If the EU learnt the lessons of the Habsburg empire then Brexit might not have happened, says descendant

Eduard Habsburg-Lothringen is now Hungary’s ambassador to the Vatican  (Hungary Embassy)
Eduard Habsburg-Lothringen is now Hungary’s ambassador to the Vatican (Hungary Embassy)

When Eduard Habsburg-Lothringen was at school, his history teacher would be going through an episode in Europe’s chronicles and note: “That's something Mr Habsburg surely knows about.”

He would be referring to the many events linked to the 850-year history of the Habsburg empire which touched almost every corner of Europe right up until the end of the First World War.

Mr Habsburg - now Hungary’s ambassador to the Holy See in Rome - admitted that at the time he did not know as much as someone from such an eminent family perhaps should.

Speaking to The Independent, he joked: “You realise you don't know, of course, because you're not born with knowledge about the Habsburgs. Yes, so you begin to read, and that's how I got to understand that - apart from England and France - in all the rest of Europe - German speaking, central Europe, Balkans, Italy, the Habsburgs were a big deal.”

Eduard Habsburg-Lothringen speaks to The Independent (Hungary Embassy)
Eduard Habsburg-Lothringen speaks to The Independent (Hungary Embassy)

The ambassador has since written his own book about the family The Habsburg Way: Seven Rules for Turbulent Times from which he hopes his family’s history can provide life lessons for people now.

He explained: “I decided I'm not going to write another history of the Habsburgs, because there are tons of those; also I'm not a historian. So I said, let's take the seven principles of the of the family and present them - a Habsburg self help book, you know. “

But among those he believes may need some self help is the European Union, especially when the question was put to him that the EU is trying to recreate the better parts of his family’s empire in bringing competing nations under the same umbrella to foster cooperation.

He paused saying: “I agree and disagree. I agree that the idea of the European Union is exactly that - having a group of nations working together for something greater - but the difference to the Holy Roman Emperor and to the Austro Hungarian empire is that both of them thrived on the idea of subsidiarity (respect for national sovereignty and identity).”

Hungary and the European Commission have been at loggerheads for a number of years over Viktor Orban’s government refusing to apply EU law and accept European court rulings. It has led to money being withheld from Budapest.

Ambassador Habsburg-Lothringen said: “You should always respect at the lower level. Charles V wrote to his son Philip II, if you rule over several nations, you better respect their courts, their rights, their languages, their institutions, or you're in deep trouble.

“And what I see in the European Union is that it has moved in a direction where there is a temptation of centralism, strong temptation of centralism, strong temptation of of a bureaucratic apparatus trying to pull as much power towards the centre as possible away from the lower levels.

“Hungary feels this every time that Brussels tries to interfere in our own legislation and in our own affairs as we feel it.”

He pointed out that when the Habsburgs over centralised, it was a “catastrophe” but whenever they respected the lower levels, “the monarchy thrived”.

Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Sophie the Duchess of Hohenberg, just before their assassination in Sarajevo (AFP/Getty)
Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Sophie the Duchess of Hohenberg, just before their assassination in Sarajevo (AFP/Getty)

He cited Joseph II trying to centralise everything in Vienna with one language and one set of institutions, even taking the crown of Hungary away from Budapest, bringing the empire to the brink of disaster.

“He returned it in the last year of his reign realising his mistake.”

The ambassador agreed that “sovereignty” and EU centralisation” had been one of the main reasons for Brexit with the UK adding: “We were very sorry that you left.”

He is aware of the weight of his family’s history but feels Europe “lost something” when the family was dethroned after the First World War.

He quoted the late Henry Kissinger, who he met six weeks before his death, saying: “The Habsburgs were the best thing that ever happened to Europe, especially central Europe. The moment they were taken out of the equation all the problems began all over central Europe and haven't stopped. “

But with a hint of melancholy he also thinks of what for many is the most infamous episode in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 when the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie effectively plunged Europe and the world into the First World War.

“If the car wouldn't have turned exactly at that place where [the Bosnian-Serb nationalist assassin] Gavrilo Princip happened to walk back from his failed assassination attempt, imagine perhaps no First World War, perhaps no misery, no Hitler, no Holocaust, and perhaps still a Habsburg Monarchy in Austria, because Franz Ferdinand would have perhaps managed to get all the monarchy even more together. We don't know.”

The ambassador was in London to celebrate the life of his relative Otto von Habsburg, a former member of the European Parliament and the last crown prince.

“Knowing Otto, I have met someone who has stood beside Emperor Franz Joseph when he himself was a little blond, curly haired boy, and who remembered the crowning of his father in in Budapest, and he showed me the exact spot where he looked down from the balcony inside the church and saw his father lying on the floor before being crowned. So for me, Habsburg history was always very, very real.”