Petr Reo Skůpa posted an interesting response to my last essay. He said:

While Verhofstadt’s claim may be dystopian and may be astounding… but what if (and it seems to me) it is true (in some sense at least). That means- whether the time of tomorrow will or will not be the time of empires is not entirely in the hands of Europeans. In the hands of Europeans is whether they will be one of those empires as well. But not as much, how much power will giants like China carve for themselves?

And if it so. What would be the most sane and most proper way to guard against those giants?

Quick Recap. Verhofstadt is a key player in the European Union and an outspoken advocate of much faster and stronger ‘federalisation’ (means: transfers of power from countries to the EU). He gave a speech in the UK where he claimed everyone should support him because the “new world order” is an “order of empires”. Here’s the full speech and the relevant extract again:

Here’s what he said:

“The world order of tomorrow is not a world order based on nation states or countries. It’s a world order that is based on empires.

China is not a nation, it’s a Han civilization. India … is not a nation … it’s over 2000 nations, 20 languages … it’s the biggest democracy worldwide … the US is also more an Empire than a nation, maybe soon they’ll all be speaking Spanish, I don’t know what will happen, and then finally the Russian Federation.

The world of tomorrow is a world of empires in which we European and you British can only defend your interest, your way of life, by doing it together in a European framework and in the European Union.”

I watched the rest of the speech to see if he was being selectively quoted. He isn’t: the rest of his speech doesn’t dwell on this topic at all and is entirely predictable (Brexit is bad, the EU is good but needs modernisation, Trump is bad, Johnson is bad, the Lib Dems should win an election etc). The part about empires is the only notable part.

Petr has a point. I didn’t address the question of whether Verhofstadt is correct about the future. That’s a good question.

I don’t think Verhofstadt is right. I believe the future is what we make it: any given outcome is not inevitable.

Guy is on the wrong side of history

The early 20th century was a world dominated by empires. There was the British Empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman Empire, the USSR and various smaller empires belonging to continental powers.

But for over two centuries empires have been in decline. All the empires I just named disappeared, leaving behind collections of countries in their wake. The global trends can be seen clearly on these graphs from Our World In Data:

(I’m not sure what “data available” is measuring here)

Starting from a world with fewer than 50 countries in 1800 we are now up to nearly 200.

The trend is towards democracy too:

From a population perspective the trend is also clear:

The red “population in autocracy” bloc here is 80% Chinese. If China went through a democratic revolution tomorrow, the vast majority of the world’s population would be living in a democratic nation-state.

So for the past two hundred years we’ve been trending towards fewer empires, more democracies and more countries. Verhofstadt appears to be arguing that this trend will go into reverse, and in a huge way. That’s a remarkable claim!

Big claims require big evidence. Unfortunately, he provides none whatsoever. He merely asserts it. Why should anyone believe him?

Empires on the brain

Perhaps you think Verhofstadt is the only person who has talked about the EU this way. Sadly, he’s not.

In 2007 this story appeared in the Telegraph:

Gordon Brown was under renewed pressure to hold a referendum last night after José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, hailed the European Union as an “empire”.

He said:

“Sometimes I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empire. We have the dimension of empire.

He also referred to the EU as the world’s first “non-imperial empire”.

Last year the President of France gave a similar justification as Verhofstadt for why the EU matters, but without using the e-word:

“We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America”

The EU must have an army commanded by the Commission to protect Europeans from China, Russia and … America??

Perhaps I recall history wrongly, but I thought the last two times America fought a European army the Americans were the good guys!

Here’s one more example, from a documentary containing secretly recorded material from the EU side of the Brexit negotiations:

The programme ends with two of the EU team revelling in what had been achieved and saying about the UK people, “We got rid of them. We kicked them out. We finally turned them into a colony, and that was our plan from the first moment.”

So EU negotiators claim they’re building an empire and their goal from the start has been to turn the UK into a colony of that empire. Is it any wonder relations between Britain and the rest of Europe are in such rapid decline?

A confused definition of empire

The argument I’m making here is tricky to construct because the people we’re talking about aren’t especially coherent. It’s very unclear what they actually mean when they use the word “empire”.

Here’s the definition of empire presented by Wikipedia. Dictionaries present something very similar:

An empire is a sovereign state functioning as an aggregate of nations or people that are ruled over by an emperor or another kind of monarch.”

The definition of “imperial” is simply “relating to an empire”. Thus Barroso’s concept of a “non-imperial empire” is nonsense. You can’t have a non-imperial empire anymore than you can have a non-liquid fluid.

Verhofstadt’s speech is barely more logical. He categorises the USA and India as “an aggregate of nations ruled over by an emperor”, drawing a contrast with Europe. But the US President is not a monarch and India isn’t an empire either. It certainly doesn’t have over 2000 nations (what?! It has 30!). Even the UK is not an empire because the monarch is for now entirely symbolic, and politically may as well not exist.

Of all the world’s major power blocs President Xi Jinping is the closest thing there is to a modern day emperor: one of the last. Second place must be North Korea and third place should go to the head of the EU Commission, who within the EU’s “competences” (areas of control) temporarily has powers somewhat similar to a watered down emperor, in that he/she can choose what the law will be.

The Steel Man

I could stop there: the view is unsupported by any argument, contradicts long term trends, has made up numbers and doesn’t use the word empire correctly. I’d have successfully dismissed the surface level argument with facts and logic.

But that would be unsatisfying. Clearly, Verhofstadt’s vision speaks to European anxieties in some way. Being badly articulated doesn’t change that.

The rationalist community has this notion of “steel man” argument. The idea is it’s the opposite of a strawman argument. Attacking a strawman is when you attack an argument your opponent didn’t actually make. A steel man is when you attack the argument your opponent was trying to make, even if they didn’t do it very well. The goal is friendlier and more constructive debate.

Let’s break down Verhofstadt and Macron’s point into two parts, because to me they seem fundamentally different:

  1. America is an empire that poses a threat to Europe
  2. China/Russia are empires that pose a threat to Europe

I’m going to ignore Verhofstadt’s reference to India here because I don’t know anyone who believes India is a threat to anything, let alone an entire continent. He seems to have thrown that in to try and make his point seem more general than it really is. Macron’s formulation is a bit tighter.

Part (1) seems rooted in two viewpoints:

  1. America is a “threat” to “European interests” and “ways of life”
  2. America is a “threat” because it can’t be relied on to defend Europe anymore with its military power.

The first is just bog standard European (read: French) cultural elitism — all things Euro are civilised and good, all things American are commercial and terrible. We can safely ignore this point: the only people in Europe who need to worry about the American threat to their way of life are makers of crappy subsidised art-house movies.

The second viewpoint is the one Macron was arguing from and it’s logical, albeit incredibly badly expressed. Listing China, Russia and America together as countries we have to “protect ourselves with respect to” suggests they are all similar in some way, but Macron’s later comments show he didn’t really mean that. Also, even if America left NATO tomorrow, refusing to defend other countries doesn’t make a country a threat. Surely this kind of verbal sloppyness violates basic rules of diplomacy?

Anyway. I think this is what Petr is worried about when he writes this:

This is dystopian to the fullest… but from the point of view of small central-European nation I see clearly. — the moment we will let go of EU, the Russia is already in full swing to get back “what was rightfully theirs “ — us 🙁

Which brings us to the second part. China and Russia. If America winds down military spending, will Russia invade? Can European nations defend themselves? And is China an existential threat to European ways of life? Are these empires of such scale and threat that they justify giving Brussels vast control over an entire continent?

Reds under the bed

I can’t really take a position on the fears of people in small eastern states with respect to Russia. My country was never invaded by the Red Army, has a much larger population and is conveniently surrounded by a giant moat. Also the media lie to me about Russia all the time, so I don’t feel I understand it as a country. I sympathise but can’t easily empathise.

With that said, I can’t personally justify the EU on the grounds of Russia.

Firstly, Russia poses no cultural or economic threat to anyone. This is a country with a GDP approximately the size of Italy. Does Italy pose a threat to other countries? No, of course not. It’s far too small. Russia is also no real military threat. Invading countries are put back in their box by forging military alliances between countries with big armies. That alliance is NATO. The EU isn’t a military alliance and has only two countries with any kind of useful modern army (Britain+France), and Britain is leaving, at least in theory. The UK is formally and strongly opposed to any kind of EU army because it sees it as trying to badly duplicate NATO. The US meanwhile is upset because Trump thinks (with reason) that most European countries aren’t contributing to NATO what they agreed to. That’s the opposite of wanting to stop defending Europe: he wants it to be stronger!

So for countries that are worried about Russia the correct solution is a simple one: just increase military spending to the 2% target agreed by NATO countries. America will be happy again, Britain will still be a part, and NATO exists for the entire purpose of protecting Europe against, er, well, the USSR really, but let’s pretend Russia is the same thing. The EU isn’t necessary and is actually very unhelpful, as it would take many years to effectively reimplement NATO under EU command and of course won’t have America or Britain involved. Losing those two is a big deal.

What of China?

This is probably where most people’s fears really lie, at least in western countries like Belgium where Guy Verhofstadt is from.

China fulfils a lot of the criteria of empires. It’s big. Xi Jinping is a dictator who’s reported to be engaging in a purge of all opposition. They’re very publicly eying territorial expansion into Taiwan. They have enormous economic power.

So is the threat big enough to justify erasing national governments in Europe? I don’t think so. Of course, nobody knows the future and perhaps Xi Jinping will go mad, become the next Hitler and invade France. But I’m skeptical.

I’ve been hearing that China will dominate the world since I was a little kid. My parents told me that when I grew up I’d probably have to learn Mandarin. Now I’m 35 and guess what, the global language is still English. I don’t remember the last Chinese movie or Chinese song I consumed. The cultural impact on my life of China’s rise has been nearly zero. Turns out that selling lots of cheap electronics to the west doesn’t mean we Europeans suddenly start losing our “way of life” (whatever that is).

And as for military invasion? Well, China’s awfully keen on getting back Taiwan, but Taiwan is awfully keen on not being taken back. It’s armed to the teeth with military hardware from its ally America. Taiwan hasn’t had to become the 51st state to avoid being absorbed into the Chinese Empire: that isn’t a condition America imposes on them as the price of friendship. Just being independent and democratic is enough. Why should Europe be any different? If America is willing to defend Taiwan and France without insisting they submit to the will of Congress, why shouldn’t France be willing to defend Poland without insisting it submits to the will of the Commission.


The world has more countries and more democracies than ever before. Tony Blair of all people was fond of observing that never in history have two democracies gone to war with each other. Despite many of them being small they have strong military alliances to protect them, even though for most of them there’s no serious threat on the horizon.

When the architects of the EU try to scare us with horror stories about how we must unite or lose everything, they’re making self-serving arguments disconnected from any kind of geopolitical or cultural reality. Russia and China aren’t going to invade Europe anytime soon, America wants NATO to be strong, and the “European way of life” is a myth invented for political reasons. A worker in the City of London has almost nothing in common with a Greek gyros seller on Mykonos. They might not even be able to communicate. The biggest threat to their way of life isn’t some foreign empire; it’s just a plain old recession.