A Habsburg Plan for Brussels

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

A Habsburg Plan for Brussels


THE SOURCE: "Empire by Devolution: What Today's EU Can Learn From Franz Josef I's Empire" by A. Wess Mitchell, in Orbis, Summer 2008.

FEW MODERN POLITICAL DEVELOPMENTS seem more counterintuitive than the unification of 27 states that not so long ago were fighting one another in two savage world wars. The European Union now features a single currency, open borders, and an array of common policies on everything from the proper size of tomatoes to noise pollution.

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The march toward unity, however, has found more than a few of its 27 divisions downright mutinous. As the leaders of the EU forge an "ever closer union," member states are fighting to preserve national vetoes and voters are demanding the right to hold referendums on a multitude of issues.

The answer for Europe, according to A. Wess Mitchell, research director at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, is to seize the political playbook from an imperial court more famous for its Lipizzaner horses than its achievements in governance--the Habsburgs. The jigsaw Austro-Hungarian Empire presided over by Emperor-King Franz Josef I from 1867 to 1916 embraced 14 language groups and 11 nationalities. Of its 51 million inhabitants, half were Slavs, a quarter Germans, and a quarter Magyars, with scattered Italians and Romanians. It was a pseudo-democratic monarchy that kept the peace for half a century, and it worked by devolution.

After failing to adopt a centralized constitution, Franz Josef's imperial bureaucrats decided to save the empire not by tightening control over their fractious subjects but by loosening it. …

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