There are some uncomfortable parallels between the way in which the European Union has expanded from its original conception as a common market and the way in which the Muscovite state expanded from its original compact base west of the Urals to the empire it now rules over in Siberia. Considering how Moscow built its empire four centuries ago may illuminate the main issue behind the collapse of British-EU relations.
The essence of the matter is that there was a complete mismatch between the expectations of the rulers of Muscovy and those peoples they were absorbing, like the Khanty, the Mansi, the Kalmyks and the Udmurti. That mismatch is similar to that between Brussels and London. What the Khanty, the Mansi and others saw as a trading relationship, the Muscovite tsars took as a hierarchical/submissive one. They saw trade as the supply of tribute in return for benevolences and gifts which could be given or withheld at the Kremlin's discretion.
The Brexit negotiations and the Greek debt debacle have revealed that the EU leadership in Brussels conceives of itself as being in the position of a suzerain whose subordinate nations should not have the option of declaring independence – which is what 'returning to WTO rules' in practice means. The fact that they all joined voluntarily appears to mean nothing in Brussels.
The EU will use all the means in its power – which fortunately do not include military force as happened in 17th-century Siberia – to uphold its view of the bargain against any other conflicting one held by a departing or subordinate nation. There is no neutral court to arbitrate, so all disputes will come down to a trial of strength. One definition of empire might be a political association in which the subject entities do not have the freedom to leave.
In chapter 14 of the 'Cambridge History of Russia', the American historian of Russia's non-Slavic subject peoples, Michael Khodarkovsky of Chicago University, writes: 'What the local chiefs considered a peace treaty struck with newly arrived strangers, Moscow regarded as the chiefs' oath of allegiance to the grand prince, their submission to Moscow.'
Professor Khodarkovsky emphasises another element in this situation, namely the co-option of local elites. There are echoes of both Remoaners and the Scottish Nationalists in the observation that 'some native chiefs and princes chose to serve Moscow's interests so they could aggrandise their power among their own people.'
It would in many ways be absurd to compare the relationship of Britain to the EEC at the time of the accession in 1973 with that between the fur-trapping nomads of the northern forests east of the Urals and the military-bureaucratic regime which was developing in 17th-century Moscow. Yet these relationships had one important similarity: they represented conflicting conceptions of diplomacy between neighbours which sprang from different ideas about the meaning of a 'contract' entered into at a national level.
As Khodarkovsky says: 'The shert, which Moscow conceived of as an oath of allegiance, was seen by the local chiefs as a peace treaty with mutual obligations...Even the iasak, which is usually considered to be a tribute or tax paid by the natives to Moscow and an unquestionable sign of submission, was in reality a fur trade, an unequal exchange between equal parties.'
The phrase 'unequal exchange between equal partners' is key. The EU is a huge organisation and clearly none of its parts is equal to the union as a whole. Yet, in international law and in the conception of most of the member states, the EU is composed of countries which are equal in the sense of enjoying full – and therefore equal – sovereignty. Each has a single seat at the United Nations and each has diplomatic relations with any or all of the others on a basis of formal equality.
Germany does not issue Finland with a quota of birch logs to be delivered to Rostock each year on the basis that Germany is more powerful than Finland. The Finns, much like their kinfolk/ancestors, the Khanty and the Mansi, consider themselves free to trade with Germany if they want, or with Russia or Botswana if they prefer.
Britain is leaving the EU partly because a majority of the electorate took the view last June that Brussels wants to change the relationship from, one might say, the Khanty-Mansi model to the Kremlin one. We thought we had joined a free market only to find ourselves by slow degrees co-opted into a political project. That project may or may not be a good thing, but it is unquestionably an imperial one if the subject states are not free to leave. And real freedom to leave means the freedom to do so on amicable terms which are negotiated without rancour and in a spirit of equal contractual partnership.
What was first disclosed by the brutal treatment of Greece during the debt crisis has been confirmed by the opening salvoes in the Brexit negotiations. Europe is not a project for peace and trade; it is a project for empire and control.