Last month in the Financial Times, Tony Barber closed a gloomy summary of the European Union’s future with this comparison:
Like the Holy Roman Empire which lasted for 1,000 years before Napoleon put it out of its misery in 1806, the EU may not disintegrate but slip into a glacial decline, its political and bureaucratic elites continuing faithfully to observe the rites of a confederacy bereft of power and relevance.
This vivid comparison has much to commend it. Both institutions defy definition. As Voltaire sneered in 1756, ‘it’s not holy, not Roman and not an empire’. The greatest student of the Holy Roman Empire, Johann Jacob Moser, concluded in his 1776 study:
We have various kinds of lands, various forms of government, with estates and without them, imperial towns, a nobility of whom some are immediate [the ones who can appeal directly to the emperor], subjects of all different sorts, and a thousand other such things — to think, for oneself, what good is it here?
Today’s successors to Moser cannot decide if the EU is a union of states or a superstate.