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Saturday, 23-February-2008, Project Syndicate - If a European Union bureaucrat could travel to fin de siècle Vienna, he would be surprised by how closely the Hapsburg Empire resembled today’s EU. Like the EU, Austria-Hungary was an experiment in supranational engineering, comprising 51 million inhabitants, 11 nationalities, and 14 languages. Presiding over this microcosm of Europe was a double-throned Emperor-King and twin parliaments representing the largely independent Austrian and Hungarian halves of the realm.

The Hapsburg Empire acted as a stabilizing force for its peoples and for Europe. To its scattered ethnic groups, it performed the twin roles of referee and bouncer, pacifying indigenous rivalries and protecting pint-sized nations from predatory states. It also filled a geopolitical vacuum at the heart of the continent, placing a check on Germany and Russia.

So long as it performed these functions, Austria was viewed as a “European necessity” – a balancer of nationalities and of nations for which there was no conceivable substitute. But, by the early 1900’s, the empire faced two problems that cast doubt on its ability to fulfill these missions.

First, it proved incapable of reconciling and representing its constituents’ interests. The heart of the problem was the 1867 Compromise, which divided the empire into Austrian and Hungarian halves. By excluding the Slavs – who accounted for half the empire’s population – the Compromise was seen as a vehicle for German/Magyar domination. All attempts at modifying the arrangement stopped short of what was needed: a political settlement between Germans and Slavs like that between Germans and Magyars.

Second, due in part to internal nationalist crises, the empire found it increasingly difficult to chart a unified, independent course in international affairs. Confronted after 1906 with a more assertive Russia, Austria-Hungary resorted to increasing reliance on Germany, thereby relinquishing the empire’s special status as a geopolitical stabilizer.

These problems inflicted irreparable damage to Austria-Hungary’s image as a “necessity” – both for its subjects, who came to see national self-determination as a superior alternative to supra-nationalism, and for outside powers, which dismembered the empire in 1918. So ended the first European Union.

Like Austria-Hungary, the EU’s raison d’etre consists in its ability to transcend the indigenous balance of power among its members, and the service this renders to the international system. On both counts, the EU confronted challenges in 2007 much like those confronting Austria-Hungary in 1907.

Many of the EU’s newest members continue to grapple with questions of geopolitical trust. This is revealed in the tensions that have existed between Poland, which fears domination by the EU’s steering group, and Germany, which is reluctant to shoulder the financial burden for a union in which it is under-represented. If allowed to fester, this feud could metastasize, leaving the EU in a state of crisis like that which plagued Austria-Hungary.

A second set of problems confronts the EU externally. Like Austria-Hungary, the EU finds itself lodged between two powerful neighbors: a resurgent Russia intent on regaining lost influence, and a seemingly revisionist United States preoccupied with foreign military adventures.

Three lessons of Austria-Hungary’s experience are instructive for the EU. First, despite enjoying greater political inclusion than the Habsburg Slavs, many Central Europeans see themselves as lacking equal standing with the EU-15, both economically and strategically. The upshot may be a tendency for the new members to press their national interests more forcefully in EU fora.

Fearing a new era of obstructionism, EU leaders have revived talk of a two-speed union, in which a vanguard of western states seeks deeper integration, leaving the newcomers to catch up. But, as Habsburg history shows, such arrangements create entrenched privileges among the “haves” and grudges among the “have-nots.” In a union of many parts, there are no shortcuts: the EU must provide the same level of integration at the periphery as at the imperial core.

Second, just as Austria needed a settlement between Germans and Slavs, the EU needs to repeat the Franco-German reconciliation of 1952 between its largest western and eastern members, Germany and Poland. The shared steel initiative of 1952 could find its parallel in a German-Polish initiative to jointly manage natural gas imports.

Finally, much as Austria-Hungary formed an alliance with Germany to fill a strategic need for military security, EU members have sought, through their intake of Russian gas, to meet a strategic need for energy security. However, over-reliance on Russia for a strategically vital commodity widens the divergence of interests between members, like Germany, that share a privileged partnership with Russia, and those, like Poland, that consider the Kremlin a threat. Much as Austria’s alignment with Germany drove the Slavs to seek Russian patronage at the expense of imperial unity, European alignments with Russia drive the new members to seek US patronage at the expense of EU unity.

As Austria-Hungary discovered, once geopolitical dependency starts, the dominant power will seek to use the dependent ally as an extension of its own interests rather than see it regain freedom of maneuver. While the EU is unlikely to ever achieve independence from Russian energy, it can improve its ability to cope with dependence by finding what Austria-Hungary lacked: a source of leverage to maintain the relationship on relatively equal terms. This means, above all, establishing a united voice on energy.

In the end, many who fought to bring about Austria-Hungary’s demise would live to mourn its passing; as subsequent events would show, the old empire was still more of a necessity than they realized. By learning from its mistakes, today’s Europeans may yet be able to reform and reinvigorate an “empire” whose most important work still lies ahead.

Wess Mitchell is Director of Research at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), Washington, DC.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Internationale Politik, 2008.

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