shared, universalistic cultural frame. Until the Reformation, the pope’s jurisdiction was seen as universal, not limited to any particular territory, and included the right to award lands in terra incognita, though that authority was never backed by effective power. And while the Holy Roman Emperor styled himself as the pope’s secular counterpart and the successor to emperors of Ancient Rome, it would be misleading to graft Roman legal concepts onto the medieval world, conflating the emperor with summa potestas (highest authority), princes with praesides provinciarum (officials exercising delegated authority over provinces), and Imperial Diets with senatus.
Instead, the genius of the Empire was the way it brought together a variety of political units into a covenantal, rules-based system without sacrificing their diversity. The relations it created bound together hundreds of state-like entities: kingdoms, principalities, duchies, and self-governing cities, with different degrees of representation in the three-tier Imperial Diet—electors at the top, followed by other princes, bishops, and city representatives. At its peak, around three hundred different “states”, including very small ones, were part of the Empire.
To be sure, the result was not a kumbaya of harmony and peace on the continent. Conflicts continued, just as today disagreements exist between the EU’s member states. Yet the continual tension between papal and imperial supremacy—challenged by other centers of political power—prevented institutional sclerosis by keeping everyone on their feet. It was this seemingly imperfect institutional design that enabled the Empire to muddle through and gradually adapt, not unlike the EU.
The Empire itself had no standing army. Its own economic resources were limited to those of the Reichsgut—territories in direct imperial possession. But those yielded revenues that were increasingly insufficient, and the elected emperors, especially the Habsburgs, were forced to rely on their own resources. With the Reformation, the association between the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church became tenuous, leading to the embrace of devolution as a solution to the problem of religious toleration.
As with the EU, there was not just one type of “membership” in the Empire. Some entities enjoyed “immediacy”, a direct relationship with the emperor providing substantial policy autonomy. Other political units, such as the Netherlands’ United Provinces or the Swiss Confederation, were connected to the Empire more loosely and eventually ended up leaving.
Following the Thirty Years War, the peace treaties of Westphalia, concluded at Münster and Osnabrück, provided a new legal backbone to the Empire. Contrary to popular opinion, those implied little in terms of “Westphalian sovereignty” and did not herald the beginning of an era of fully sovereign nation-states. Instead, the treaties provided the Empire with a constitution, superseding the previous reliance on customary law and a small number of fundamental laws such as the Golden Bull.
If one looks at the EU in this context, the current project looks less like an aberration and more like a return to historical norms following Europe’s century-long experiment with unfettered national sovereignty. Furthermore, the apparent resilience of the Holy Roman Empire should make one much more skeptical of the idea that unless the EU will collapse unless it proceeds aggressively to solve its underlying governance problems.
It is exceedingly easy to find flaws in the EU’s institutional architecture. For instance, European treaties nominally ban bailouts to insolvent countries, yet that rule is not credible given the systemic risks that financial panics in large economies entail. In practice, an ad hoc mechanism of financial assistance and a top-down system of budget management have been created, mostly outside the legal space afforded by European treaties. That solution is a far cry from the Hamiltonian bargain many believe is necessary for the Eurozone to function as an authentic federation. Yet the Troika descending on Greece did not look vastly different from the Debit Commissions appointed by the Imperial Aulic Council to resolve situations of insolvency in the Empire’s various principalities.
The EU departs from other principles of conventional federalism as well—most importantly subsidiarity. There are areas in which the EU does little, yet where a compelling rationale for joint action exists, such as defense and foreign policy. In other areas the EU is active without being especially coordinated or coherent—efforts to harmonize welfare systems driven by fears of unfair competition come to mind, or common agricultural policy, which does not seem to serve any collective European purpose and could be administered equally well at the national level.
The absence of a well-functioning single market, together with unfavorable structural and demographic changes, is probably the biggest constraint on the EU’s economic growth. But the Empire was not, for the most part, an economic powerhouse either. The Industrial Revolution did not start there but in England, Europe’s most centralized unitary state.
Institutional sclerosis and limited economic dynamism both seem to be parts of the European condition, as opposed to the hard-nosed, go-getter culture of American federalism. A continent as diverse as Europe might not be capable of a grand federalizing moment. Instead, it may have to settle for a constant muddling-through. But this is still vastly preferable to the competition and conflict that characterized the era of sovereign nation-states extricated from the Holy Roman Empire in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies.
That does not mean that complacency is in order. As the center of global economic gravity shifts away from Europe, it becomes less powerful and more vulnerable. In that regard, it is worth remembering how the Holy Roman Empire ended—not under the weight of its internal contradictions but rather as a result of its inability to stand united against aggressive and increasingly powerful neighbors, namely France. In 1806 Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz empowered him to create the Rhine Confederation, composed of client states that had effectively broken away from the Empire, which was declared dissolved shortly thereafter.
Russia, China, and to a lesser extent Trump’s United States all represent challenges to the EU by their ability to drive a wedge between its members. China’s Belt & Road program and the bidding of Huawei for the completion of Europe’s 5G have been the most cunning of such efforts, as they offer tangible material benefits now, valuable especially to countries that have faced financial difficulties, in exchange for political concessions down the road.
It is a mistake for European institutions to allow for bargaining with China to take place in such a decentralized fashion. Neither the Czech Republic nor Italy nor the United Kingdom can provide an effective counterweight to China at the negotiating table—but a united EU could. Creating that sense of geopolitical unity in the face of adversaries that are seeking to divide the continent is thus the most important challenge facing the EU, more urgent than technocratic tweaks to its internal governance. Here’s hoping it can do better than the Holy Roman Empire.