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Glyn Morgan (Maxwell Syracuse University)

10 May 2018 @ 14:00


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10 May 2018
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“Is the European Union Imperialist?”


A common charge of Eurosceptics is that the project of European Integration constitutes a form of imperialism. In recent years, this charge appeared during the Eurozone Crisis, it was reiterated by “Leavers” both during and after the Brexit campaign, and it can be heard today in Hungary and Poland in the face of the EU’s efforts to enforce judicial independence and the rule of law.  The charge of imperialism has particular potency in the European context. One of the EC-EU’s founding myths was that economic and political integration would allow Europeans to overcome their dismal history and start afresh. If European integration can be shown to entail a crude form of imperialism, then this project of renewal must be judged a failure.

The charge of imperialism raises some tricky conceptual, empirical, and normative issues. If we adopt a standard definition of imperialism—a power relationship that defines “a Centre” and “a Periphery,” a more and less powerful territorially-defined entity whose members enjoy, respectively, a higher and lower status (including different rights and benefits)– we are forced to consider the nature and limits of the EU’s current power. The EU has never constituted, what Max Weber termed, a Machtstaat (a State Power). Nonetheless, there are areas where the EU exercises significant power—not merely over its own member states, but also over foreign states and actors. Critics of the EU’s alleged “imperialism” contend that the EU wields this power illegitimately.

Drawing upon the current conflicts between the EU and Orban’s Hungary and the EU and Theresa May’s Brexit negotiating team, this paper assesses various charges brought by Eurosceptics concerning the EU’s imperialism. Since it is difficult to be an imperialist in the absence of disproportionate power, assessing this charge depends, at least in part, on a consideration of the nature and limits of the EU’s power. My paper—primarily a work of political philosophy—defends three principles: (i) A principle of anti-political imperialism (which locates the harm of imperialism in the denial of equal political rights); (ii) A principle of legitimate moral imperialism (which concedes that in its non-negotiable commitment to Article 2 of the Treaty of European Union, the EU has a non-negotiable commitment to a set of liberal values); and (iii)  A principle of Great Power responsibility. In defending this third principle, I address an argument of Max Weber’s concerning the duties of small and large states.