It Was Tribalism that Finished Rome, and it Will Finish Brussels Too

Peter Jones, Spectator, Jan. 1

Whenever the subject of the EU comes up, someone is bound to compare it to the Roman empire. If the comparison relates to the beginning and subsequent development of that empire, it fails. But the end of the Roman empire in the West in the 5th century ad may well offer quite a good model of how EUthanasia will set in.

Rome entered the imperial stakes after defeating Carthage in the first Punic war (264—241 bc). The two greatest powers of the western Mediterranean had been fighting it out over control of Sicily, which became Rome’s first provincia when Carthage surrendered. After the second Punic war and the defeat of Hannibal (218—202 bc), the Carthaginian territories of Africa (roughly modern Tunisia) and Spain were added, to be followed in 146 bc by Greece (whose king had supported Hannibal). Asia (modern western Turkey) was then bequeathed (!) to the Romans by its ruler Attalus III . . . and so it went on.

There was no ‘policy’ about any of this. Rome did not go in for visions or long-term strategies: it simply reacted to events in the way it reckoned would be most advantageous to itself. But once Rome had tasted the benefits of imperial power, there was every incentive for it to protect what it had, and if that meant expansion, so be it. By the 1st century ad Rome ruled an area from the Rhine-Danube to north Africa and Egypt, from Syria to Britain.

Whatever one thinks of the EUtopia that is Neil Kinnock’s pension, the EU does not in these respects work like Rome. The order of the day is not conquest for the sake of self-enrichment, but international treaty obligations voluntarily entered into by expanding numbers of member states under the guidance of a wise and benign autocracy in Brussels, working in everyone’s interests, leading to peace and prosperity for all.

That may be a EUphemism for voluntary tyranny, but it is at least voluntary. There was nothing voluntary about Rome; and if one of the outcomes of the Roman empire was peace and prosperity over wide areas for long periods of time (and it was), that was not a vision that had turned Rome into an imperial power in the first place, though Romans were well aware that an empire without it was in the long term ungovernable. The break-up of the Roman empire in the West, however, does indeed provide food for thought.

Foreign incursions into the Roman West began in the 3rd century ad. After a number of scares they were dealt with or petered out, but it was now clear that the empire was vulnerable to serial attack, and the last hundred years of the Roman empire in the West is the story of Rome’s relationship with ‘barbarians’—the various Germanic Goths and non-Germanic Huns looking to settle within its domain. (The Eastern, ‘Greek’ half of the empire based in Constantinople/Istanbul, which had emerged as a separate entity after 395, survived as the Byzantine empire till 1453.)

The problem Rome faced was: do we fight to keep the barbarians out, or are we prepared to make concessions? Being pragmatists, they compromised. In 382, for example, the emperor Theodosius accepted Visigoths en masse into the empire, the first among many to be granted allied, federate status. The point is that the Romans needed manpower, particularly soldiers, and the Germans could provide it. The quid pro quo was that the Germans were accepted into the society and political structure of the Roman world, where many made their way to high office.

But there could be no guarantees of good conduct. Take, for example, the German Vandal king Gaiseric. He entered Gaul unopposed in 406 and pillaged his way to Spain, where he settled. Invited in 429 by Boniface, the bolshy Roman governor of North Africa, to help him out, Gaiseric took a shine to his new home, kicked out Boniface and settled there instead. The Romans shrugged and in 436 granted Gaiseric federate status. Gaiseric’s response was to take yet more North African territory. At this, Rome simply gave up and left Gaiseric to rule what was now his own sovereign state, though they made several attempts to overthrow him.

To put the issue simply: the empire ultimately depended on there being enough revenue coming in from the provinces to pay the Roman army to suppress any provinces that removed their revenues from Rome by rebelling. That was a circle that needed constant squaring, but, as more and more tribes began to settle in the empire, Rome found it increasingly difficult to square it. As revenue was lost, so the state machine weakened; so more territories rebelled; so even less money came in—and so on.

The question, then, boiled down to one of loyalty: to whom did these peoples feel they owed their allegiance? Rome, or their local tribal leader? More and more, the answer was the latter. As a consequence, those local Romanised land-owning elites who had effectively run the provinces (under the Roman governor’s jurisdiction) found that the Roman connection, which had once guaranteed their status and privileges, was increasingly worthless. They therefore began to refocus their loyalties on their local tribal leaders. Rome, in other words, was becoming impotent and irrelevant, an administrative and political centre with no means of commanding authority. By the end of the 5th century, Europe had reverted to a collection of individual states, and the foundations of modern Europe were being laid.

And so it will be again. Indeed, the process has started: everything from conditions for joining the EU to financial stability pacts and directives is already routinely ignored. But if Brussels is nothing without voluntary co-operation, it is even less without revenues—and for how much longer will Germany (for example) be prepared to pour money into it? Whatever the ‘international treaties’ signed by member states binding them to Brussels, the day will come when one of them, observing the disaster visited upon it by its membership and deciding that its loyalty lies with its own people, will secede, taking with it its contribution to the Brussels budget. The hapless EU minister Denis MacShane will demand that the European army intervene, to universal derision.

Once one country has gone, others will ask ‘Why not?’ and follow suit. As revenues dry up with each secession, the power and influence so beloved of the EU apparat in Brussels and its member states will gradually disappear, and their reason for existence with them. Its legal basis will collapse. The skeletons of France and Germany will be left still clinging to each other in a deadly embrace, Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ being ground out through gritted teeth as the now useless euro inflates to monstrous proportions; and Peter Mandelson will suddenly rediscover the virtues of Hartlepool, which will be just as well since his multi-trillion euro pay-off may just about enable him to rent a council flat there.

Only on the ruins of the present bloated shambles might politicians start thinking seriously about a form of European co-operation that could work.


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