Europe as a defensive empire

On the 4th of July 2015 the Amsterdam based Financieel Dagblad published an interview with Adriaan van der Staay in its series Burning Questions. A translation into English is provided here.

Adriaan van der Staay

European leaders should think in terms of empire to protect their citizens.

Michiel Goudswaard

“The main task for Europe at the moment is the protection of its security. There exist external and internal menaces that can only be effectively countered if we see Europe as a ‘defensive empire’.
I fully realize that many people will feel hurt in their national pride by the use of the word empire. They invest so much in the national state that they automatically reject all overarching structures. But we can only save Europe if we dare think beyond the present bureaucratic collaboration among nations.

Historically empires have brought exactly what we need today. The Danube-monarchy or the Ottoman Empire managed to collect a broad spectrum of peoples under a single umbrella: they were both multiethnic and multicultural. They proved able to protect their populations against foreign threats.

Until 1914 Europe ruled a great part of the world. It had colonized major parts of Africa and Asia. This brought with it many drawbacks and future problems, but Europe itself was secure. Since the first world war the security of Europe has become a paramount problem. Basically Europe has become undefended territory, even more so now that the USA have drastically reduced their imperial ambitions since the Iraq war and Europe has to fend for itself.

Europe is confronted with resurging imperial ambitions in China, with the neocolonialism of Putin, and with the Islamic State, which as a theocracy fundamentally rejects national boundaries. The Russian threat seems still to be containable if the Europeans and Americans assert themselves together. But one does not like to think of the possibility of an anti-European theocratic confederation establishing itself (along the Mediterranean).

The populations of Europe are well aware of the menaces emanating from radical Islam. Their anxieties reflexively make them look for shelter on the traditional traffic islands of the nation states. Even though it might be clear that only if Europe stands together it will be able to exercise some influence in the Middle East. In this region Europe will have to reassess who are its main enemies and it will have to learn to collaborate with moderate partners, like Tunisia.

Yet also in the case of Russia some form of imperial thinking would be helpful. Without this counterweight Putin will assume that after the successful conquest of the Crimea he is free to colonize elsewhere. The common economic sanctions are a welcome start, but a strengthening of the military and naval presence in the Black Sea is an option. For such a fleet European co-operation is indispensable.

Europe should not only be perceived as an entity that protects its citizens against external threats. Europe should also protect its own way of life internally. The European Union itself has developed too much into a capitalistic, even neoliberal project. This undermines the welfare state. It is high time to resist radical Anglo-Saxon conceptions of the ways of the market. One can see the effects of market fundamentalism in Greece.

In its leaders Europe can no longer look only for pragmatism. Some form of strategy is required, developed by people able to think on a European scale and willing to actively defend both our external security and our welfare state.”


Asked for sources of inspiration Adriaan van der Staay mentions:

He is the only Dutch philosopher I happen to return to. His philosophy of nature gives a connecting element to my life. Especially the vision that nature is a phenomenon which develops itself, and exists of self-sustaining entities, that yet form a whole. Spinoza is also one of the most challenging thinkers of democracy.

Thomas Jefferson
In 1945 I first read his letters. They arrived with the American army. He points out ( I abbreviate) that some people in politics can be wrong all the time, but not all of the people. He believed democracy needs time. In the end the right course will be found.

Alexis de Tocqueville
The nineteenth-century French conservative aristocrat believed that democracy could work, even though his family had severely suffered during the French Revolution. Tocqueville taught me to think in long historical sequences. He also moderated my left leaning political views considerably.