Do you fear that once they ratify the Lisbon Treaty, the big nations will get along well amongst themselves and discount the small ones? That under their baton Europe will be reduced to a “concert of great powers”? Today we remember Prince Metternich, the man who demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of such a policy.

It is quite astonishing that we do not celebrate a Metternich year, although 2009 was proclaimed the Year of Darwin. We celebrate Darwin for two reasons: he was born in 1809 and published its magnum opus, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. Those two years were watersheds in Metternich’s career: he became Austria’s Foreign Minister in 1809 (de facto, executive head, and later State Chancellor), and he died on June 11, 1859. He was lain to rest in the family tomb at Plasy, in western Bohemia.

Prince Metternich is remembered as the father of the post-Napoleonic Europe that emerged from the Congress of Vienna, the inspiration behind the idea of the “Concert of Great Powers”, the founder of Realpolitik that puts the balance of interests and the stability of power above morality. Even if, when they hear the term “Realpolitik”, modern-day Europeans “stop up their noses and close their ears”, there is no denying that Metternich’s Europe worked for nearly 100 years running, from the Napoleonic Wars to World War I. And even if its author died 150 years ago, Metternich’s political thought survives to this day today and, in many cases, remains avant-garde.

Last September, when ex-Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek launched the campaign for the Czech presidency of the European Council, he drew an apt comparison: “In varietate concordia – unity in diversity. This is the motto of the European Union, but also my vision of the Czech Republic’s action in Europe. The United States has roughly the same motto: E pluribus unum – out of many, one.” This motto was also de facto that of Metternich, who rejected the centrifugal ambitions of nations for the sake of supranational balance and stability. So why not pay tribute to that inspiration, why not honour its author by name?

150 years after his death, Metternich remains the symbol of reactionary thought and obscurantism. It is true that Metternich abhorred change, revolutionaries and liberals. But we should not attribute this aversion to an unconditional attachment to all things relating to the past. Quite simply, Metternich was afraid – and history was to prove him right – that modernism would be accompanied by other “isms”: nationalism, socialism etc.

The Metternichian face of Europe held for half a century, before being overthrown by the nationalisms born of war: viz. the Crimean, Prusso-Austrian and Franco-Prussian wars. World War I gave it the coup de grâce. Seeing as Metternich fashioned the face of the Old Continent for four generations, while the Versailles system only held for one, his was no small feat in the grand scheme of things.

The opponents of the Lisbon Treaty may see themselves as reincarnating the naysayers of the Age of Metternich and its penchant for riding roughshod over the weak. In the final analysis, what counts most is how our current situation will be judged in, say, the year 2050. In other words, when we have gained sufficient perspective to weigh up the pros and cons of Realpolitik.