For the first time in 47 years, the EU is made up solely of historical losers. And being the losers has resulted in much invalubale wisdom that the world should look up to.
Now that Brexit is finally a fait accompli with a really tortured last-minute post-Brexit trade deal between the EU and the UK, the main consequence from the latter’s divorce with the former, at least on the perception level, seems to be feeling a little weird when looking at the map of the European Union.
Or is it just me? It is as though there is just a new “EU neighbor” on the Island of Britain, and that’s that.
The fact that no other major feelings and/or perception consequences have sprung up is very much due to the long “Brexit in the making, Brexit in the waiting” period – from the Brexit referendum in June 2016, whose results were shocking at the time, until Boris Johnson’s semi-depressing electoral triumph in December 2019, and, finally, ultimately, the what turned out to be the insipid Brexit ceremonies on January 31, 2020, and the last-ditch efforts to strike a trade arrangement with the EU before the transition period expired with the arrival of the new decade on January 1, 2021.
With so much dragging and uncertainty, eventually everyone literally got so bored with Brexit that at some point the European public just stopped caring about it. Even the arch-Brexiteers seem to have gone down with bad cases of Brexit fatigue.
So for the time being the most tangible Brexit perception is the EU map – and some numerical expressions: the EU is back to being the EU27.
“EU27” used to refer to the time when the EU admitted Bulgaria and Romania but before Croatia had joined – so 2007 – 2013.
Here’s some fun political EU membership arithmetic from the past dozen of years:
EU + Bulgaria + Romania = EU27
EU27 + Croatia = EU28
EU28 – UK = EU27
Fun political math aside, the fact of the matter is the following:
With Britain now gone, the European Union is finally a Union of losers only, and that is a great thing for it, and for the rest of the world.
That is, with the UK out of the picture, the EU now consists entirely of nations which have gotten to know and experience first-hand utter defeats and humiliation, occupations by outside powers, destruction, utter collapses, “national catastrophes” (to use some Bulgarian political slang), unconditional surrenders and downfalls. All of them have been losers in some very substantial way.
Many of these European nations have experienced such events more than once. And while the tragedies these events entailed are horrible in themselves, these experiences have also proven incredibly positive because all of these countries, all of those now making up the EU, seem to have learned their lessons:
They have an aversion to the notion of empire.
They have become more peace-loving than any other region on this planet.
They eschew any idea of aggressive national grandeur.
They have acquired previously unimaginable levels of humility in international politics and world affairs.
They have learned that delusions about imperial pride, and especially about restoring empires that once were could only lead to greater and greater ruin.
It is true that in some ways, the nations of the EU27 have been “too crushed” for their own good, and their pendulum may have swung too far in the direction of humility – but that is a topic for a different, albeit incredibly important, conversation.
Having been a “loser” in some horrible way throughout its history has helped every single EU member state to reinvent itself by overcoming every nation’s primordial urges and desires towards imperial or chauvinistic national grandeur.
It is probably a deterministic rule in the history of international politics (I’d be tempted to dare claim authorship since I couldn’t find it formulated in such way) that any time a state tries to restore its former empire, that restoration is at best merely but a shadow of the former imperial self, and at worst, it ends up being a nightmarish apocalypse.
Here’s the oversimplified way it seems to have worked out: At some point some empire rises, having amassed great population and economic resources, having mastered new technology and some strategic positioning. Then it invariably declines. Then its successor, real or imagined, tries to rebuild it or resurrect it. Then it invariably fails or succeeds just briefly and/or partially, and oftentimes goes down in utter collapse and/or humiliation. It ends up as a complete “loser”.
It ultimately bounces back in some form, in some way. Having experienced that, a nation should memorize what being that utter “loser” felt like, and should also realize how it all came to that: the quest for empire, or, rather, for restoring an empire – in the case of great powers. In the case of minor powers, the same rule holds – being small doesn’t make you immune to pursuing “empire” but in most cases for minor powers it’s the chauvinistic quest for chauvinistic nationalist glory.
(Here “chauvinism” is used in its real meaning where it pertains to nations, not the one referring to gender relations invented by modern-day Western “political correctness”.)
This “loser of history” experience is a lesson which has been learned painfully and dearly by Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, the Netherlands, Romania, Greece, Czechia, Hungary, Portugal – to name just the larger EU member states – and literally by every other member state of the 2020 EU27.
It’s a lesson which hasn’t been learned yet by Britain, or by countries such as Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and even India and its next-door nemesis Pakistan.
It is a lesson that the United States of America – the world’s only superpower, or even hyperpower, as a leading German political scientist styled it 1.5 decades ago – will have to learn eventually as well when it does decline – even though such a decline doesn’t seem to be very likely for the foreseeable future.
In some of my opinion articles for The European Views so far, I have already mentioned my understanding of the EU as a “union of losers”, and why that’s a good thing:
“As far as the question of “empire” goes, the great thing about the European Union is that it is a Union of “losers”: countries which either built empires to see them crashing down, or which were otherwise crushed, mauled, or severely threatened by empires, and have therefore reached the right interpretation of their historical experience. Namely, that nothing worthy can come out of imperial ambitions.”
(In the very popular article “Ukraine Is the Most Important Country of the EU. Here’s Why”)
“I’ve already mentioned in some articles that the European Union is a Union of “losers”, and that is a great thing – meaning that its member states have experienced total collapse or failure one way or another and have come to grips with it in order to swallow their unconditional “national pride”, thus being able to build something very different, supranational.
That hasn’t quite been the case with the UK, hence its constant uneasiness inside the EU and now Brexit. Despite the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, a fully unnatural and artificial state entity, that hasn’t been the case with Serbia, either, where many still seem to be pining after Greater Serbia, Greater Yugoslavia, or some other vision of greatness the way it was deemed worthy in old times.”
(In “Looking behind France’s Shameful Veto on Albania and North Macedonia’s EU Accession Talks”)
There is a period of great imperial glory. Then it goes bust in no time, or through an inevitable, protracted decline or decay. Some countries learn their lesson (in fact that is probably only true of post-World-War-II Western Europe and now maybe post-Cold-War Central and Eastern Europe, excluding Russia).
Most don’t learn their lesson, and try to “redeem” themselves – remember the classic “Italia irredenta” – “unredeemed Italy”. Because history shifts all the time they are doomed to never manage to make it to the same degree of “greatness” – although there might be some achievements to feed the illusion of restoring grandeur. Then comes the bust. Total defeat, occupation, and national humiliation. Or, alternatively, some very protracted and very depressing decay.
Here is the list of all EU 27 countries, with a very brief description of their “loser” experience that has made them aware that chasing dreams of restoring empires and grandeur is a horrible idea.
The lists (in order of current population size) starts with Germany with its former “spunky can-do spirit that has made it so popular over the years” (a precious quote from “Dave Barry Slept Here. A Kind of History of the United States).
United in 1871, with Prussia’s defeat of France, and got the wrong lessons. Lost World War I, and didn’t learn. Then came Hitler and Nazism and the downfall in World War II, partition, emasculation, and remaining stained for good. (It is uber-ironic how ultra-nationalists often harm more than anybody else the country they claim to be so ardently in love with.)
Lost the Napoleonic Wars, and didn’t learn. Napoleon III tried to emulate his uncle Napoleon I, and then came the humiliation in the Franco-Prussian War. In World War I, France fought incredibly bravely but survived primarily thanks to British, American and Russian involvement. It drew the wrong lessons, until Hitler’s blitzkrieg led to its occupation and the Vichy puppet state. It was then recognized as a victor nation by the other Allies, saving French honor, but all that was followed by the messy decolonization defeat in IndoChina and retreat in Algeria.
Italy’s quest for imperial grandeur was already shaky after its unification, and its somehow ending up among the Big Four winners in World War I, while also being among the most dissatisfied with the outcome, proved fertile ground for Mussolini’s fascism – until it ended up being occupied by both the Nazis and the Allies at the end of World War II.
The long decline of the Spanish colonial empire is well-known – from the defeat of the Great Armada by England in 1588 to the last nail in its coffin in the Spanish – American War in 1898. Yet, the most horrific part must have been the Spanish Civil War where Nazis and Commies sparred on Spanish soil amid horrible atrocities that Spaniards themselves committed against each other. It’s no wonder the Spanish Civil War is little spoken-of in Spain even today.
Poland, a major imperial power in the late Middle Ages, has been partitioned by its neighbors so many times that its partition has become a cliche – the last one being between the Nazis and the Soviets in 1939 with the Ribbentrop – Molotov Pact. Then there was its occupation by Hitler, and then the Soviet Union made it one of its puppet states all the way to 1989.
Romania was a smaller-scale Italy with respect to the outcome of World War I. It was soundly crushed at the end of World War I, occupied by the Soviet Union, and made another of the Soviet puppet states in Eastern Europe.
After being the world’s leading commercial-colonial-naval empire for a while in the 17th century, and despite holding on to much of its positions, Netherlands ended up being crushed and occupied by Nazi Germany in no time in 1940.
Kind-of like the Netherlands above, except it has been invaded and occupied by the Germans more than once.
Even though it was among the victors in World War I, in 1922-1923, Greece completely squandered its chances of “restoring” the Byzantine Empire with its humiliating defeat in the Greek-Turkish War. During World War II, the country was swiftly crushed and occupied by Hitler.
Czechia (aka the Czech Republic)
Czechia was Czechoslovakia as it emerged from the ruins of Austria-Hungary after World War I. In 1938, it was infamously handed over to Hitler by Britain and France in the Munich Conference. It was then fully occupied by the Nazis, and then came 45 years of Soviet communism as a puppet state of the Soviet Union.
Portugal’s experience has been similar to that of Spain, the two having been the first European colonial empires – save for the bloody 20th century civil war. Portugal might be one of the special cases in this “historical loser” rationalization. Episodes such as the royal family having to flee to Brazil during the Napoleonic Wars weren’t of great help. Still, the very protracted but steady decline of its colonial empire – which began already in the early 16th century, literally decades after its establishment, is just as depressing a national story as that of any abrupt downfall.
At first glance, Sweden really seems like the odd one out – but that’s probably because it learned its lessons way too early. That may have had to do with its failed colonial efforts, and the imperial grandeur potential Sweden demonstrated in the 30 Years’ War in the 17th century, which it saw vanish after its defeat in the Great Northern War by Russia’s Peter the Great in the early 18th century.
Hungary has been one of the top losers out there (and somehow Viktor Orban still isn’t quite getting it yet. Or maybe he does, and his rhetoric is just rhetoric) – it has been crushed and occupied by the Ottoman Turks, then by the Habsburgs, until the Austria-Hungary compromise of 1867, after which the restored Kingdom of Hungary would oppress its own minorities. World War I and World War II ended up in total destruction for Hungary, a situation made worse only by its ensuing transformation into a Soviet Union satellite, and the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising by Soviet tanks.
Losing the Austrian Empire, losing the chance to unify Germany on its own terms to Bismarck, then losing Austria-Hungary, then getting anschlussed by its “most successful” expat, Adolf Hitler. Then getting occupied by the Soviets and the Allies and getting finlandized tells one heck of a story about Austria’s experience. (Although it has gotten to launder lots of dirty Eastern European money and host lots of spies and summits, its formerly imperial capital Vienna in particular.)
Bulgaria has been among Europe’s top historical losers out there – kind-of like Germany and Hungary, with whom it shared lots of World War alliances. It was occupied by the Ottoman Empire for 500 years (a period called “Ottoman Yoke”), then it suffered two “national catastrophes” in failing to unify Bulgarian-populated territories in the two Balkan wars and World War I (1912-1918), then it ended up as a tacit ally of Nazi Germany, and then its Soviet puppet regime totally destroyed it. I even dedicated a book called “6 Million Abortions” to how it went from having Europe’s highest population growth to suffering the world’s worst population decline in just a few decades due to its brand of communism.
Denmark has had its fair share of being beaten in war by the Germans, including its occupation by Hitler during World War II.
Finland ended up being part of a Russian Empire during the latter’s tussle with Sweden, which wasn’t great for it despite the autonomy it enjoyed. Having gained independence after World War I, it was ultimately defeated by Stalin despite fighting bravely in the Northern War of 1939-1940, and while it was not re-incorporated into Russia, it ended up being “finlandized” during the entire Cold War period. That’s one of the cases in which if your country’s name becomes a noun and an adjective, that’s not a good thing.
Shared Czechia’s experience described above but from the worse position of being the junior brother in the former Czechoslovakia, plus it stained itself during World War II by collaborating with the Nazis.
Since Ireland has been described as England’s first colony way too often, there’s barely any need to mention stuff such as the Irish Potato Famine, or how many Irish uprisings were suppressed by the English, not to mention the question of Northern Ireland which has even been resurrected by Brexit.
Another unpleasant historical experience: first being part of Austria and then the Hungarian part of Austria-Hungary, then ending up into Yugoslavia, in essence a small empire dominated by Serbia; then tainting itself with Nazi collaboration during World War II, and then getting crushed by communism for a few decades, Yugoslav and Tito style.
Occupied by the Russian Empire and then by the Soviet Union for many centuries and decades, respectively.
First an Ottoman province for centuries, then a British colony, then getting invaded by Turkey, with its northern part declared an independent ethnic Turkish state.
A long history of being ruled by a wide range of foreign powers, including, lastly, and most notably, of being a British colony for 150 years, some shared experience with Cyprus there.
These narratives might make it seem as though some of the European nations clearly have been the victims, while others have clearly been the victimizers. What the good people of the countries now in the EU have come to realize is that in fact all of these countries have been the victims, including the overt victimizers.
Save for the 27 nations now in the EU, the only other countries in the world that seem to have come to the unconditional realization that nothing good can come out the incessant, never-ending push to “redeem” one’s empire or national “grandeur” seem to be Japan and South Korea.
Beijing, Moscow, Ankara, Tehran, and many more remain the capital cities of countries striving to “correct the past”, instead of going about their own business, letting their own people go about their own business, and just downshifting to some form of “live and let live”.
Washington is the “most” special case in present-day affairs since it is somewhere in its imperial heyday, against the backdrop of raging debates as to whether the US of A keeps rising, or is already on a declining path of imperial overstretch. Regardless of the answer to the question at hand, the United States, too, will have to deal with having to learn the Europeans’ “history loser” lesson.
There are many countries, including many great powers, which have experienced being tremendous losers in history, but only some have managed to draw the right conclusions from it, while many continue to be striving to repeat the same mistakes.
The United Kingdom seems to still belong to the former group – that is what Brexit feels to be all about (other than the power of “anti-social media” and “fake news”, i.e. lies”).
Perhaps it’s not Britain’s fault (if it is anyone’s) – the cliché “being-an-island” situation, which explains 90% of British history, is probably to blame. Perhaps the UK would have seen it differently if somebody had managed to invade successfully the Island of Britain. Luckily (or not, if my “historical loser” rationalization is considered valuable) for the UK, that has never happened.
London is still the financial capital of the world. Britain is still the leader of the Commonwealth. The Queen is still the queen of territories from Yukon in Canada to New Zealand’s South Island. And the UK has technically always been a winner – it didn’t succumb to Napoleon, or to Wilhelm II, or to Hitler, or to Stalin. Can you blame them for thinking they should stand on their own, without the vilified Brussels eurocrats? Not just to make it on their own – because they will be alright – but to stand on their own? Hence Brexit.
The UK might be set for a bunch of declines and humiliations even in the years to come. Scotland might secede, Ireland might become united, its former colony, the US of A, might start to exert such a huge influence on its former colonial master so as to warrant some “reverse colonization” talk. Or none of those might materialize – and the UK remains justified in thinking it should stand on its own – regardless of being theoretically European, and, in my view, of having to make choices based on its belonging, rather than on finances and imperial past. (To me, Brexit is the ultimate British EU opt-out, one from responsibility.)
In never having experienced utter, unconditional, point-of-no-return collapse and humiliation, post-Brexit Britain is a lot more like the USA, Russia, China, Turkey (the likes of the “Brady Bunch of Eurasia”) than it is like Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Poland.
Nations are a lot like humans – not in all respects (going all the way through with the nation-person comparison has proven horrendously dangerous over the course of history) – but in many respects they are.
A person stands to take some failures and even humiliation in order to achieve humility. A country, even a great power, needs to learn its lessons, to appreciate what it has, and why it is a horrible idea to strive to conquer and dominate the others. And it is better, if you ever had a big-deal empire, just to stick to enjoying its cultural heritage, make blockbuster films about its glory, and nothing more.
All the states that make up the complex mosaic of the EU27 of 2020 have that great thing in common, namely, that they have learned that. That is why they are the only post-modern, Global-Era, most peaceful part of the world. That is their greatest advantage. That is why they are introvert. That is why they seek to make amends – even if at times those amends might be needless, illogical, or counter-productive.
That is why the countries of the EU are the ones to care the most about the environment, global warming, and climate change. (Including because of the realization that an environmental or climate apocalypse would be the ultimate Untergang for all, the entire humanity, none will be spared!)
The rest of the world, including its superpowers, regional powers, minor powers, would be smart to appreciate and internalize that achievement of the EU nations in time, without having to go through imperial or national catastrophes.
Face it. Or, rather, embrace it. With brexiting Britain now finally having brexited, the European Union is a union of “losers”. Every single one of them. And that is truly a great thing.
For they are the best or even the only good kind of “losers” – the ones who have managed to overcome themselves.