Reflecting on Karl Habsburg’s Europe, Liberty, and Geopolitics Speech
When a royal figure speaks about our future, one listens. This was certainly the case in past centuries, but it is still true today in an age when most kingdoms have vanished from the world. And so it was naturally the case that more than 150 guests at the Hayek Days, which took place in Vienna this year, hung on every word of Karl Habsburg’s speech on Europe, Liberty, and Geopolitics, as one of the most prominent descendants of this once domineering empire of Austria was presenting his vision for the future of Europe - or, one might say, Paneurope, considering Habsburg is the President of the Paneuropean Movement these days.
At the forefront of his vision is the role of Europe in the world - and it is one of the reasons why Habsburg sees himself as nothing short of a professional EU optimist. In today’s changing world order of mega-conglomerates, from the U.S. to China, India, and Russia, European countries can’t act alone anymore if they want to prevent being eaten for breakfast by these lions. A united Europe could prevent this - and would fulfill the founding purpose of the EU as well. For it was founded, among other reasons, as a security alliance.
The geopolitical position should, thus, be of the utmost interest for Europe. Habsburg thinks that the EU should be able to act in a unified way in foreign affairs, including to further spread across the Continent. It should welcome countries from the Balkans and possibly even much further: Europe knows no limits. As long as a nation shares the core values of Europe, it should be able to join - regardless of whether it is Albania or Morocco (or, why not, Vietnam or Argentina). This is, after all, a way to defend the free world from the unfree, from those tyrannical and invasive. It is also a way to let free trade and peace reign in ever more places in the world.
In the meantime, the institutional set-up of the European Union should be, in its end-state, without any nation states. They are relics of the past, most often being spurred on by protectionist and nationalist impulses, something any friend of liberty should wholeheartedly object to. Instead, the EU should become another Reich, an empire which is supranational (without the existence of the national), which has its own set of laws and promotes tolerance and freedom. While Habsburg does not mention it, it sounds like he has an Austro-Hungarian Empire 2.0 in mind.
Indeed, individualism, the rule of law, and freedom should be at the center of the European project. Not European welfarism or a common tax policy should be the goal, but free trade and mobility. For the former policies, the subsidiarity principle is reason enough to keep it at lower levels. This principle put forth by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno in 1931, says that decisions should always be made at the level most appropriate, but higher levels should merely assist lower ones in doing something and if no assistance is needed, should refrain from interfering entirely. If a family can do something, a family should do it. But if only the EU is able to do it, then it should be the EU’s task. In general, this would lead to most decisions being made locally rather than in some capital city far away. It is this decentralized Europe that Habsburg has in mind.
It is this which is the strongest point in Habsburg’s vision as well. After all, too many decisions are made today in Brussels - or Berlin, Paris, Vienna, or London - rather than closer to the people, on the communal level, or by the people themselves, as individuals or families. Both democracy as well as liberty have suffered from this centralization, and little is left from the local democracy in town halls espoused by Alexis de Tocqueville or the little platoons of Edmund Burke, that is, small units in which politics is made (and little of it), by the people, for the people, not by a few hundred representatives in Brussels for 500 million pipsqueaks. If Brussels was to finally follow its promise to see subsidiarity as a focal point of Europe, then, Habsburg is right, Europe would immediately become a much freer and more democratic place.
For that, of course, the EU elite would first need to understand the principle correctly: in their view, subsidiarity means that the EU decides on which level decisions should be made and they will hand powers to lower levels if possible. But subsidiarity means the exact opposite: that the lower units hand the power to higher levels if they consider it necessary. It is a bottom-up process, not top-down.
Habsburg is also correct in arguing that the EU should uniformly step into the world on matters of trade and international cooperation (though this should not mean that, as it is now, member states have no power whatsoever on these matters anymore). A Europe with one of the largest economies in the world would certainly have more chances to achieve free trade with others than Bulgaria or Latvia all by themselves. Then again, this effect should not be overstated: after all, a small country to the west of Habsburg’s Austria has been a champion of free trade for centuries, and other countries in a similar vein like Hong Kong or Singapore are territorially not overly significant either.
Habsburg’s vision breaks down, however, when we go beyond the significance of the subsidiarity principle and free trade. It seems as though if you had offered him ten different visions for Europe’s future to pick one, he would have come out picking twelve. This is easily observable in his stark opposition to the nation-state simultaneously to his strong advocacy of subsidiarity and decentralization.
How is it possible to be in favor of decentralization, but at the same time argue that the first decentralized unit away from the EU level should be history? If tax policy should not be the responsibility of the EU, but there should not be any nation-states, then who should be responsible for taxes? If competencies are given away - in whichever way - to lower levels, then which levels if the first level is gone?
One could say that this just means even more decentralization. That would be correct. But how infinitely more difficult would it be for member states to prevent to lose all power to Brussels if the member states as such don’t even exist anymore? Does Habsburg think that small regional units could assert themselves against a mega-unit in Brussels if the nation-states are gone as first bulwarks? If so, isn’t this in contradiction to him saying that the EU should stick together in foreign affairs so not to be overrun by the major powers of the world? Does he think that Romania could be bulldozed by Russia but Vorarlberg or the Saarland could very well handle the centralized machine in Brussels all by themselves?
Nation-states are, meanwhile, an adequate response to centralization attempts. They are not protectionist and nationalist, either, as Habsburg argues. It is true that governments can be both of these negative attributes, but neither do they have to be, nor are they exclusive to nation-states. It is evident that in Brussels, European chauvinism and protectionism is in full swing as well, despite Europe not being a nation-state (yet).
And lest we forget, Catalonia, Flanders, Wallonia, or even places like Bavaria show nationalist impulses as well. This is not bad per se, of course. But what would Habsburg do if he has abolished the German nation-state and Bavaria becomes nationalist? Also abolish the Bundesländer? What remains, as we go down the levels, would merely be a superstructure in Brussels and, eventually, the individual, who will be at the mercy of a mega-state.
Habsburg asks what were to happen if the EU was to become a mere cooperation scheme of nation-states again. Well, the EU would finally be in line again with the subsidiarity principle that he espouses. Thus, the nation-states provide the option to achieve the decentralized EU he envisions. His would instead sooner or later accidentally turn into complete centralization.
That his vision of decentralization has some disconcerting parts of centralization - knowingly or not - can also be seen in his geopolitical vision. That Europe would need to rival with the U.S. or China in geopolitical power is not the case, if only for the reason that their might, which they are showing each other off, is hurting them more than they benefit from it. And so what if these countries stay successful for longer? The only way to keep up with them is to finally open Europe’s economy, to deregulate, to stop with centralization, not amplify it even more, and even less so to adopt the worst parts of these superpowers.
Europe does not need to become active in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, or Africa to “spread freedom” as the EU’s Neighborhood Policy indicates - after all, for what use would that be? And Europe does not need to become an empire that is ever expanding - especially here in Europe, we know that this most often has disastrous consequences. Europe needs to work together more to defend itself, especially from neighbors in the east - but it shall not become offensive in these endeavors.
Similarly, expanding to new territories cannot be an end in itself. Habsburg thinks any country sharing European values has a right to join the EU. But so do those already in the EU have a right - and much more so than non-members - to decide whom they want to welcome. Certainly, the Balkans, for instance, belong to the European heritage. And yet, sending astronomically high amounts of “regional funds” and subsidies to countries that don’t even have a functioning rule of law, and where corruption is rampant, would actually hurt those countries more than they would be helped. Worst, for an EU that is already battling with problems on all fronts, more problems would arise with even more members lacking the stability one wants to see in a cooperation partner.
Thus, while sensible in its roots, Habsburg’s vision falls short in its details and its feverish EU optimism that he admits himself to. Instead, truly arguing in favor for subsidiarity, for a decentralized Europe in which states cooperate with one another and where Brussels is only active on matters that will actually lead to more freedom, not constraints, would be laudable. Alternatively, if he is not interested in that, he might be interested in a more flexible arrangement (for instance, Macron’s concentric circles) in which each member state of the EU would decide itself how much integration it wants.
Regardless of which he decides for, Habsburg needs to decide for one: more EU, less EU, or a more flexible EU. He can’t have all three of them at the same time.