Home / Articles / Empire by Devolution: What Today’s EU Can Learn from Franz Josef I’s Empire
‘‘Poland’s opposition remains the biggest hurdle to a revamped constitution. Warsaw has repeatedly threatened to veto talks on a new charter [and] has proved . . . to be one of the most awkward and unpredictable members of the group.’’
– International Herald Tribune, June 14
‘‘The [Polish] compromise . . . has been shelved by the constitutional committee . . . due to the obstinacy of the Poles themselves. The Poles have played their hand with extreme clumsiness, and supplied another proof of their political inability.’’
– The New York Times, June 15
These newspaper accounts tell the story of a European integration project mired in constitutional crisis. The events they describe could have been separated by only twenty-four hours; in fact, the articles were published 135 years apart. The first article tells of Polish efforts to block German plans for constitutional reform at a June 2007 conference in Brussels, capital of the European Union (EU). The second describes a similar episode that occurred in June 1872 in Vienna, capital of the now-defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire. In both cases, the aim was to devise a durable formula by which the affairs of multiple nations could be jointly governed; in both, progress was blocked by rivalry between old and new members of the union; and in both, the resulting deadlock was broken by a temporary solution, leaving the task of true reform for another day. In Austria-Hungary’s case, that day never came. Decades of crisis and compromise failed to produce the constitutional changes necessary to make stakeholders of all of the empire’s eleven nationality groups. A century later, the same question that Austria stumbled over now confronts the EU: How to create a multinational union that is unified enough to protect the common interests of its members but flexible enough to allow them to determine their own political destinies.