The First European Union



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Last weekend my wife and I were in Barcelona. It was our fist visit to the lovely capital of Catalonia, and it certainly lived up to its reputation as one of the Grand Cities of Europe.


Source: Wikimedia

But a visit to Barcelona also makes one think about the European Union, especially where it came from (and where it is going).

The European Union is only the latest attempt to unify Europe within one polity, and not the most long-lasting one. The first was, of course, Roman Empire. Many don’t count it a European empire, because Rome did not rule over northern Europe (Germania and Scandinavia), but instead included North Africa and swaths of the Middle East. It was really an empire centered on the Mediterranean Sea, which the Romans affectionately called Mare Nostrum (our sea). Still, the Roman Empire, which lasted roughly five centuries (depending on how one counts), was the most durable European mega-polity.

The next time a large chunk of Western Europe was unified was under the Carolingian Franks (eighth and ninth centuries CE). As readers of this blog know, I consider the Carolingian Empire, and not the Roman one, as the “charter state” (borrowing from Victor Lieberman) of all following attempts at European unification.

There were two attempts to unify Europe by brute force between the Carolingians and the EU, one by Napoleonic France, and the other by the Third Reich. Both were short-lived.

But what a visit to Barcelona reminded me is that there was yet another attempt at a European Union. It was largely accomplished by peaceful means, like the current European Union. But it was also unsuccessful (like the current EU? The future will tell).

Historically astute readers would immediately recognize that I am talking about the Empire of Charles V (reigned 1519­–1556).


Titian – Portrait of Charles V Seated Source: Wikipedia

This European Union of the sixteenth century was brought about as a result of a series of unlikely dynastic unions. The first one was in the twelfth century between Petronilla, the Queen of Aragon and Raymond Berengar IV, the Count of Barcelona.


Their descendant, Ferdinand II of Aragon married Isabella I of Castile in 1469. This marriage unified most of Iberia (with the exception of Portugal), plus Sicily and southern Italy, which the Crown of Aragon acquired along the way (again not by conquest, but by dynastic marriage).

The daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, Joanna the Mad (Juana la Loca) married Philip Habsburg (the Handsome), and their eldest son was Charles V. Philip the Handsome brought to the union a huge array of lands, also acquired as a result of a series of dynastic marriages.


Portrait of Juana, Queen of Castile and Aragon, and Philip the Handsome (from the Triptych of the Last Judgment in Zierikzee by Master of Afflighem; Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium)

Philip’s mother was Mary of Burgundy, also known as Mary the Rich, because she was a heiress of Burgundy and the Netherlands (this combination also resulting from a dynastic union). Philip’s father was Maximilian I, the Archduke of Austria and the Emperor of the late medieval German Empire (misleadingly called the Holy Roman Empire, which was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor Empire, as was famously quipped by Voltaire).

In other words, the huge empire of Charles V (see the map below) was put together from tiny county-sized pieces (such as Catalonia) by a series of dynastic marriages—not by conquest! This process of step-by-step unification was not democratic, of course, but required consent of the elites of each polity. Perhaps not so different from the latest EU, in which the elites often make decisions without consulting their populations…


It goes without saying that war was ever present in the background. It was one thing to unite the countries by dynastic marriage, and an entirely another one to keep the lands against depredations by the neighbors. Consider the case of Burgundy—what Mary the Rich brought to the union was sadly diminished as a result of losing a number of possessions to the rising power of France.

Furthermore, fear of powerful neighbors was clearly a great motivator for the elites to unite, so that they would have a larger state better capable of defending itself. In my book Ultrasociety, I call this the “alliance route to scaling up.” So, although combining different pieces was done in a nonviolent way, it was still driven by the exigencies of war.


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Steve Roth

Very nice. Quite the spread he had.

The map also helps make very clear why Henry VII was so keen on Arthur’s marriage to Catherine, why Henry VIII also chose to marry her, and why Queen Mary found Phillip to be an auspicious (though also politically difficult) match. Also perhaps why Elizabeth chose not to marry — taking on a lord and sovereign (for herself and her country) whose lands and powers so greatly exceeded hers.

al loomis

the remark about an empire of elites seems to me to be very significant. throughout history the real state was wherever the ruler and his army were, and as the chinese say, ‘heaven is high and the emperor far away.’ outside the immediate reach of the army, life went on unconcerned with political questions, perhaps even unknowing who claimed to be the ruler.
which is why the struggle to democracy made such a mark on the world, feeling ‘the ruler is us’ changed the human character for the athenians, and left a heritage that appeals to people so much that their particular variety of oligarchy is commonly called [adjective] democracy by the elite. the elite lie, the plebs accept the lie, out of ignorance, or shame.

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