Tag Archives: Europe

European consolidation and disintegration, past and future

hadrianswall

I spent last week walking along the line of Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, the fortification built on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian to mark the Empire’s northern boundary. I took it as an opportunity to reflect on a united Europe and a fractured Britain (then and now).

For a bit of fun, here is a map of the Roman Empire at around the time the wall was built and a map of the European Union as it might look a few years from now. Spot the key differences on the north-western periphery!

RomanEmpire

Roman Empire c 120AD

eu-map-2016

European Union c 2020AD

Katie Low wrote about the eerie parallels between ancient Roman and modern British politics on this blog a couple of months ago. Spotting parallels and patterns is one of the reasons we find history so fascinating. At its peak, Rome delivered a period of prosperity, stability, and security unrivalled in Europe’s history until the mid-20th century. It did so through a complex political structure which delivered effective administration and the rule of law throughout its diverse territory made up of many nations, all of whom enjoyed (from 212 AD) Roman citizenship.

Political consolidation might not appeal to nationalists but it makes a lot of sense for anyone in search of peace and prosperity. What’s more, it is inevitable. Take a look at this map of conflicts throughout recorded history. Note how concentrated they are in Europe compared to, say, China with its much longer history of political consolidation.

battles

4,500 years of human conflict

Rome’s period of peak success was relatively short-lived, just under a hundred years from the succession of Nerva to the death of Marcus Aurelius. The EU has had around sixty years. Its citizens have enjoyed a period of high quality of life which we now take for granted. Again and again we hear from anti-EU nationalists the argument that we don’t need the EU any more, that any success it has had in resolving centuries-old conflict among European states is now baked in and irreversible. Any student of history should know better.

(Some more photos of my walk along Hadrian’s Wall are in this Flickr album.)

[Guest Post] Late Republican Rome and the UK today: a few thoughts

A bit of a departure for this blog – and a very exciting one – here is a guest post by my friend and fellow former classicist, Katie Low, on parallels between modern British and ancient late republican Roman politics.

As a British citizen living in Brussels, I have observed the events in the UK of the past week with dismay and, from Thursday afternoon onwards, utter horror. Some very striking historical parallels have been drawn: most notably, many people have compared the ‘Breaking Point’ poster unveiled by UKIP on Wednesday with images from a Nazi propaganda film. A consciousness of the past is only one of the many things that will, I hope, prevent what happened in the 1930s being played out again today: the apparent simplicity of such parallelisms is both helpful and unhelpful. History leaves us with as many questions as answers.

Being a western European born in the mid-1980s, however, with all the privilege that implies, I am struggling to find a frame of reference for what is happening. In no context have I ever witnessed the febrile atmosphere, the stunts that go beyond parody, the  hateful rhetoric expressed both in formal contexts and in a thousand different variations in the streets and online – and what now looks like the willingness to kill for (abhorrent) ideological reasons – that have gripped the UK. In my previous career I studied Roman history and historiography, and it is in the ancient past that I am trying to make sense of all this.

As I read about the past week’s events and the opinions they have generated I keep thinking of one particular period: the late Roman Republic, roughly the years between the defeat of Rome’s main rival Carthage in 146 BC and the civil wars ultimately won at the battle of Actium in 33 by the man who became the first emperor. Of course, as with the 1930s, ancient Rome cannot be easily mapped onto the present, and it is highly unlikely that the UK will end up with an Augustus of its own. But there are many individual points of comparison.

Several ancient historians supposed that the defeat of Carthage meant Romans could no longer focus on an external enemy and thus fell to fighting each other: in the UK, while polarised politics are of course nothing new, the ‘reliability’ of the Cold War has been replaced by perceived and real threats from many different sources. Then, as the first century BC drew on, powerful leaders such as Pompey, Crassus and Julius Caesar outgrew the confines of the hierarchical political system that the republic had maintained for centuries and began to establish their own popular power bases. Finally, while making a glib link between the unutterably tragic death of Jo Cox and the assassination of Caesar in 44 would be entirely wrong, I would stress that the latter event foreshadowed subsequent  political murders of emperors that achieved no systemic change and were generally carried out for less than noble motives.

It was another assassination, however, that the terrible thing that happened on Thursday first brought to mind. In 91 BC, another Roman politician was murdered, the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus (once again, I am not drawing  a detailed parallel with recent events: the specific cases are far more different than similar, but the broader similarities are what interest me). At this point, Rome was a troubled place. After the attempts of the 130s and 120s by the reforming tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus to ease inequality in Roman society had ended in civil unrest and their violent deaths, tension had continued to build, and additional strife was brewing amongst the city-states on the Italian peninsula who were allied to Rome but did not enjoy the privileges of citizenship.

Drusus, who as tribune represented the common people but, like virtually all magistrates, came from the upper classes, seems to have pursued a mixed programme. He proposed measures to reinforce the authority of the senate, but also a law that would have provided land for the impoverished working classes, and he also intended to grant citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies. The sources for this period are not comprehensive and his motives not entirely clear (he was not a straightforward popular champion), but his assassination by an unknown assailant unleashed armed revolt by the allied cities who saw no other way of gaining full recognition from Rome. The subsequent Social War (socius is Latin for ‘ally’) lasted three years and was destructive and bloody. Historians have disagreed over whether the independent confederation established by the allies was their ultimate aim or simply a base from which to fight for citizenship, but although it was eventually granted to them, the conflict segued into a full-blown Roman civil war, a precursor to the ones that ended the republic itself.

Once again, I do not believe this will happen in the UK: 91 BC and AD 2016 are very far apart in all kinds of ways. But I can’t help thinking they have elements in common. Inequality and disenfranchisement, mass and elite alienation, identity politics – indeed, the dichotomy between the Italian allies wanting to join Rome but on their preferred terms, and seeking to ‘go it alone’ as an independent nation, looks oddly familiar amid the current debate over British membership of the EU. As I said, history tends to provide more questions than answers. It suggests, though, that once conventional political stops offering solutions, things may never be the same again.

Why British exporters love the EU

econgraph

The Economist tweeted this graph this afternoon showing that the UK now sends the majority of its exports outside the EU. It offers an accompanying editorial comment that this chart will please eurosceptics. At first glance, you would think that it supports the ‘Leave’ campaign’s assertion that the UK can thrive as an exporting nation outside the EU, focusing on trade with the rest of the world. Actually, the graph shows quite the opposite.

Firstly, as @Shivoa points out, the UK benefits from many trade deals which the EU has negotiated with other countries in order to sell its products overseas. Outside the EU, the UK would no longer be party to those agreements and would have to renegotiate them on far from preferential terms, without the muscle which the EU has as the world’s largest trade bloc. Rather than accelerate the trend which this chart illustrates, Brexit would put it at risk.

Secondly, as this article on Conservative Home demonstrates, we are not talking about a zero sum game here. British exporters do not choose between the EU and the rest of the world. If exports to the EU fall, they do not automatically rise elsewhere. The Economist’s graph in fact illustrates (but also masks) a serious deterioration in the UK’s balance of trade over the same period. A fall in the UK’s exports to its primary, high value markets in the EU is a bad thing, even though it can be made to look like a shift towards non-EU markets if we ignore volume and look purely at percentages.

150901-Balance-of-trade

The ‘Singapore’ argument for Brexit is fallacious. Brexit would only harm British exporters, and that is why they overwhelmingly want the UK to remain in the EU.

Follow-up: I have to add this graph which was posted by @NauroCampos (Professor of Economics at Brunel University). It speaks, literally, volumes.

germany

“Small government”

Something I often hear from people who don’t like the EU is that they favour “small government”.  The following tweet is from just such an exchange that I had last night with someone who didn’t like my post about UK v. EU democracy:

 

As I said in my reply, I think the people who make this point are confusing ‘small government’ with ‘local government’.  International, or supranational, governance need not necessarily be ‘big’ – in fact, it usually isn’t.

The ‘big government’ to which so many self-styled libertarians object is the kind of government which taxes a lot and spends a lot and regulates a lot.  The European Union is very far from being that kind of ‘big government’ – its footprint is tiny compared to national and local governments.  The EU’s budget for 2012 was €147 billion, or 1.12% of GNI; the UK budget for 2012 was £682 billion, or 45% of GDP!  The European Commission employs 32,666 civil servants (serving a population of 503 million); Whitehall employs 498,433 (for a population of 63 million); Glasgow City Council employs around 20,000 (serving a population of 600,000).

One of the reasons that the EU exists, and makes sense, is because doing some things at the European level can reduce the footprint of government. Imagine 28 regulatory regimes for food safety, or car type approvals!  Far from embodying ‘big government’, the European Union – with its Treaty enshrining the principle of subsidiarity – is a continent-wide experiment in smaller, efficient government.

This is especially true under the current, neo-liberal Commission.  But even if we had an interventionist Commission which favoured big spending and heavy regulation, European government would still have a far smaller footprint than national or local governments in Member States, for structural reasons to do with money-raising powers, administrative resources, and legal competences.

So we’ll file ‘big government’ along with the other Euromyths.  But what can we expect from people who think they’re libertarian while advocating heavy-handed state regulation of all aspects of citizens’ personal lives from recreational drug use to free movement?