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The Pan-European Commonwealth: the heritage of Byzantium and the future of Europe beyond the EU

Pabst, Adrian (2013) The Pan-European Commonwealth: the heritage of Byzantium and the future of Europe beyond the EU. In: Gromyko, Alexey, ed. Wider Europe in the Global World: New Challenges – New Solutions. Institute of Europe, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, pp. 29-50. (KAR id:37673)


The Byzantine Empire is commonly associated with political absolutism, economic feudalism, and a State Church that simultaneously sacralised power and secularised religion. This, coupled with influence of Islam and oriental cultures, appears to explain how Europe’s East has been backward and reactionary, lacking Western virtues such as the distinction of religion from political authority, constitutionalism, the rule of law, a vibrant market economy and civil society – a free space between the people and the ruler. That is why Byzantium is synonymous with decadence, repression, and the arcane arrangements of an opaque bureaucracy. As such, the Byzantine legacy is thought to be singularly responsible for Eastern authoritarianism and autocracy that contrasts sharply with Western freedom and democracy. In modern times, so this narrative goes, the East was caught in the constricting shackles of imperial and clerical domination, while the West became the harbinger of Enlightenment emancipation.

This essay contends that Byzantium is key to understanding the history of pan-Europe and to chart an alternative European project for the future. Far from being simply a decadent empire whose demise heralded the rise of progressive sovereign nation-states, I shall argue that the Byzantine Commonwealth preserved the heritage of Antiquity and represented an association of nations and peoples around a shared polity, culture, and faith. This legacy offers as yet unrealised resources to build a pan-European community that the post-Cold War project of liberal market democracy purported to provide but failed to deliver.

Section 1 links the neglect of the Byzantine legacy to the myth of secular Europe and contends that the rise to power of secularism was neither necessary nor normative but instead historically contingent and arbitrary. Section 2 seeks briefly to re-tell the history of Europe in a manner that restores Byzantium to its rightful place, with a particular emphasis on the some of the religious and political aspects of the Byzantine settlement and on ways in which it shaped the countries that emerged from the Eastern empire. Section 3 argues that Europe remains a vestigially Christian polity and that Byzantium is key to this unique heritage. Section 4 turns to the contemporary situation and suggests that the model of the commonwealth – a voluntary association of nations and peoples – offers a better future than either a centralised super-state under the guise of modern federalism or a loose network of sovereign states which merely trade with one another.

Item Type: Book section
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BR Christianity
J Political Science > JC Political theory
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Politics and International Relations
Depositing User: Adrian Pabst
Date Deposited: 19 Dec 2013 13:45 UTC
Last Modified: 16 Nov 2021 10:14 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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