Austria-Hungary does not have a good press nowadays. It is vaguely thought of as an autocratic dysfunctional empire whose demise was unmourned. Lands that once formed a single empire that had been ruled by the Hapsburgs for centuries are now shared between a dozen independent countries. No one clamours for it to be reconstituted.
Is this a parable for the fate of the EU? Perhaps. But the parable might be a bit more complex than that.
For a start, Austria-Hungary was rather more effective than is supposed. In the 50 years before the First World War, it achieved rapid economic growth. By the eve of the First World War, it was a well-integrated and industrialising economic entity, especially in the western half. Between 1875 and 1925 Budapest was the fastest-growing city in the world.
By 1914, Austria-Hungary was under some political strain. Because Austria (or, more properly, Cisleithania) and Hungary (more properly, Transleithania) were two separate countries under a single crown with few shared functions, reaching agreement on reforms was not straightforward. While the empire was dominated by two ethnic groups – Germans in the west, Hungarians in the east – those two groups made up less than half the population of the empire, with many other ethnic groups pressing for more power and more autonomy.
The Germans were relatively willing to accommodate this but the Hungarians were enjoying their supremacy and were unwilling to loosen their grip. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne, was propounding a more federal arrangement giving more rights and power to minority groups. The Hungarians sabotaged attempts at reform by threatening to veto military budgets. The Archduke’s assassination brought the curtain down on that idea and ultimately on the empire.
There was, however, no particular reason to believe in early 1914 that Austria-Hungary was in any imminent danger. Its downfall was caused by being sucked into a political vacuum on its southern flank from the slow collapse of the Ottoman Empire, not from any insurmountable internal weaknesses. It took a war of an unprecedented scale to destroy it.
The consequences for the deconstructed parts were dire. Divided, small and weak, these states, constructed around national identity, fell prey first to fascism and Nazi depredations and then (with the exceptions of Italy and Austria and the partial exception of Yugoslavia) to Communist rule and Soviet domination. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, those former parts of Austria-Hungary that had ended up in Yugoslavia suffered still further as revived nationalism was pursued to its logical and ugly conclusion.
Still, no one sentimentally mourns Austria-Hungary. And yet nine of the twelve countries that occupy lands once governed by Austria-Hungary are EU member states. The other three all aspire to membership. All value their independence but all want to share their sovereignty with their neighbours, having seen how a fixation on national identity has served them so poorly in the last century.
So what after all might be the lessons to learn? I see them as sixfold. First, unloved supranational institutions may have substantial, if unappreciated, practical value. Secondly, as a result they may have more internal strength than their detractors might appreciate. Thirdly, they may be most vulnerable to external shocks caused by a power vacuum on their borders – we have already seen the EU struggle with the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and if I were a Eurocrat I would be more concerned in the long term about the potential impact of Russian febrility than about Brexit. Fourthly, national identity can prove inadequate to maintain a stable demos. Fifthly, the unappreciated practical value of unloved supranational institutions might well eventually become appreciated after some hard lessons have been learned. And sixthly, the practical value offered may well eventually be sought through an entirely different route.