The EU in a global context
by Roland Stalder, Jean-Jacques Subrenat, Daniel Marthaler1
30 May 2017
All manner of commentators have described the 19th as the European Century and the 20th as the American Century. Now the prediction is that the 21st will be the Asian and Pacific Century. But if current trends are any indication, we cannot be sure that the distinctions which developed after World War 2 will remain valid throughout the 21st century. The ideological divide between East and West, the irreconcilable antagonism of Communism and Capitalism, the contrast between emerging countries and « Old Europe2 », none of these render an accurate account of today's complex world. Just to take one example, China is now the second-largest capitalist country - admittedly with its own characteristics – while still being ruled by the most powerful single-party system on the planet. The central authority in China holds the world's largest foreign exchange reserves, and the country has a large number of ultra-wealthy citizens, while tens of millions people still live at subsistence levels.
In a world so prone to change, how do other regions see Europe, and how can the European Union (EU) be defined on a global scale?
In 1970 Henry Kissinger asked condescendingly « Europe? What telephone number should I call? »3. He was partly right, as the then EEC lacked visibility. But today, the same question could be put to Washington: would it be more advisable to call President Trump himself, or his chief strategist Steve Bannon, or his chief advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner? Condescension has never been a great tool for diplomacy, as someone like Lawrence Summers discovered: in 1999, when he was Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and just a few months before the the Euro currency was officially launched, he made this prediction: « the Euro may never be implemented »4.
If the United States were to enter a new phase of isolationism, their decision would have global consequences. In less than 3 months, President Trump has jeopardized the long-standing trust in the United States, and its Allies are no longer confident of its commitment to the Atlantic Alliance. Brexit will also come with a range of consequences: while the government in London is busy wooing Washington back into their Special Relationship, it is making known that it might withdraw from European security and defence to concentrate on NATO. It is no wonder then that France, Germany, Italy and Spain are keen to reinforce the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP), and are calling for a permanent European command centre which would coordinate national armed forces in joint operations5.
The Trump Presidency is also affecting the global economy. After exercising its leadership over many decades, Washington is calling into question some major international trade arrangements, so China is now free to present itself as the new champion and protector of free trade. By calling into question the Paris Agreement on Climate6 (COP21), the US President has jeopardized years of negotiations and is leaving environment protection to other countries (China, India, but also Europeans), because Washington now considers itself freed from any obligation in this respect, at least temporarily.
Europe will remain highly dependent on other parts of the world in many ways: raw materials, energy, investments, markets. It is true that trade among its Member States accounts for 62% of all EU trade, against 38% with the rest of the world (2015 figures), but many factors could bring about rapid and deep change: in several EU Member States the population is ageing, mass unemployment is taking its toll on social cohesiveness, urban and suburban unrest begets violence, the agricultural sector is going through difficult times, and lifestyles are undergoing rapid change.
Among world and/or regional powers, Russia remains an important partner for the EU as a prime supplier of gas and as an important market, but at the same time it is a competitor, both commercially and in wielding influence in Europe and beyond. Moscow is continually trying to drive a wedge between EU Member States by dealing with each separately. China does the same, and for the same reasons. And when national leaders (from France, the UK, Germany, Italy, etc.) visit China or Russia, quite naturally they promote the national interest first and foremost. India's approach is less ideologically motivated than that of Russia or China, but Delhi, now highly conscious of its growing stature in the world economy, has matter-of-fact relations with European nations. Other important partners around the world do not, or not yet, view their relations with the EU as a power game, but this could change quite rapidly with the quickening pace of global competition for ressources and markets.
Arguably, the EU is better prepared than most regions to face some of today's global challenges. Through its successive enlargements, the EU has become very aware of the importance of economic harmony among Member States, using its Structural Funds to facilitate intra-EU cohesiveness. When visitors from other parts of the world come to EU countries, they are struck by the signboards where EU funding in the construction of a bridge or road, a science laboratory or a vocational school is clearly spelled out. Above all else, we need to remind ourselves that in today's world, the EU is the single largest entity made up of truly independent and democratic States, each with its institutions, its language(s), its cultural references, its traditions.
Roughly sketched, this is a portrait of the EU in the world context. The next Letter will address some of the challenges facing the EU as a global actor.
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1The personal opinions of the authors do not purport to reflect the positions of institutions or bodies to which they may be linked. R. Stalder, a Swiss national, is an engineer who has held executive positions in industry. J.-J. Subrenat, a French national, is a retired diplomat. D. Marthaler, a Swiss national, is a communications consultant. Subrenat wrote the French version, while Stalder drafted and Marthaler reviewed the German version. The English version was drafted by Subrenat and reviewed by Carole Sunderland. Each assumes responsibility for his linguistic version.
2« Old Europe » : Ronald Rumsfeld, 2003, criticized France and Germany for refusing to take part in the military occupation of Iraq, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Europe_(politics)
3At the time, H. Kissinger was US Secretary of State, http://euro-blogs.eu/post/2011/12/19/%C2%AB-L-Europe,-quel-num%C3%A9ro-de-t%C3%A9l%C3%A9phone-%C2%BB
4Lawrence Summers, article in Foreign Policy, January 1999.
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