Europe’s lack of ambition will see its place in the new world order decided by default
The much-heralded ‘rise of Asia’ might not quite be upon us, but clearly the increasing economic power of China, and the growing importance of other players, asks serious questions about Europe’s future role on the world stage. European countries make up more than half of the G8, but only 5 of the G20 (and are jolly lucky to have the EU thrown in as the 6th). It is clear which way the wind is blowing. Europe however, appears preoccupied. After all, we’ve only just managed to push through the Lisbon Treaty, we need to work out what to do about the Turkey question, we have the next round of enlargement coming up (Iceland and Croatia), we need to deepen before widening etc. etc. That is all well and good, but while Europe dwells on the minutiae, the very shape and future of Europe is being decided around it.
It is already abundantly clear that Europe, whilst still important, is ceasing to truly be a mover and shaker internationally. Militarily, it is still the US that takes a lead. European nations are left to either opt in to their operations or opt out and criticize from the sidelines, but nothing more. Economically, China is using its new found muscle to get robustly involved in Africa, and there is interest in Eastern Europe too. A recent Chinese offer of a $1bn dollar loan to Moldova amounts to virtually a tenth of that country’s GDP. While Europe views these places as basket cases and moralizes to them, China is not afraid to get its hands dirty. This is bound to lead over time to an increasing loss of influence. How long before ‘ignore Germany’ becomes ‘ignore Europe’?
One key area of policy for Europe’s future is enlargement. The most recent enlargements have panicked some ‘Old Europeans’ but the brakes now being slammed on the limits of expansion are worrying. The EU baulked at the prospect of giving a membership pledge to a fragile embryonic democracy in Ukraine, and the experiment is now rapidly being shelved by that country’s new government. The chance may have gone for a generation. Turkey’s EU membership hopes are in the balance as big players France and Germany look for a way out, largely under pressure from their electorates. Russia has never been in the EU’s membership sights, and individual member states now endorse Russia’s ‘sovereign democracy’ by prioritizing bi-lateral relations with the Kremlin ahead of their EU and NATO allies and commitments. France now talks of requiring national referenda on every future enlargement, tantamount to a veto. That Iceland has been rushed to the front of the queue is very telling. It is a ‘safe’ enlargement, they will be net contributors, it’s part of a process of consolidation of Europe’s existing wealth. After all that, Iceland’s own voters may yet vote down EU membership out of their own narrow self-interest, as Norway twice did. Croatia will get in because ‘it’s small’ and by that logic Balkan states might sneak in one by one, maybe even Moldova too. This tells us the limits of the European imagination in the 21st century. Perhaps the continent is already preparing for a status as the world’s retirement home.
We still have time. Such economic and political clout as Europe has will not collapse overnight (not forgetting that it’s a very long time indeed since Europe’s imperial powers were pre-eminent on the world stage). It is one of the cash cows on which China’s export-lead growth depends, and it will still for the foreseeable future be the most natural and reliable ally of the United States in many areas. However, Europe should take the following two steps.
The first is simple. Europe must believe in itself. Contrary to what many careless commentators, stuck in the short-term viewing prism that is the global worldwide recession are saying, the EU has not suddenly become a bad idea. The single market was a good idea, economic integration was a good idea, even the Euro and enlargement made sound sense, and they still do. The EU has a proven track record in strengthening and spreading democracy and economic development. It should aim to ride out the current storm, and should already be looking beyond it.
The second is that Europe must think big, and that means enlargement, and not forgetting its history. The EU of 30 years ago saw the need to take in the new democracies of Spain, Portugal and Greece, but has so far failed to take on challenges like Moldova or Ukraine. This position should be rapidly revised. The EU must also take a united line on Russia and should be ready for any slips by the current regime that might open the door to democratic reform. If the EU could expand its long-term horizons by considering Russia has an eventual EU member in 2 or 3 decades, this would send a stronger signal of intent to China and the US, who were not expecting the EU to be arriving on their borders. The Russia story since 1991 should tell us that, if the opportunity comes around again, Europe must be more, not less, involved than it was in the 1990s. Likewise with Turkey on board, the EU’s famed soft power might reach the parts others cannot reach in the Irans and Syrias of this world, making it truly valuable and hard to be ignored.
Europe has a choice of the type of role in which it casts itself. Does it want to be a staunchly Atlanticist UK, an idiosyncratically self-important France, an altruistic Scandinavia or, perhaps most cynically, a neutral and inward-looking global Switzerland. In parallel to Europe itself, Switzerland has seen half a decade of relative economic decline. It may still be a prosperous and pleasant enough place to live but it lacks any serious clout internationally. An unambitious Europe must be warned that it could very easily be heading down the same path. That might sound alright to your average punter in a Western European country, who feels his or her country’s most pressing need is to limit the few pounds or Euros a year that he/she puts into the EU’s coffers, but when the next generation is left at the international negotiating table with little say in proceedings, they probably won’t thank us for it.