Monday, November 14, 2011

The Decline And Fall of The Roman Empire, And The Rise Of The New Holy Roman Empire

History is full of dejavu.
The politics of Europe of the early 21st century is really not so much different from that of Europe in the 11th century.

The recent histories of the modern states of Italy and Greece, and that of France and Germany, contrast oddly with their more medieval counterparts; the Holy Roman Empire, the Papacy (and Italian city-states), and the Byzantine Empire.

The Treaty of Rome, signed in the 1950s, created the prototype for the EU, beginning with the core members, France and Germany. After the moral and economic wreckage of the Second World War, hitherto mortal enemies France and Germany vowed to a future of economic alliance. Italy, amongst others, joined this association some years later, followed by Greece.

This suited all parties well, and then this association became a formal economic union with one currency. And this is where it became much more complicated. While Germany and France were the two strongest powers on Continental Europe - a contemporary "Holy Roman Empire", economically joined at the hip - Italy and Greece, the two ancient imperial powers, had been economic basket cases since the Second World War.

Both Italy and Greece had been through a succession of elected governments since the war. Greece even had a period of miliary rule. But both countries' governments, especially in the last forty years upto the 2008-11 financial crisis, utterly failed to manage their countries responsibly. In stark contrast to Germany, whose economy was destroyed after the Second World War, yet had gone from strength to strength, the ancien regimes of the Med, Italy and Greece, had gone from modest growth to profligate insanity.
Both Greece and Italy's problems were essentially the same, albeit that Italy's were much worse as their economy was much bigger than Greece's. Their governments, until very recently, had run their countries as a weak parent appeases and spoils an errant and tantrum-throwing child: the state provided generous subsidies and pensions, because they didn't want pensioners and unions marching on the street; the state turned a blind eye to rampant tax evasion and corruption because they didn't want the middle-classes and shopkeepers on the streets.
In other words, the Greek and Italian governments were repeating the same mistakes that all failing empires in history made - through governmental weakness, allowing their country to live beyond its means and avoiding the uncomfortable (but inevitable) truth.

So, it came to last week, as the New "Holy Roman Empire" of Europe (the Franco-German economic duopoly) ultimately calls the shots on the Eurozone, called time to Italy and Greece's governments.
Italy's premier, Emperor Silvio (whose title can be sybolically conferred as being the longest ruler of Italy since the time of Mussolini, and since his moral exemplar sometimes seemed to be Caligula), after ruling his state for much of the previous twenty years through corruption, mismanagement, and moral indifference, was forced to symbolically relinquish his crown to Italy's ceremonial President. Then the President, acting in the role once held by the Pope a thousand years ago, shortly after bestowed the title of Italian premier (once called by the name "Emperor of the Romans" in the days of the Papacy) to an Italian bureaucrat experienced in the politics of the Eurozone. In other words, a person far more suitable to the New "Holy Roman Empire" for the sake of European stability.
The same story can be said of Greece: after months of indecision and instability, the Greek premier bowed to the inevitable and resigned, to be replaced by a Greek bureaucrat experienced in the politics of the Eurozone, friendly to the interests of the New "Holy Roman Empire".

It could be argued, then, that what has happened in the ancient imperial territories of Greece and Italy is a kind of New "Holy Roman Empire" economic regime change. That may be so, but niether is that something that should surprise anyone who understands the modern world.

Or, for that matter, the medieval world. The Papacy had been a plaything of the Imperial Powers of Europe, such as the Holy Roman Empire, for centuries, especially around a thousand years ago, when there were Popes and anti-Popes for much of the time. Italy and its city-states were a plaything of Popes, Holy Roman Emperors and Byzantine Emperors (all three of whom, by the way, claimed the title of ruler of the Romans); not long afterwards, the same became true of what is now Greece and the Balkans.

So, who runs Europe these days? The answer is, basically, the same as the answer was a thousand years ago: Germany. A thousand years ago, England was peripheral to the fate of Europe; France was still figuring out where its loyalties lay; Spain was a mess; Eastern Europe was in transition, while Constantinople/Istanbul was maintaining its position economically, and had made diplomatic in-roads in the Middle East.

So what's new? At least Germans these days are pacifists.

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