The theme keeps recurring in different meetings in Brussels, the seat of the European Union’s administration: Europe wants to be a “pole” – that is: a global power alongside the US, and almost certainly in the coming few years, China.
With 500million of the richest consumers on earth and a cohesive regulatory body, Europe is already an economic giant.
But Europe wants to be a political pole.
Two factors work in its favour. And four pose serious challenges.
Let’s start with the helping factors.
First, richness gives influence. Any country wanting to access the highly lucrative European market must negotiate with the European Union. And in almost all of these negotiations, Europe holds the winning cards. Influence in trade agreements spills into economic regulations, investment levels, financial flows, quality standards, and other areas, which in turn affect that country’s decision making in various domains. This is political power.
Second, Europe is like the prettiest girl in a high-school prom. Everyone looks at her, wants to dance with her. With its cultural and artistic heritage, the old Continent remains the most sought after place on the planet for cultural attainment. Many – especially the newly rich in Asia – will want to get to know her, experience her history and ways of living. Seduced by her beauty, some will seek her approval. And Europe will know how to use the infatuation of others to her advantage.
But richness and beauty do not create political giants.
And this leads us to the four challenges.
First, Europe remains far away from political unity. This dilutes leverage.
Second, the economic power Europe holds, even when it translates into influence over others, has not yet evolved into strategic anchoring. This means that Europe’s economic masterminds have clear ideas about what is beneficial for European producers and consumers. But they have not evolved that into a political grounding vis a vis neighbours, such as Russia and Turkey, let alone the US or China.
A good example here is the West’s deal with Iran, over the latter’s nuclear programme. Europe was instrumental to securing the deal. But when the Trump Adminsteration, effectively, scrapped the deal, Europe was forced to be a decision-taker and deal with consequences it hates. This, despite the fact that Europe is certainly much more affected, than the US, by developments in the Middle East. Being a decision-taker in an issue that Europe worked so much to accomplish, made many in Europe feel humiliated. But so far feelings did not coalesce into determination that this must never happen again.
This leads us to the third challenge. Having hard power that could coerce others is a prerequisite for being a global political pole. And in this regard, Europe has been losing ground for decades. Apart from the rhetoric of a unified European force or independent defence mechanisms, the will and resources to establish a serious, stand-alone European security architecture, are lacking. This means that, aside from political show, Europe’s strategic defence will remain, in the foreseeable future, dependent on the US. No global political pole could be dependent for its security on another.
Fourth, the meaning of Europe remains elusive. Europe is a beautiful, but conceptual, ideal. Almost all European thinkers and politicians will agree that it encompasses notions such as freedom, respect for human rights, the rule of law, and perhaps a certain understanding of the journey from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment to Modernism, to the lessons from the two World Wars. But, beyond abstractions, defining what a European governing system is, would vary massively between Western and Eastern Europe. And what Europe actually means as a political project, let alone as a political pole on the international arena, also varies massively across the Continent. This elusive narrative on Europe’ness is a fundamental weakness in realising the ambition of becoming a global political pole.
Europe can, of course, do a mental manoeuvre. It can rise above most of these challenges. After all, Europe’s story in the seven decades since the Second World War, is nothing if not a complete overhaul of its political structures, political economy dynamics, and dominant narrative.
But the ambition to become a global political pole is not a strong enough incentive for the Continent’s different national powers to move beyond their major differences, dramatically increase their defences budgets - and national cultures about the use of violence on the international scene, or transcend their decades-old views of their identities and historical trajectories.
There is an argument that the weakening of liberal democracy in Europe is a crisis, and that a more cohesive, united Europe (that emerges as a solid global political pole) could be the way out. This is wrong – for two reasons. First, the rise of the far right (and left), and the decline of major political parties that had played prominent roles in the last half century, has been a clear trend in Europe, for at least a decade now, that it is almost normalised in ordinary European politics. It is also a phenomenon witnessed in other parts of the world (such as India, Mexico, Brazil, among others). Nothing is particularly calamitous here. And second, there’s no escaping the reality that economic changes are revealing, rather than creating, illiberal tendencies in large sections of several European societies. These were hidden by the 1990s and 2000s’ prosperity, and by political correctness. Today, we see them clearly. They scar the image of Europe as the epitome of liberal perfection. Yet, despite that, none of these factors really build up a crisis. To borrow a term from the world of finance, they are merely Europe’s ‘new normal’. These problems will not summon Herculean will to transform Europe.
Europe will not become a political pole in the foreseeable future.
But often missing false objectives is the first step towards realising true ones.
At its heart, Europe wants, not the force and influence (and hassle and conflicts) that come with being a global political pole, but more of the harmony (the peace and the cultural refinement) it has been building since the end of the Second World War.
For this to happen, Europe must accrue, and be better at deploying its, soft power.
The future will be on Europe’s side, as the two real poles in the world are facing acute challenges. The US has a political system that is increasingly dysfunctional as it becomes less White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and rich. Something will have to change, and this change will prove difficult and exacting on the country.
The other pole, China, will also undergo a major, and almost certainly difficult, political change to accommodate the peaceful emergence of the largest middle class in history.
In this world of perilous transformations, Europe, facing no socio-political crises, can be an oasis of stability, refinement, and richness. And in being so, Europe will not be competing where it will lose. It will not require sacrifices no one in Europe is really prepared to offer. And it will not be putting forward rhetoric all Europe-watchers know is empty. Instead, Europe would further sharpen its economic power, as well as resuscitate its political wisdom (something that has been missing for some time).
For this conception of harmonious power to crystallise, three steps are crucial. First, Europe must continue its economic integration. Despite how unpopular many of the financial measures of the past decade were, these steps created mechanisms that are increasingly bringing the Continent’s diverse economies together. A truly unified European economy is Europe’s most powerful claim to a strong position on the global scene. Second, Europe must invest, heavily, in its cultural and entertainment industries. It is a strategic mistake that many in Europe fail to see the Continent’s cultural prowess as a major advantage at a time when hundreds of millions of new middle class segments in Asia are beginning to become purveyors of borderless learning and entertainment. Third, European diplomacy must be strengthened, and evolved from mere coordination and focusing on developmental objectives, towards having and serving a cohesive economic (and cultural) framework, anchored on pan-Continental objectives.
Serious reflections on its resources, capabilities, and limitations would show Europe that it does not need to cling to the unrealistic ambition of becoming a global political pole. This is merely nostalgia for what Europe was, but would not be again in the foreseeable future. Rather, this serious reflection would let Europe glimpse the possibility of a future in which it can leverage on its true strengths, a future that is more in harmony with where its journey in the last seven decades has led her to.