Seeing the Bigger Picture (Part 1)

This is the first part of the "Seeing the Bigger Picture" series by Louis Drounau, a journey through history that shows how a more united Europe would benefit us all.

In this first article, Louis asks us to take a step back, to consider the massive changes that have been occurring in the socio-political structure of the European nations for centuries. And to realize that change is not as scary as it might seem at first glance.

All for one and one for all? How European politics were shaped over 2.000 years ago

The choice to shape a political community, which for most of human history remained out of reach for the common man and rested instead upon the outcome of battles and on the willingness of kings and emperors to conquer and to marry, is now open to popular decision through democracy. Citizens are free to choose the size and shape of their political community – to come together or to separate.

Yet, we rarely do so. We amend the laws that govern us but leave intact the polity itself: few changes in borders and few political unions ever take place. Why is this? Let us first take a step back and see how most socio-political structures have already changed through history.

Each structure rises, grows - and falls

We learn it at school but often fail to notice: socio-political structures have constantly come and gone throughout history. Empires, kingdoms, city-States have risen, grown, and fallen.

«And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.»

By the time of his death in 323 BCE, Alexander’s empire was considered to encompass the whole known world, from Greece in the West to India in the East. Now, what happened to Alexander’s empire? What is left of it today? Following Alexander’s untimely death, the empire simply brittled and broke apart.

If we bring this closer to home, the Roman Republic (and later Empire) is a prime example, having ruled most of Western Europe and the Mediterranean for centuries and extending, at its peak, from Ireland to regions of the Arabian Peninsula. Like Alexander’s before it, the Roman Empire eventually broke up, splitting in two, and saw its Western half dissolve in the 5th century.

Although comparatively brief, Charlemagne’s 9th century empire brought together most of Western Europe for the first time since the Romans. Likewise, it later dissolved into competing kingdoms.

Shortly after, however, the Holy Roman Empire picked up the mantle and lasted until the early 19th century, meaning that for over eight hundred years, most of Central Europe was included, one way or another, into one common political entity. The Austrian and later Austro-Hungarian Empires endured for over half a century each.

Even structures we know and can relate to have changed enormously. Before France was Gaul, encompassing much of continental Western Europe; Gaul was progressively conquered and joined the Roman Empire. It then took centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire for Frank tribes, coming from nowadays Germany, to conquer growing parts of what is today the French territory and set up what would become France.

Over that long coalescing process, entire regions would switch hands, not only among the aristocracy but also externally: Aquitaine, a large portion of the South-West, was an English possession for over three hundred years. For centuries, France's borders moved ceaselessly in Europe and even reached parts of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania in the second half of the 19th century, until a painful decolonisation process in the 1960s.

Beyond its territory, the political system of a socio-political structure can also drastically change. Continuing with the example of France, the country was a centralised and increasingly absolutist monarchy for most of its history. In 1789, it was the theatre of a popular revolution, became a brief republic, toyed with several collegial forms of government, became an empire, re-established a monarchy, once again became a republic, then once more an empire, and finally stabilised as a republic under three major (yet regularly amended) constitutions with widely differing institutions.

Different century, same story

Focusing instead on a given geographical area, we can observe the same, continuous waves of change in ruling structures over time.

Following the death of Alexander, Asia Minor – or Anatolia, the territory of modern-day Turkey – saw the rise of several dynasties, including the Attalids and Seleucids, before joining the growing Roman empire for six centuries. In the 11th century, Seljuk Turks started overrunning the Anatolian peninsula before submitting to the Mongols who were themselves later absorbed into the Ottoman Empire. It would take another five hundred years and the Ottoman’s defeat during the First World War for the Turkish State to appear roughly as we know it today.

This fast-paced historical review shows how much change has already impacted Europe; the same is true for each of the provinces conquered by Alexander the Great and, truly, one for each of the corners of the world.

Why do socio-political structures change?

The purpose of these reviews is to make vividly clear that the list is endless of socio-political structures, of all sorts, that ruled parts of the world for long periods of time and are no more.

Many a reason brought these changes about.

Military strength first come to mind. Empires and kingdoms would grow larger and more powerful until they lost to a stronger foe, leading to boundary modifications or complete disappearance; sometimes, they may even come to lose to a weaker one, after having withered away internally.

Civil strife and discontent with existing structures can lead to the break-up of large ensembles or in drastic internal reorganisations.

Other, exogenous factors also come into play.

The rise of new ideologies – republicanism, democracy, Leninism, Maoism – has led to complete overhauls of State institutions and radically affected political structures. The first 1917 revolution in Russia swept away over four hundred years of tsarist history within a single week; in China, the struggle between the nationalists and the communists led to the de facto separation of the country into two separate units.

Changing social norms, such as the growing difficulty of regimes to violently suppress dissent in the face of their public opinion, and the advent of technology, including the emergence of widespread photography in the media, played a strong part in the unfolding of decolonisation processes and other revolutions.

We have always been looking for common institutions

Interestingly, history also offers examples of socio-political structures deciding to come together and creating new, common institutions.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is a good example, as the two countries, following several agreements, merged through the Union of Lublin in 1569. The Union lasted for over two hundred years and only broke apart when the repeated partitions of Poland by its neighbours erased it from the map of Europe between 1795 and 1919.

Likewise, the thirteen North-American colonies, progressively established from the beginning of the 17th century, decided, following the War of Independence, to come together in a common political structure through the Articles of Confederation of 1777.

Finally, in Europe, following the mass suicide of World War II, the process of European integration began with the Treaty of Rome, in 1958, and has been ongoing ever since.

We therefore see that the history of socio-political structures is not a long line of quiet evolutions into the countries we now know. It is marked by the continual creation and creative destruction of structures that ruled for hundreds of years and periodically came to an end, making way for newer players, either unwillingly or as a response to a new environment.

Like many others, Alexander’s empire, while long gone, has not disappeared from memory and, to this day, its legacy continues to exert a lasting influence on its former territories and on their people. We have not forgotten it: we remember its existence, recognise its achievements, and yet we do not think of mourning it. Simply, with time, we have moved on.

Let us shape the change for the future

Let us take a step back to understand what the inevitable changes in socio-political structures really means: it means that the current nation-States will not always stay as they are. It means that, over the long run, the fixed borders we grew up with will, one way or another, not endure. It means that we should be open to think about a stronger Union, more fitted to the future of Europe and the challenges ahead.

Our small European countries, on their own, are shrinking in population and relative economic power. The rise of developing countries and re-balancing of economic relationships is natural and should be welcomed. It also means that, alone, none of us will be able to make our voice heard. We, as Europeans, have to finally ignite the fire of change and get together, to show the world that there are no barriers, no differences, and no horrors of history that people cannot overcome to ensure a brighter future.

And we should not be afraid to do so: Change is going to come anyway. Let us embrace it.

About the Author:

Louis currently works for the United Nations in Nairobi, Kenya. Before that, he also worked for the UN in Côte d'Ivoire and New York, and, among others, with the European Commission on political affairs and with the Council of Europe on anti-money laundering activities. He is a strong EU and world federalist and passionately debates socio-political topics. You can find him on his blog Food For Thought.

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