The discussion about the meaning of the European Union’s (EU) international identity and global actorness has been and still is an on-going bone of contention within European Studies academic literature, extensive efforts being invested by policy makers and academics alike to conceptually capture the EU’s fleeting political will. By proposing two different yet novel signifiers for what they term as the “Enlarged European Union”, namely “neo-medieval empire” (Zielonka) and “fortress empire” (Armstrong & Anderson, the two books reviewed here are both concerned with the current thorny quest for the appropriate terminology/name for the EU’s unparalleled sharing of sovereignty and international presence. The naming of the EU as being either a “neo-medieval” or “fortress” empire is an instance of performative discourse that constructs the EU as a compact territorial entity that is geographically far-reaching in its external power projection. What is particularly interesting in both books is the split process of signification of the referent EU, first as an empire, and second as a specific typology of empire – the fortress, the descriptors “neo-medieval” and “fortress” being most revealing as regards to the authors’ particular conceptual preferences.
In his book, Europe as Empire The Nature of the Enlarged European Union, Zielonka opted for the creative solution of labelling the EU as a “neo-medieval empire” by rehashing old medieval historical templates, albeit obsolete and highly idealised, of political governance. The original correlation the author draws upon in his book suggests a different evolutionary pattern for the EU’s potential global actorness, going beyond the “super-state” Westphalian paradigm proposed in the mainstream literature, to further gain inspiration from earlier forms of political governance. The neo-medieval empire, with a multicenter governance system, permeable borders “in flux”, cultural and social heterogeneity, and multi/overlapping authority poles, as well as a more civilian/soft foreign policy discourse, is better suited to describe the EU’s structure presently. According to the author, the neo-medieval empire format should also be the best evolutionary pathway for the EU’s body politic. The author wishes to refute and conceptually surpass the neo-Westphalian, supra-state in-the-making paradigm imposed on the EU’s development, considering the approach to be too simplified, too hierarchical and rigid to describe the complex, multi-level system of governance emerging in the EU both at its center and periphery. Nevertheless, the author seems to resort to the same process of intellectual simplification and conceptual selectivity in signifying the EU as neo-medieval, by constructing the state of the art of the EU’s system of governance to perfectly match the ideal medieval characteristics of a hypothetical empire. Zielonka chooses to “see” only the glittery brass and glory of Europe’s medieval past and to ignore the potential risks implied by political processes of empire-building.
In Armstrong’s and Anderson’s edited book, Geopolitics of European Union Enlargement The Fortress Empire, the EU is labelled as a “fortress empire”, the authors drawing a geopolitical complex picture that contrasts and complements two correlative concepts, border (Armstrong) and territoriality (Anderson). The core critical argument revolves around the notion of the border, seen metaphorically as a “point d’entrée” for the several interpretations of the EU’s body politic and constructed by the inside/outside dichotomy. Accordingly, the current EU borders reflect the “values, attitudes and beliefs of the society they encompass” and the effectiveness of the society is measured against that of its borders which act as either barriers or bridges to the outside world. The existence of “fortress”-type of barriers at the EU’s periphery is but reflective, according to the authors, of EU’s internal inadequacy and its lack of “real commitment to the goal of global borderlessness”. Indeed, a citadel-type European Union, nesting on its own values and bien être behind fortified walls, could run the risk of becoming what is conceptually termed as a “fleet in being”. This idea is based on the flawed assumption that a fleet is relatively safe in its port, even if near the enemy. Added to such an interpretation, the notion of empire is identified by the authors as the overarching political structure subsuming other competing visions of the EU’s territorial future (federalist, sub-state regionalism, shared medieval sovereignty, nationalism, fortress), representing a political space that covers a wider range of EU’s “internal relations as well as its internal territorial form”. According to the authors, the fortress model has a potentially critical upper-hand over the other four models, by reflecting both EU’s external expansive moves and its internal political maturity.
Apparently, the two books propose a shared reading of an international system built upon a common worldview, an “accelerated” globalised world in flux, fraught with security risks and structural opportunities inherent to market competition and modernisation. Nevertheless, even if originally the two books have an ontological point of agreement, they differentiate themselves in their epistemology, two different strategic responses to the forces of globalization and international security risks being instrumentalised by the authors: according to Zielonka, the EU should attempt to regain control and “assert its sovereignty within its borders” by devising a flexible ideal model of a “neo-medieval empire in concentric circles” with softer borders; in Armstrong’s and Anderson’s edited book, the EU must devise hawkish geopolitical strategies to cope with the pressures of globalisation by re-bordering its periphery and by building fortress-like defenses in the face of emerging security threats such as terrorism and immigration. While in Zielonka’s book the neo-medieval paradigm is projected as a progressive solution for the EU to manage globalisation, in Armstrong’s and Anderson’s edited book the process of re-bordering is just a second-order solution and it is reflective of EU’s intrinsic insecurities and weaknesses. Nevertheless, the two books seem to fundamentally be in agreement in terms of the end message, as the master-signifier, the notion of empire, subordinates the afore-described different readings of the EU. The concept of empire gathers together the two descriptors, “neo-medieval” and “fortress”, the conclusion of both books reading an optimistic and favorable interpretation of what the EU Empire should stands for. This is the main point from which to see the equivalence of the two books: the positive take on the perception of empire that represents in both books a superior form of political organisation.
This review underlined the significance given to lofty metaphors and attributes so as to construct the field of what the EU’s international role is and should be. Both books under review have amply demonstrated that the EU’s identity as an empire is discursively and normatively under construction by fairly uncritical academic contributions that reinforce a certain idealised “image” of the EU’s system of governance, especially in terms of EU’s enlargement and normalisation of its “near abroad”. In the current complex problematique of an enlarged EU and the blurring of the inside/outside borderland, a multi-center, multi-level governance system, encompassing heterogenic cultural backgrounds, is preferred in both books. In short, a weak form of empire seems to be the best solution, either in a flexible neo-medieval form or in a patchwork of absorbed territorial elements (federalist, sub-state regionalism, shared medieval sovereignty, nationalism, fortress). The hyphened dimension in both readings is the issue of pluralism at various structural levels of governance and along core-periphery structural lines, the notion of empire being wide enough to complement EU’s heterogeneity within and throughout its “imperialist” projection abroad.