When presented with an ultimatum by Napoleon in 1806, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II not only had to abdicate and accept the dissolution of an entity in the centre of Europe boasting a vintage of eight centuries; he also had to endure a scathing summary of his overstretched Empire’s irrelevance in the continent’s new order. Bonaparte told the humiliated Habsburg that his Empire was akin to an old maidservant who had been raped by every member of the household in which she served. It was time to put her out of her misery.
Although the Holy Roman Empire’s genesis had been in the distant medieval era and it cannot be viewed in the same light as the war-like nations of Europe that were engaged in constant conflict with each other, it had continued as a useful and desirable ally for any competing European power poised to lock horns (whether England, France, Spain or Holland) for the remainder of its existence, mainly due to the sheer scale of the land it covered and the number of troops it could therefore call upon when battle commenced. Largely governed by Germanic rulers, the Empire nevertheless reached as far south as Northern Italy and comprised a complex sequence of sovereign kingdoms, city states, duchies, principalities and hundreds of other sub-divisions that, on paper, maintained a degree of independent sovereignty, though officially owed their allegiance to the Emperor. In retrospect, it’s hard not to view the Holy Roman Empire as a prototype for the European Union.
Perhaps if Boris Johnson had used his evident intelligence to draw parallels with Europe’s previous centralised economic and political powerhouse instead of taking the lazy Livingstone route to Nazi comparisons, maybe his latest gaffe could have been avoided. Both Nazi Germany and Napoleonic France evolved from mere nations into a system of continental conquest and subjugation, one that imposed order on central Europe by invading its sovereign territories and brutally expanding the boundaries of the conquering country in the process. By contrast, the Holy Roman Empire was a bureaucratic brotherhood of nations, part Common Market/part NATO; it even crossed the great divide between Catholicism and Protestantism in its member states. The Emperor usually emanated from an established dynasty of rulers, but was nevertheless an elected monarch, even if his electorate consisted of the elite Prince-Electors rather than the general public. Sound familiar?
The demise of the Holy Roman Empire was made easier by its sprawling size, particularly when Napoleon’s armies could pick off one vulnerable member state after the other before striking at its Austrian heart and forcing the Emperor to surrender his crown and bring the 800-year-old institution to an undignified end. It had become bloated, complacent and effectively irrelevant to the nineteenth century, and all that was required to kill it off was one ruthlessly ambitious demigod who had no respect for its ancient traditions. Unlike Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany, the EU is not a county and neither was the Holy Roman Empire. Boris resorted to crass Napoleonic and Nazi references because he knows these are ones that the British public can relate to in basic black-and-white terms, not to mention ones that will invoke the spirits of Trafalgar or Dunkirk. Utterly meaningless spirits when it comes to this particular debate, but potent ones all the same.
At the same time as Bo-Jo was playing his pound-shop Churchill, Eastern Europe was embroiled in a war of words set to music. Ukraine won Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest with a number apparently inspired by the singer Jamala’s great-grandmother being forced to leave her Crimean homeland by Stalin in 1944 (the title of the song) during his revenge on Crimean Tatars for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. This effective ethnic cleansing resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 deportees from the Crimean Peninsula to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in Central Asia. Not exactly the basis for an upbeat entry into a song contest noted for its banal lyrical content, but a highly charged one at this moment in time.
Let’s face it, though, the Eurovision has been a hotbed of political bias ever since the old Eastern Bloc countries were welcomed into the fold over 20 years ago. The blatantly partisan nature of the voting was one of the reasons Terry Wogan gave up his stint at the microphone, and it seems whatever controversial move Putin’s Russia makes is only ever really punished in the incongruous environs of an entertainment event while an impotent EU and UN watch on. I remember lipstick lesbians t.A.T.u. being greeted with a chorus of catcalls and boos during their performance for Russia at the tournament in 2003, so voters opting for a song criticising past Russian activities in a country that has recently been annexed by Putin is no great surprise.
Predictable outrage in Russia itself to Ukraine’s triumph hardly ranks the song’s success alongside one of the Eurovision’s great robberies, such as General Franco allegedly rigging the victory for Spain over Cliff in 1968, but it does show that the continent of Europe, from its western to its eastern tips, is a far-from happy bunny at the moment – something that the approaching deadline of June 23 (and all the hypothetical propaganda surrounding it) probably isn’t helping.
© The Editor