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Joe Leech’s winning Riley Declamation Prize entry

As you may recently have read on the blog, Joe Leech recently won the 2016 Brian Riley prize for his excellent speech entitled “One inseparable body: the atomization of the European state and the state in Europe.” Below is the full text:

Europe’s greatest union died in battle. It fell under artillery fire on the 10 October 1794, when its eagle-headed standard slipped from the grasp of its last bearer. There he pronounced ‘finis Poloniae’: the end of Poland. With the failure of Tadeusz Kosciuszko’s last stand, the vast composite organism of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was consumed, eaten alive by smaller and more agile neighbouring beasts. It had been a wounded animal for more than a century by that time, poisoned by the slow collapse of its constitutional system and the gangrene of foreign manipulation. Yet the state it had once been was Europe’s largest, a pocket of religious tolerance and relative peace in a continent that had spent the better part of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ripping itself apart along confessional and dynastic lines. It had an elected monarchy, vigorous parliament and open culture in an age stalked by absolute sovereigns. It has become, above all to the Poles, a golden age fairy tale. Yet its life and death as a union says something more complex than that.

The Commonwealth was a full treaty union between the kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a Baltic polity that came late to Christianity and later to the mainstream of European politics. At the Treaty of Lublin which formalised the union in 1569, after two hundred years of sharing a monarch, it was declared that there was to be “one inseparable and indistinguishable body… one united commonwealth.” To some in 1794 it seemed that that body had failed to survive the shattering impact of that murky concept, modernity. Outmanoeuvred by the sleek machines of Russia, Prussia and Austria, it failed to make the leap to a bureaucratic state. As another wave of modernity comes upon us in this century, it seems that there will be casualties for us, too.

Granted, the process seems likely to be less bloody. In the pathology of unitary states, an end on the field is rare. Death comes in subtler forms. States more often drown in the ink of a treaty. The dissolution of Sweden’s union with Norway in 1905 passed peacefully, without gunfire or much weeping. And if states can die quietly, we may be about to enter an era where their quiet passing marks the years. The Anglo-Scottish union of 1707 is assailed from all sides. That which Spain made by force with Catalonia in 1716 is strained. Even the utility of the union of the Italies is vocally doubted by northern separatists. And of course the largest union of all, the one that binds all of these unitary states into a community, is staring at an abyss that may yet swallow it. All does not seem to be well with the union in Europe. So let us make our question the state of our unions. What are they for? Why do we make them? And why do we unmake them when we do?

That begs the question, of course, of what states themselves are for. There seems to be a natural answer to that, one which Aristotle came to long ago. States are nothing but communities that aim to do some good to their members. By distributing tasks, sharing defence against the hostile and investing power in collective decision- makers they can make existence better. The wisdom of coming together for defence is easy enough to see. The beacon fires on the horizon; the bells that call the feudal host; the general mobilisation; are these not the most primal markers of statehood? And since quantity is the overriding vector of force of arms, unification for defence happens quickly and under pressure.  George Washington noted, at the end of the vicious campaign to establish the United States of America, that “your union ought to be considered the main prop of your liberty”. At Washington’s side in that war was Tadeusz Kosciusko, the last Polish standard bearer, with whom we began. And he, of course, understood only too clearly how feebly liberty was propped without union.

That rationale pertains also in two strikingly similar cases of unification that bring us back to Europe. The Dutch as they fought guerrilla warfare over the dykelands in the sixteenth century, and the Swiss, as they dragged their mountain cantons together to the sound of marching pike in the fifteenth, could both have identified with Washington’s sentiment. Yet those examples should give us pause to think. For the unions they created were loose and roughly equal. Moreover they were expressly not incorporating; that is to say that distinct bodies politic remained. For the Dutch, who expressed their union as the United States of the Seven Netherlands, that tendency was so pronounced that Hugo Grotius could argue in 1609 that the state of Holland had the sovereign power to declare war on another sovereign state, Portugal, without the United Netherlands doing so. What he meant was that sovereignty, the title of true statehood, inhered both jointly in the union and severally in each of its seven states. Unions of that kind lack much of the invasive standardisation that modern unitary states use as a standard technique. And until they were dissolved by Napoleon’s ambition, they held in spite of internal tensions. So what of the truer union, the one which binds laws and economies together more completely? Let us take, for a moment, our own.

Perhaps the tale of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth with which we began should trigger familiar images in the English mind. For while Sigismund III held court at Krakow, across a gunmetal sea another monarch of two states addressed his own petulant parliament. The king of England and Scotland was attempting to persuade the subjects of both crowns that they would be better off under one. To the English parliament he declared that “my meaning… is only to advance the greatness of your empire seated here in England; and yet with such caution I wish it, as may stand with the weal of both states.” And there, of course, is the crux. The debate over quite what the weal of both states was got the better of James. The stakes were high. His contemporaries well understood what the effect of such a marriage would be. The Scots lawyer Thomas Craig sounded distinctly uneasy when he described what it would be. “In the language of the lawyers,” he explained “two bodies are thus resolved into a third, whole and distinct, and of such a nature that by no device or ingenuity can it be disintegrated into its former elements. The Poles express their union with the Lithuanians by the words ‘incorporation’ and ‘invisceration’, in order the more distinctly to define the word ‘union’ and the force of it.” His organic language conveys something of how contemporaries saw union: as a binding physical process of absorption. In particular the Scots feared incorporation in the hostile sense. James even had to reassure them that “I hope you mean not that I should set garrisons over you, as the Spaniards do over Sicily and Naples.”

The fact that both parliaments subsequently refused to ratify the treaty says something fundamental about why unions are difficult things. Expanding the commonwealth seemed unnecessary and invasive. Its unequal nature seemed dangerous to the weaker party. It seemed to be taking sovereign power further away from those it served. So here is the limiting factor in the creation of unions. Sovereignty, whether it be vested in a person or an institution, tends to chafe less when it is closer. It should be no surprise that many of the smaller states of Europe are also amongst the happier. Iceland, the supreme paradigm of the small nation, is the happiest of them all. When Aristotle imagined truly political units, those which do good, he meant more literally civic units: cities and towns. For him the state had an ideal size, and it was not large. So why then do groups of people not obviously concerned with mutual protection choose to unify? Naked force is an option, but there are subtler mechanisms in the flocking patterns of human beings.

To see something of that, let us return to the British Isles. We all know the coda of this piece. In 1707, in spite of those fears, the two bodies were finally unified. If the failure of the first attempt can tell us about the inertia of making an incorporating union, perhaps this success can tell us something about what can overcome it. Overwhelmingly, we might contend, the reason lay not in the British Isles, nor even in Europe. It lay somewhere in the jungles of Panama, with the wreckage of Scotland’s two-year nightmare of colonialism. The Darien venture, an attempt to set up a colony on the Central American isthmus, was declared dead in 1700. Its collapse convinced many scots that the better pickings were to be had in access to the English colonies, and with it men, money and ships. And so, to some extent, Scotland’s sovereignty, though not its law, was traded for equal entry to a commercial zone that would come to dominate the world order.

With this second reason for union, a trading space that is concerned more with exchanging ploughshares than rattling swords, we feel the shadow of our own times more heavily. The UK has just chosen to unmake a union with Europe, a union that represents, for many of its proponents, economic interests above all. In time it may come to deconstruct its own union, constructed in search of gold. And what of the EU itself? However much it came into being with ideals of collective peace, those ideals seem little talked of now. In contemporary rhetoric, its original purpose of pacification has been buried. Instead its benefits, we are told, are quantitative in nature.

That no longer seems to convince. Increasing numbers of Scots, Catalonians, English and Europeans more generally live with many of the benefits of being a part of larger unions and economies, but they reject them. They live with the advantage of common laws that set rules for trade and work, but they despise them. There is a feeling that runs through all of those disputes. Europeans no longer feel that sovereignty lives close by, or that it has much interest in them. There is two-fold element in the response to that. On the one hand traditional nationalism drives much of the rhetoric. The appeal of the Front National in France or the Freedom Party in Austria depends on it. Yet it is now that it comes to the fore in ever more atomizing ways, targeting not just the EU but the unified states that made it.  The heavy symbolism of Bannockburn in the Scottish case. The image of the crushing of the Barcelona garrison in 1714 in the Catalonian. That those pictures should resurface now speaks to increasingly inequitable partition of benefit  and failue of a fragile group identity that afflicts Europe.

At their bleeding cores, our unions are becoming places of alienation. The potential for that alienation to atomize the EU and its members is not an outlandish fear.Humans need principles of group identity to organise themselves. They are group principles of belonging, of security. They are at their most evident in a riot. Lines form in a street where before there was entropic motion. Mixed groups separate and reform as hard clusters of opposition. Missiles travel in pre-determined directions. Civil disorder is not true disorder, but the manifestation of anthropological patterns smaller and older than the unified state. States, or unions, can dissipate the formation of those patterns. But where it fails, the ugly spectres of more atomizing principles begin to rise. Locality. Language. Race. Of course the riot is an extreme example. But it is only the most violent aspect of the reason that unions can collapse.

Unions need to attend to the common weal to survive without the life support of force. If they fail to do so, they become the kind of distant and arbitrary sovereign that Thomas Craig feared in the Anglo-Scottish debate. Investing our sovereignty in a common fund comes at a price that we feel worth paying so long as we feel the benefit. For an increasing number of Europeans, European unions in all their incarnations seem to be locked in a system of offering distant government with little benefit. “The obligation of subjects to a sovereign,” said Hobbes, “is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth by which he is able to protect them.“ When protection or common enrichment fails, we look to smaller sovereigns. Our own unions may not have the rather poetic fate of death on the field that the Polish union suffered. Instead they may cool, slow, and vanish.

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