20 April 2006
In his diary this week, BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell reflects on the European Union's political system, and compares it to a kingdom of the early Middle Ages, with royals, barons and commoners vying for power.
The diary is published every Thursday.
Partly due to writing about their wimpishness in this diary the children have been shamed into abandoning their fear of bird flu, and by the time you read this we will be deep in the countryside of the land of riot and red wine.
Historical analogies help illustrate the balance of power in the EU
It's our first holiday since I began this job and this column about eight months ago, so not a bad time for reflection.
I spent about 17 years covering British politics, so it's not surprising that people often ask me how the politics of Brussels and Westminster compare.
It is too early to make a proper judgement as I have spent a lot of time just getting my head around the system, and how the institutions relate to each other. My starting premise was their unique nature. But on reflection I've changed my mind.
I think now you can understand the EU's institutions by imagining a feudal power of the early Middle Ages. The European Commission is the King and his court, the Council of Ministers is the House of Lords and the European Parliament is the House of Commons.
I'm not arguing that it really is becoming a nation, but the analogy gives the right sense of a quest, a dynamic commitment to something more than it currently is.
The King and his ministers rule a country that is only just emerging as a country and may never make it. Then again it may be about to turn into an empire before it has even been a state. It is the monarch who carries out much of the day-to-day administration and it is his job to provide direction and come up with new laws
How he thinks of himself is crucial. The King has a heavy sense of duty, and sees it as two-fold. First, he is the embodiment of the idea of nationhood. He must do all he can to encourage that sentiment in others and strive to make it a reality, even though most of his subjects don't share the notion.
The King has to appeal to the barons to support his pet projects
Secondly, and probably more important for understanding the complex politics of the set-up, this means he must act in what he sees as the best interests of the nation as a whole. He will have his own political preferences, his own pet projects, but often these will be put to one side because of the importance of gaining consensus.
For this is no king chosen by birth and divine right. He is chosen by the barons and dukes, and while he will not be the least among them, he will never be greatest of them either. His time for exercising power in his own fiefdom will have passed.
For it is the House of Lords, or House of Electors that wields raw power. The king cannot act without building shifting coalitions among them. If they all disapprove of an idea it simply will not be discussed. If they all approve it will happen.
But there is plenty of room for the King to build coalitions, although it often seems as though he is just the servant of the strongest and most permanent alliances. These lords mostly pay lip service to the idea of the nation, although all keenly protect the interest of their own lands.
Dukes and duchesses call the shots - and act in their own interests
It's noticeable that the smaller barons are keener on the idea of a larger nation in which they can share power.
Recently, the Old Grand Dukes of the original heartlands have become rather dismayed that the barons of the marches, the new borderlands, are insistent on having their say and even, with great impertinence, challenging some of the comforting, founding principles of the Kingdom.
The House of Commoners, the European Parliament, makes great play of being the only elected organ of the Kingdom. In fact the elected representatives are so sensitive about their own rights that they spend more time talking about them than almost anything else.
They constantly strive to extend their powers, although don't always quite know what to do with them when they have them. There is no question, when it comes to real power they run a very poor third.
Commoners can take technical decisions, if the others get bored
On the whole, the Commoners share the King's sense of mission, but most can be trusted by the Lords to fight for the interest of their own lands when push comes to shove.
They can make important technical changes, especially when the others get bored, and they are getting more powerful all the time.
But then again, you could compare the EU to a baroque empire in decline... but for now I won't. All the best from the land of the duc d'Emeute!
Please send us your comments on issues raised in the diary, using the postform below.
An excellent analogy. All we need now are the revolting peasants to overthrow the whole stinking show. Vive la revolution!
Michael Harvey, Woking, Surrey
But then again, you could compare the EU to a baroque empire in decline... May God speed it on its way
Lawrence, Zabbar Malta
The author presents a fascinating analogy. A more accurate comparison, however, may be found in the US prior to the civil war. Wealthy, industrialised states mingling with those of a more agrarian nature. Hopefully, Europe will resolve the issues of confederation vs federation without the cataclysmic collision of economic, political and social issues which culminated in the American civil war.
W. J. Masenthin, KC USA
The EU should understand that it has a great mission to undertake in global politics. For many of us, who despite being European descendants, live outside Europe, all over the world, some basic issues are much more simpler that for many EU citizens. You tend to oversize small problems and get lost in the deepness of their details, abandoning the true "great struggles" that should fuel a thriving Union, of the perhaps most culturally and historically bonded group of independent states in the World.
I hope, and I know many other people do, that sometime, in the near future, the EU can really be a new strong voice in global issues. A voice that could ease the ears of the many who have been listening the awfull melodies of the past, weary of the US mono-tone of the present.
Tomas Tafra, Valparaiso. Chile.
One of the best (because most provocative) comments on the EU that I have read in a long time. As a non-EU citizen, although living here and under the 'rule' of said EU, I can only hope that the Commoners get round to doing something to help - and, on occasion, hinder - the King. Nice analogy, although rather simplistic, I admit. When is there going to be a truly democratic chance for everyone living in the EU - including us 'expats' from wherever? Let's introduce EU citizenship based on the EU, and not on single, individual nations.
D. Fear, Heidelberg, Germany
Very interesting and enlightning comparison. Very funny, too... and true!
Wonderful analysis. And just peachy. An analysis for any politician to understand. Even without a high school diploma! I hope to see your editors make that kind of analysis on the immigration issues facing the US. As you did recently on Iraq. Just great. Wolfgang Moller
Wolfgang Moller, San Jacinto, Ca, USA
I am a history student and I major in Middle Eastern studies. I enjoyed this little article because it so clearly presents a principle that is so often forgotten: East or West, democracy or other, the minority rules the masses. Due to developed forms of mass media we are persuaded that things have changed. I agree with you, they have not.
Yael Wiener, Tel-Aviv, Israel
Mark, You make a very illuminating comparison. It is a fascinating mix, with no one party truly in control. Perhaps the challenge of building a European group of enlightened self interest - wider than any of the individual factions, gives grounds for hope?
Peter Morris, Brussels
Mark Mardell's description reminds me less of one of the 13th century kingdoms such as England, Castille or France than it does of the Holy Roman Empire under the Hohenstaufens, with a constant pull to make the central power less effective against the great barons, and external powers (papacy - modern equivalents?) working to ensure the ineffectiveness of the kingdom.
Richard Flood, Nottingham, UK
It is interesting to hear the views of Mr Mardell, however, surely the way the EU operates is similar to the Roman Empire in the way it buys influence and uses a limited number of people to maintain power. Even in the days of the Celts, the Romans were able to use the argument of increased safety and protection to maintain the status quo, the same argument used today by pro Europeans to prop up the regime. It could also be argued that the promotion of European Football is similar to the way the Emperors kept the hordes quiet via the Games - keep the masses quiet and they will not complain. To me the parallels are frightening. Call me cynical.
Andrew Turnbull, Saffron Walden
As a professional historian, I must point out that the constitutional system outlined by Mr Mardell for comparison is ANYTHING BUT "of the early Middle Ages"; it is Late Medieval/Early Modern. Please, let's have some minimal accuracy concerning our common history.
Arnolds Lelis, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
The comment about the EU's "sense of a quest, a dynamic commitment to something more than it currently is" is spot on - but I don't think it is rooted in the relatively powerless King (aka the Commission). Instead, I believe it is the Council itself that cannot help but carry that dynamic, as "the EU way" has become the default approach to whatever issues happen to be on the agenda, and the pressure for consensus is felt quite as keenly as in the Commission. I'd still like to see that comparison to a baroque empire in decline, please ...
As I thought. The EU is just a talking shop for a bunch of freeloaders, which spends, sorry, wastes our taxes in order to give us nothing more than our individual nations could provide if they were allowed to. And as with all empires, it will fail.
Graham, Leicester, UK
Unfortunately, this analogy perpetuates the usual British view that the Commission is the be all and end all of the EU's power pyramid. It is not. It would actually be better to regard the European Council as the King. This is where the truly weighty decisions are made. The Commission is better thought of as the chancellor (in the old sense of the term). This is the powerful head of the bureaucracy, who wields power on a day to day basis, but nevertheless is subordinate to the King. This constant over-emphasis on the Commission - which sadly was repeated here - is the root of so much of the Euroscepticism found in the UK.
James, London, UK
Yeah, and one really good monarch is all it will take to unite the country. Another QE1 say. Personally I rather like the idea of a Kingdom of Europe.
Ken Simmonds, Johannesburg South Africa
The best depiction of the EU I ever read! Indeed very well done. I just disagree with the last bit, the Empire is not in decline but it's just readjusting to our cousins (from the other side of the pond) adventures.
J. Cristovão, Porto, Portugal
For anyone to fantasize that Europe will one day become a single nation is absolute rubbish.
France, Belgium, Germany etc. are not going to give up their uniqueness anymore than North Americans would give up theirs. National pride is a very strong trait and must be left intact. Only when it becomes fanatical as in Nazi Germany does it become dangerous. In the past few years there has been a growing tension between the citizens of France and North America, mainly because of national pride, when in fact, the French and North Americans are more alike than different.
Charles E.Foley, Evansville. Indiana u.s.a.
Nice analogy! However rather than a medieval kingdom it seems to be a carbon copy of the Holy Roman Empire. That lasted from 800 to 1806! So plenty of time to go for our eurocrats.
Max Hohenberg, Munich, Germany
Europe is a country that dare not say its name, we move this way and that trying to create a definition that will accommodate all yet offend no sensibilities. What we need is a bold statement of fact; yes we the people need a constitution of these United States. Give me liberty; give me my say and defining articles herewith.
David, Europe, UK
I'm not sure about the comparison to the Middle Ages, but I do think that it's important that people understand the EU and how the different parts fit together. Anything that makes it simple for people to understand is to be applauded! People seem to find it all too easy to blame "Europe" or "Brussels bureaucrats" for all their woes, rather than looking for the real reason (problems often lie much closer to home!). Hope you have a good holiday Mr Mardell!
Feudal just about sums it up. The unelected, privileged, tax-free elite, lording it contemptuously over the mass of unwashed serfs, while at the same time relying on them for the gold-plated financial packages and bulletproof pensions which they enjoy.
Richard, Chicago, IL
Being on the inside, as an -albeit very tiny- element of the King and his court section, I must admit that I find this analogy very inventive and to the point. It perhaps is even a nice way to make the landscape of European politics more understandable and vivid to a lot of people. I¿m looking forward to reading the comparison to a baroque empire in decline. But I very much hope the current analogy here will prevail, and that we are rather on an ascending curve to something more than it currently is.
Bart Van Uythem, Brussels, Belgium
This sounds, disturbingly, like the old Commonwealth of Poland - Lithuania, or "Rzeczpospolita," including the old "liberum veto" which allowed any noble to reject the decisions of parliament. Although this form of government lasted for about 200 years and had its achievements, it ultimately failed. Maybe there are lessons to be learned by studying this corner of E. European history.
Rimantas Aukstuolis, Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Mark's analysis helps to explain why some of the peasants are getting restive. Maybe Mark can tell us if we are living before or after the signing of the EU's Magna Carta?
Guy Gibson, Cambridge UK
Interesting analogy Mark.
I agree, this King (the commission) is definitely a 'child king'. But I'd make the European Council its ageing 'Regent' or 'wise counsellor/Rasputin type guy' and the Council of Ministers as the 'Regent's court'.. the Parliament could be seen as a younger, ambitious noble of a rival branch of the 'European' familiy, seeking to influence the young king's work.. Of course, one should also add the Royal Courts of Justice (the European Court of Justice).
One should also note that each have their own modest, little armies (of administrators) and a castle. The young noble parvenus (parliament) has 2! Though he strangely wants to abandon his new luxurious chateau in the provinces, preferring his castle in the capital. Unfortunately, the Regent - an ageing political master who often lacks the necessary leadership skills - on this occasion shows his obstructiveness. He refuses to remove an arcane article of the law of the land which guarantees the siting of a castle in a particular significant province.. the young parvenu frequently protests in vain..
Whilst the youthful King, the wily Regent, and young noble parvenu all partake a bit of intrigue, the kingdom seems to be persistently on the verge of economic and political crisis, and unable to keep up with neighbouring kingdoms to the West and East...
Peter J Franks, Berkshire
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