Concert of Europe
The national boundaries within Europe as set by the Congress of Vienna, 1815.
|Preceded by||Napoleonic era|
|Followed by||Romantic era|
The Concert of Europe, also known as the Congress System or the Vienna System after the Congress of Vienna, was a system of dispute resolution adopted by the major conservative powers of Europe to maintain their power, oppose revolutionary movements, weaken the forces of nationalism, and uphold the balance of power. Historians date its operation from the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) to the early 1820s, although some see it playing a role until the Crimean War (1853–1856).
The Concert of Europe was founded by the powers of Austria, Prussia, Russia and the United Kingdom, which were the members of the Quadruple Alliance that defeated Napoleon and his First French Empire. In time, France was established as a fifth member of the Concert, following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy.
At first, the leading personalities of the system were British foreign secretary Lord Castlereagh, Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich and Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord of France was largely responsible for quickly returning that country to its place alongside the other major powers in international diplomacy.
The age of the Concert is sometimes known as the Age of Metternich, due to the influence of the Austrian chancellor's conservatism and the dominance of Austria within the German Confederation, or as the European Restoration, because of the reactionary efforts of the Congress of Vienna to restore Europe to its state before the French Revolution. It is known in German as the Pentarchie (pentarchy) and in Russian as the Vienna System (Венская система, Venskaya sistema).
The Concert of Europe had no written rules or permanent institutions, but at times of crisis any of the member countries could propose a conference. Meetings of the Great Powers during this period included: Aix-la-Chapelle (1818), Carlsbad (1819), Troppau (1820), Laibach (1821), Verona (1822), London (1832) and Berlin (1878).
The Concert's effectiveness came to an end because of many factors such as the British distrust of Russia.
The idea of a European federation had been already raised by figures such as Gottfried Leibniz and Lord Grenville. The Concert of Europe, as developed by Metternich, drew upon their ideas and the notion of a balance of power in international relations, so that the ambitions of each Great Power would be restrained by the others:
The Concert of Europe, as it began to be called at the time, had ... a reality in international law, which derived from the final Act of the Vienna Congress, which stipulated that the boundaries established in 1815 could not be altered without the consent of its eight signatories.
From the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792 to the exile of Napoleon to Saint Helena in 1815, Europe had been almost constantly at war. During this time, the military conquests of France had resulted in the spread of liberalism throughout much of the continent, resulting in many states adopting the Napoleonic code. Largely as a reaction to the radicalism of the French Revolution, most victorious powers of the Napoleonic Wars resolved to suppress liberalism and nationalism, and revert largely to the status quo of Europe prior to 1789.
The Kingdom of Prussia and the Austrian and Russian Empires formed the Holy Alliance (26 September 1815) with the expressed intent of preserving Christian social values and traditional monarchism. Every member of the anti-Napoleonic coalition promptly joined the Alliance, except for the United Kingdom, a constitutional monarchy with a more liberal political philosophy.
Britain did however ratify the Quadruple Alliance, signed on the same day as the Second Peace Treaty of Paris (20 November 1815), which became the Quintuple Alliance when France joined in 1818. It was also signed by the same three powers that had signed the Holy Alliance on 26 September 1815.
Differences between the Holy Alliance and the Quadruple Alliance
There has been much debate between historians as to which treaty was more influential in the development of international relations in Europe in the two decades following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In the opinion of historian Tim Chapman the differences are somewhat academic, as the powers were not bound by the terms of the treaties and many of them intentionally broke the terms if it suited them.
The Holy Alliance was the brainchild of Tsar Alexander I. It gained a lot of support because most European monarchs did not wish to offend the Tsar by refusing to sign it, and as it bound monarchs personally rather than their governments, it was easy to ignore once signed. Only three notable princes did not sign: Pope Pius VII (it was not Catholic enough), Sultan Mahmud II of the Ottoman Empire, and the British Prince Regent because his government did not wish to pledge itself to the policing of continental Europe. In the opinion of Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary at the time of its inception, the Holy Alliance was "a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense". Although it did not fit comfortably within the complex, sophisticated and cynical web of power politics that epitomised diplomacy of the post-Napoleonic era, its influence was more long lasting than its contemporary critics expected and was revived in the 1820s as a tool of repression when the terms of the Quintuple Alliance were not seen to fit the purposes of some of the Great Powers of Europe.
The Quadruple Alliance, by contrast, was a standard treaty, and the four Great Powers did not invite any of their allies to sign it. The primary objective was to bind the signatories to support the terms of the Second Treaty of Paris for 20 years. It included a provision for the High Contracting Parties to "renew their meeting at fixed periods...for the purpose of consulting on their common interests" which were the "prosperity of the Nations, and the maintenance of peace in Europe". A problem with the wording of Article VI of the treaty is that it did not specify what these "fixed periods" were to be and there were no provisions in the treaty for a permanent commission to arrange and organise the conferences. This meant that the first conference in 1818 dealt with remaining issues of the French wars, but after that instead of meeting at "fixed periods" the meetings were arranged on an ad hoc basis, to address specific threats, such as those posed by revolutions, for which the treaty was not drafted.
- The Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle (1818) resolved the issues of Allied occupation of France and restored that country to equal status with Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia.
- The Congress of Troppau (1820) decreed that in the event of revolution a country could be expelled from the European Alliance, and armed intervention could be used to "bring back the guilty state into the bosom of the Great Alliance".
- In 1822, the Congress of Verona met to decide whether France could intervene on the side of the Spanish royalists in the Trienio Liberal. After receiving permission, Louis XVIII dispatched five army corps to restore Ferdinand VII of Spain.
Collapse by 1823
The territorial boundaries laid down at the Congress of Vienna were maintained; even more important, there was an acceptance of the theme of balance with no major aggression. Otherwise, the Congress system, says historian Roy Bridge, "failed" by 1823. In 1818, the British decided not to become involved in continental issues that did not directly affect them. They rejected the plan of Alexander I to suppress future revolutions. The Concert system fell apart as the common goals of the Great Powers were replaced by growing political and economic rivalries. Artz says the Congress of Verona in 1822 "marked the end." There was no Congress called to restore the old system during the great revolutionary upheavals of 1848 with their demands for revision of the Congress of Vienna's frontiers along national lines.
Historian Paul Hayes says of British foreign minister George Canning:
- His most important achievement was the destruction of the system of the neo-Holy Alliance which, if unchallenged, must have dominated Europe. Canning realized it was not enough for Britain to boycott conferences and congresses; it was essential to persuade the Powers that their interests could not be advanced by a system of intervention based upon principles of legitimacy, anti-nationalism and hostility to revolution. 
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- Paul Hayes, Modern British Foreign Policy: The 19th Century 1814–80 (A&C Black, 1975) p 89
- Bridge, Roy, "Allied Diplomacy in Peacetime: The Failure of the Congress 'System,' 1815–23" in Alan Sked, ed., Europe's Balance of Power, 1815–1848 (1979), pp 34–53.
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- Jarrett, Mark (2013). The Congress of Vienna and its Legacy: War and Great Power Diplomacy after Napoleon. London: I. B. Tauris & Company, Ltd. ISBN 978-1780761169.