Europe is an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm. – Mark Eyskens
The above words were pronounced by Belgium’s then-Foreign Minister on the eve of 1991 Gulf War to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. The often-cited bon mot, two decades on, still rings true. But while militarily the European Union is likely remain marginal in the years to come, there are indications it will become something like a “political giant”.
The trouble with the EU (and before that the Communities) – the idea that it could have a coherent policy or even be a world power – has always been that it is effectively a “vetocracy”. A system where decisions of any significance must be taken unanimously means reform and good government are almost impossible. If the status quo suits just one representative’s constituents enough, then no change is possible. This is the single most important reason for the EU’s impotence in world affairs.But the EU, as we’ve seen, will in many areas likely become as “federal-majoritarian” as the United States of America, minus (very significantly) the budget. The European Superstate may even, in fact, function better than the very minoritarian and viciously partisan American political system of today.
National vetoes and the impulse to collaborate with American schemes will mean that official so-called “European foreign policy” and defense will likely remain marginal (notwithstanding the large number of, mostly relatively small, EU civil and military operations abroad). However, these days, foreign policy and world power are less and less the stuff of diplomatic chancelleries and hard military action. (Can it be said that the U.S. “benefited” from the untold trillions spent and other non-financial costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the two greatest manifestations of American military power?)
Instead today, as economic, environmental and security interdependence between countries steadily increases, foreign policy is increasingly an extension of domestic policy, what in German is called Weltinnenpolitik. In English, we talk less elegantly of “intermestic” issues and there is overlap with the concept of “global governance”. As examples, here are some of the questions the world powers of today are fighting over: What kind of world will we live in? A world of massive energy waste? Of environmental unsustainability? Of banksterism run amok? Of international lawlessness? Of war? Or will we live in a world Europeans (and likely others too) would want to live in? These questions will not be determined primarily by hard military power and conquest.
Instead, here, the EU may well actually be able to become a genuine actor. Within Europe, the rules for financial regulation and climate, for example, will be based on qualified majority voting. Outside Europe, trade and aid policy, the prime methods for incentivizing and fighting for one’s vision of the world, will also be subject to the new majoritarian rules. The EU may then, for the first time, be able to actually fulfill the call that French and German philosophers Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida made in May 2003:
At the international level and in the framework of the UN, Europe has to throw its weight on the scale to counterbalance the hegemonic unilateralism of the United States. At global economic summits and in the institutions of the WTO, the World Bank, and the IMF, it should exert its influence in shaping the design for a coming global domestic policy.
Europe is in fact uniquely well-positioned. The overwhelming majority of countries of the former Soviet Union, the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa have around half of their trade with the European Union. The asymmetry of trade is such that Europe, if it manifests a clear will, could pressure other countries to adopt its preferences in terms of peace, their regime, international law, social rights, environmental standards, and so on. This is, to a great extent, already happening in the EU’s near-abroad, with numerous countries in the Balkans and Eastern Europe trading their friendships with Moscow for good relations with Brussels (and, they hope, eventual membership of the EU). This kind of power is invariably “soft power,” as famously-theorized by Joseph Nye. But it is real.
Talk of European power may seem misplaced at this time of economic crisis, the rise of Asia, and a general feeling of Western (and therefore European) decline. But whatever comes of the euro, the European Union will almost certainly remain. The crisis will eventually be overcome and Europe will resume its normal pattern of development.
If we accept this, Europe’s position is really quite good. The other giants are also wracked by intractable problems. China’s current regime goes against the flow of the last four decades of history, its fertility rate (1.55) is already lower than that of the EU (1.6), and while it’s economy has grown tremendously, the average Chinese remains poorer than the average Tunisian (of “Arab Spring” fame). U.S. politics is, if anything, even more dysfunctional than even that of the eurozone and there is no indication that will improve for the foreseeable future. The U.S., by the way, is less fiscally sustainable than EU nations both in terms of debt (103% to 82.5%) and deficits (8.6% to 4.5%). There is no indication that this situation will be rectified by either massive tax increases, reductions of Social Security and military expenditure, or effective reform of the grotesquely costly healthcare sector (18% of GDP). Also in passing, Europe is on the whole in a rather better situation than the successful East Asian countries who were supposed to be so economically frightening in the 1980s. European debt is one third that of Japan and European fertility rates are higher (often a lot higher) than those of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore…
Of course, all this presupposes that the EU will overcome the culture of flaccid consensus and adopt a clear, majoritarian “will”. There is no guarantee. The strategic cultures of different European countries remain divided between Gaullists, Atlanticists, pacifists, and neutrals; divergent enough to prevent a coherent policy. But Europeans also have enough in common in terms of their attitudes and civilization – on “social” regulated capitalism, environmental and energy sobriety, peace and international law – that they also have the potential to present a common front and be the single most important force in defining the world of tomorrow.
This is a second post in the “Europa 2024” series on the future of the European Union.