The Habsburg Resurgence: Exposing the Fault Line that Undermines a United European Identity

Michael Mapes, Anonymous Young Woman, 2014. Source:

real isotretinoin without prescription buy Depakote in the uk As the migrant crisis challenges the unity of the EU at never-before-seen levels, ancient fault lines that threaten European unity are re-emerging. From Britain’s isolationism to France and Germany’s geopolitical friction, reminders of the ancient order are everywhere, but nowhere is the idea of European identity as at risk as in Austria and the Balkans.

A united Europe is a new and relatively radical idea. A continent with a strong tradition of regionalism, Europe’s many languages, cultures, and political systems have historically fractured the continent into distinct identities. Centuries of war, hostility, and political rivalries have cemented these identities—baked them into the very territory they occupy.

World War II was the conclusive proof of this division’s destructive nature. From the ashes of the former Continental order, Europeans understood the need to overcome their differences and found the solution in a new theory: Pan-Europeanism. And so Europe’s leaders embarked on a decades-long experiment, a never before seen attempt at a radical new goal: a united Europe, and with it, a united European identity.

Formed over a grueling 50 years of negotiations and political maneuvering, the European Union has sought continent-wide integration on all fronts. Piece by piece the economic and political boundaries that divided and defined European nations have been stripped back, weakened, and eliminated. Five decades of relentless diplomacy have pulled together the distinct cultural, political, and religious allegiances that make up the continent, culminating in the ultimate assertion of a united continental identity—European citizenship provided for by the 1991 Treaty of Maastricht. For the first time in history, Europeans from Amsterdam to Athens would carry a document that tied them to each other and their shared continent. But even as visible divisions, from passports to borders to independent markets, were discarded, continent-wide integration remained far from complete. And today, the friction and tumult of the migrant crisis have begun to wear away at Europe’s constructed identity, pulling back the shallow and recent layers and exposing the enduring fissures that defined the continental order for centuries.

Austria is in many ways a modern European success story. A stable and reliable EU member, the government in Vienna has repeatedly shown respect for Brussels’s mission of greater European cooperation and high standards for domestic policy. But this superficial success has today made Austria the perfect representation of Europe’s ultimate failure to erase historical divisions. Caving under the immense pressure of immigrant waves fleeing to Germany, the Austrian government has abandoned the constructs of European identity and fallen back to its territorial instincts.

On February 24th, 2016, as the migration crisis reached its apogee, Austria convened the Managing Migration Together summit in Vienna. European countries, from both inside and outside of the EU, joined to discuss an immigration policy that would effectively lock floundering Greece outside of the Schengen Area of free movement for the purpose of immigrants and asylum seekers. An assortment of southeastern European countries attended at Austria’s invitation, including Albania, Slovenia, and Bulgaria. Curiously, neither Greece, which has bore the brunt of the migration waves, nor Germany, which has taken the lead on the European response to the crisis, were invited. The countries on the invite list have little in common regarding diplomatic stances, domestic policy, or international alignment, but rewind the clock one century and the lines that define Vienna’s new coalition bear a marked similarity to those of their Habsburg forebears—the Austrian Empire. With origins in the 16th century, the Austrian Empire ruled over vast swaths of Eastern Europe for over three centuries—establishing a common political identity throughout its territories through hundreds of years of strict rule from Vienna. In ruling over a diverse and vast empire, the Habsburg emperors learned to craft one of the strongest senses of national identity in the continent’s history. Centuries of empire-wide integration and unification were brought to an end by the Treaty of Versailles, but the bonds created persisted. Of the ten delegations present at Vienna’s summit, six were previously direct subjects of the Austrian Empire, and the other four fell under its sphere of influence to varying degrees. Germany and Greece, whose vital role in the immigration crisis made their absences particularly conspicuous, have no such ties to that historical union.

Austria is a signatory to Lisbon treaty on political integration, the Bologna accord on educational cooperation, and the EEA agreement on economic standardization. It has raised no major concerns with Pan-Europeanism, and it’s position at the center of the Schengen Area make it central to the idea of a common territorial identity. It is in many ways representative of Europe’s greatest hope for a post-nationalist era on the continent—an era where a common European identity supersedes all others.

But the territorial identity of the Austrian Empire had decades to form and strengthen. Many years of conflict and union reinforced territorial definitions that are not easily dismissed, and the sign of a diplomat’s pen in Paris in 1919 did not effectively erase the political bonds that held Austria and the western Balkans together for centuries. So while Austria’s move is inconsistent with its modern geopolitical alignment, the Managing Migration Together summit makes perfect sense regarding its established territorial identity—Vienna has found refuge in its most comfortable geopolitical situation.

As Britain drifts further away into isolation and the strength of France and Germany’s cooperation is threatened at a level not seen for decades, Austria’s situation is not the only one in Europe that harkens back to the centuries-old political order on the continent. Throughout the Schengen Zone, today we see examples that remind us of the recency and relative infancy of pan-European cooperation. But in Vienna we find the most glaring and visible example of just how fragile and incomplete the European identity is. Austria’s rekindling of exclusive ties with the West Balkans demonstrates that ancient geopolitical forces still play a significant role in defining the territorial identities and allegiances of Europe’s constituent nations. And from Vienna south along the Adriatic to Greece, the former borders of Europe have asserted their seniority and priority, again demonstrating the power of the geopolitical divisions that had centuries to embed themselves into Europe’s territory.