Proponents of the European Union repeat the same mantra over and over; Europe requires unity. They claim a united Europe stands stronger against global opponents such as China and the United States, and that unity is now needed more than ever if Europe wants not only to thrive, but to survive.
The Thriving of Europe
Europe was not a powerful area of the world before the Renaissance. The Ottoman Empire and China were faring much better than the small European nations. Anyone living before the year 1500 would not have dared to predict the future coming to Europe. Many books were written to answer the question: “Why did Europe end up being so influential?” Why wasn’t it China?
China was a powerful state that had united its lands into one empire, while Europe still consisted of a bunch of small states, while a loosely held together ‘Holy Roman Empire’ was the closest thing to a unified European state. Nevertheless, Europe’s wealth skyrocketed and the ever-warring nations of Europe conquered the globe. From the Americas to Australia, from Africa to Asia, the European powers reigned supreme.
So what made it that European nations got so far? Did not China have all the advantages of unity?
One government has full control in China
The problem here is that empires tend to be reluctant to change. The Chinese admiral Zheng sailed across Asia and to Africa in the 15th century. The Chinese government, however, decided these voyages did not benefit the state and burned the nautical maps. The solidified Chinese state desired to maintain the status quo and its power, rather than disturb it. Change was seen as the enemy, and the massive fleet was broken down and restrictions placed on the building of ocean-going ships.
Nobody had full control in Europe
The quarreling European nations on the other hand were in an everlasting competition. When Columbus could not get his funding from one government, he would try another. When ideas were being persecuted in one country, they would seek refuge in another. When merchants could not do their trading in one country, they would move their business elsewhere.
And exactly from this, Europe derived its strength and its growth. It is the fundamental idea that governments can be wrong, they can make bad decisions, and they are not all-knowing. Having many decentralized governments meant that even if one made a mistake, another might not.
In addition, it meant that the nations were always seeking to out-perform one another. They would eagerly embrace change as this might put them ahead of their competitors and give them more influence over the continent. This was opposed to China’s way, where if the emperor decided not to visit Africa anymore, it meant that all of China would not visit Africa anymore.
How this does compare to the European Union?
Even though the EU is not one person like the Chinese emperor, it is one entity, one body of government that aims to make its laws and seeks to rule the land. If the EU decides vacuum cleaners must have a restriction on how powerful they can be in order to save the environment, all of the EU must follow its rule. As governments over time tend to expand and centralize , the EU is likely to absorb more and more power. As the EU absorbs more power, it will become more reluctant to change. Reluctance to change means stagnation, and stagnation leads to Europe losing its position of power compared to the rest of the world.
Empires do have their advantages
Of course, in the past, huge empires often had an advantage over its warring neighbors. The Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, or any of the Persian dynasties have brought wealth to its people. The reason here is that throughout history, wanting to do trade meant that you needed safe trade routes and no restrictions on imports or exports.
These empires doubled as massive free trade zones, and free trade is undoubtedly a great benefit of the European Union. Nonetheless, could we not simply have a free trade area without requiring an additional body of government to rule the continent? Like, say, the European Economic Community, which preceded the EU?
Europe would maintain the benefits of wealth and prosperity by allowing free trade, and flexibility and openness to change of a multitude of governments.