A Book Report on "Europe as Empire – The Nature of the Enlarged European Union"

Jan Zielonka's Book on the EU's Eastern Enlargement from 2006

Literature Review, 2010

4 Pages, Grade: 1,3


University of Flensburg

International Institute for Management

European Studies

Winter term 2009/2010

Course „European Contemporary History“

Johannes Wiedemann

Book Report on:

Zielonka, Jan (2006): „Europe as Empire – The Nature of the Enlarged European Union“, Oxford, UK.

Analysts of the question whether the European Union has characteristics of an empire like the German political scientist Herfried Münkler declare that the end of the Cold War and the resulting collapse of the Soviet Union led to a power vacuum in east-central Europe, a post-imperial space with a critical potential for instability. Therefore the European Union had to adapt to the new strategical situation by application of elements which are part of the traditional imperial order, like semi-permeable border regions, commonly accepted currency and lines of communication and a graduation from a center of power to client- and satellite-states[1]. By chance, this was just the area in which the recent rounds of EU enlargement gathered new member states. On that score Jan Zielonka’s book Europe as Empire can be seen as a contribution to a debate whether the process or current status of the European integration and enlargement has elements of imperical order or should have them.

Zielonka, Professor of European Politics and Ralf Dahrendorf Fellow of the St Antony's College at Oxford University since 2004, promotes the hypothesis of Europe being an empire of a, as he calls it, neo-medieval paradigm exactly because of the characteristics of the admission of the post-socialist states to the European Union which is now an entity of twenty-seven nations of very different levels of political and economic significance. This, so the Zielonkas’s argument goes, enlarged Union is more diversified and therefore will likely become a sphere of a blurred European identity and multilevel and multicentred governance without a centre of power or institutionalized hierarchy[2], something which Zielonka sees as remote resemblance of a medieval empire like the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation which in fact was neither holy, nor roman or empire, but at least overarched the medieval German rag rug of duchies, electorates and kingdoms.

So Zielonka’s setting contrasts two paradigms for the future of the European Union: The Union either becoming a Westphalian superstate or a neo-medieval empire. He states that he estimates the second option as the more likely one.

The Peace of Westphalia which ended the 30-Year-War in 1648 implied the foundation of state sovereignity over people and territory as long as the respective central governing body assured that it’s position of power was unchallenged and that a socio-economic and cultural homogenity prevailed. That led to the prerogative of institutional structures as pillars of power for the government of states. From the very start of the European Integration influential european politicians, like Jean Monnet in the 1950s or Joschka Fischer in 1999, utilised the state-centred approach to declare the future of the European Union being a piece-by-piece creation of a super-state with clear-defined borders, central government and a single set of army and police force as well as one market and one social policy as without alternative (Fischer in a speech at the Humboldt-University 1999: „Federation or failure“). Zielonka’s Europe as Empire opposes this statist outlook: „The major objective of this book is to show that enlargement renders the rise of a european state impossible“[3]. The alternative: the neo-medieval empire.

According to Zielonka, in the Middle Ages our modern perception of state was simply inexistent, because power to rule was not yet institutionalized, but derived from a non-codified criss-cross-pattern of incomplete sets of legitimation, overlapping spheres of influence and changing networks of authority in one entity. Zielonka found it prudent to ask whether a current interpretation of medievalism could be a model for describing European governance after the eastern enlargement. Explicitely this neo-medieval empire does neither share any characteristics with those powers which defined the era of Imperialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century like Great Britain or Russia nor with the dominance the USA aledgedly enjoys as a hyperpower nowadays. At least one part of the 2004 enlargement of the union meets the requirement of imperialism: The offensive export of EU-standards to the states aspiring membership was not more than extension of the EU’s political and economical area of supremacy. But this supremacy is executed by incentives (or their denial) to follow the invitation into the club which grants new and peripherical members access to the decision-making institutions in a polycentric system of overlapping supra-national, intergovernmental, national and respective regional structures of governance which are checking and balancing among themselves through bargaining with economic and bureaucratic leverage.[4]

Admittedly one feels uneasy about fitting the EU as a system sui generis into the catch-phrase ‚neo-medieval‘. Zielonka’s book is strong in analysing the specific character of the Post-communist eastern European states. For instance, how ill-founded the fears of the western European establishment of balkanization and termination of the integration process by enlargement are because of the non-existence of a ‚civilization border‘ along the former ‚Iron Curtain‘. In spite of the differences among the depicted countries which formerly belonged to the Communist sphere all made considerably progress in terms of political democratization and economic liberalization. Zielonka is also able to describe the strategic interest of the EU behind the eastern enlargement convincingly as „[...] a quintessential foreign policy act [...] [which] represented the best quality of power politics in contemporary Europe“[5]. In addition, Zielonka points out that the economic and political as well as cultural diversity in the EU of twenty-seven members can neither be sub-divided into an east-west or pro- or contra-USA pattern nor a market-liberal versus a social welfare orientated Europe along the Cold War line of demarcation. A relative decline of personal freedom, economic competitiveness and social security might be diagnosed in a sequence going from the most north-western to the south-eastern states of the EU, but not on the behalf of grouping pre- and after-2004 EU member states. Without doubt his analysis is right in stating that the eastern enlargement diversified and transformed the Union. Zielonka also correctly questions the state-centred outlook for the future of the European Integration. But the term „neo-medieval empire“ seems to be more about generating a provocative definition than about creating a sustainable paradigm. Finding similarities for modern pan-European governance in Europe’s Middle Ages is distorting the tremendous differences between a medieval society, where only a ultra-thin stratum was representing a public or political sphere, while 99,9 percent of the people remained incarcerated in a short, miserable life within the constraints of their visible horizon and the resulting superstition, and a modern media democracy fostering social consensus, which is why the influence of the technological developments in terms of production and communication should not be underestimated as well. Nevertheless Zielonka asks the right questions and enlightens us with an well structured depiction of the changes and the reasons for them which came with the enlargement.


[1] Münkler, Herfried (2005): „Imperien – Die Logik der Weltherrschaft“, Bonn, GE, p. 254.

[2] Zielonka, Jan (2006): „Europe as Empire – The Nature of the Enlarged European Union“, Oxford, UK, p. 1.

[3] Ibd., pp. 8-9.

[4] Ibd., p. 14.

[5] Ibd., p. 63.

Excerpt out of 4 pages


A Book Report on "Europe as Empire – The Nature of the Enlarged European Union"
Jan Zielonka's Book on the EU's Eastern Enlargement from 2006
University of Southern Denmark  (Department of Border Region Studies)
European Contemporary History
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
412 KB
European Union, Eastern Enlargement, Jan Zielonka, Empire, neo-medieval, Governance, Europe
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Johannes Wiedemann (Author), 2010, A Book Report on "Europe as Empire – The Nature of the Enlarged European Union", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/162300


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