It Won’t Get Any Better
A Journey through the Habsburg Empire and the European Union
In defence of bureaucracy and the political craft of muddling through
For the European Union, recent years perhaps have felt like the beginning of the end, what with nationalism rising across the board, geopolitical dynamics shifting throughout the world, ugly deals with border nations, Brexit and financial troubles. Europeans love to complain the EU has too little power, or too much, that it’s too slow, too weak, too divided. And yet European Affairs correspondent Caroline de Gruyter recognizes striking parallels with the Habsburg Empire, which saw itself similarly tasked with unifying many different, wary and critical states, and nevertheless lasted six centuries: ‘the zeitgeist is different, but the nature of the political games is not.’ What can the EU learn from the Habsburgs?
In It Won’t Get Any Better, De Gruyter goes in search of the similarities and differences between the Habsburg Empire and the EU. She alternates insightful political analyses and historical explanations with entertaining personal anecdotes and interviews with authors, journalists and present-day Habsburgs. Paying particular attention to the dynamics and geo-political importance of middle Europe – where Hungary has always been headstrong – she uncovers a bygone era that nevertheless left clear traces in the peoples and cultures living at the centre of the former empire. As she notes, the empire’s demise was not the rebellion of its peoples against an oppressive regime, but rather a downward spiral set off by the First World War. It was only through war – which the empire’s stumbling, ‘half-finished’ bureaucracy had prevented for so long – that nationalist movements could actually take root.
More than making a comparison, De Gruyter goes to bat for the Habsburg (and European) strategy of muddling through, or ‘kicking the can down the road’, in response to new challenges from outside and a changing environment. Bureaucratic sluggishness and endless rules, though frustrating, are the result of compromise – perhaps our greatest defence against conflict and war. Indeed, the EU has helped its constituent nations become peaceful and prosperous.
Far from sombre or pessimistic, this is a smart, funny and optimistic plea for the Europe Union in a time of widespread discontent, and for finding peace with slowness and imperfection. Because in the end, when seeking to appease and unify so many independent actors, it won’t get any better than this. Soft power might not be pretty, but its infinitely better than waging war.