Europe’s challenge is to shake-off inertia before it becomes paralysis
The good news is that European politicians are no longer in denial about the EU’s decline. But Richard Youngs warns that the bad news is that there are no signs of a strategy to reverse that decline
A refrain that is all too familiar to chroniclers of European integration is that only when external challenges are really serious do EU governments overcome their petty squabbles and unite. Post-war reconciliation created the European Communities; American and Japanese competition drove the Single European Act; the Cold War’s abrupt end gave birth to the Maastricht treaty and, less resolutely, 9/11 and international terrorism prompted a deepening of security co-operation.
Now the EU faces the equally tough challenge of how to respond to its relative decline and the rise of Asia in a ‘post-Western world’. But so far there’s no sign of the spirit of “convergence-in-adversity”.
Or perhaps that’s not entirely fair. European leaders have committed to fashioning “strategic partnerships” with emerging powers, and EU defence ministers have agreed to share defence equipment by cutting out duplication. The EU is courting Asia more assiduously than before as diplomatic rapprochement with rising powers has become de rigeur. The EU has signed an usually far-reaching free trade agreement with South Korea, and trade talks with rising markets have helped return external trade flows to pre-crisis levels. If 2010 had any positive aspects it is that the penny at last dropped that the EU must more systematically confront and mitigate its decline.
Yet an effective counter-strategy is nowhere in sight, so an ad hoc and myopic defensiveness prevails, while introspection still predominates. The enhanced regulation of financial markets and a revival of the role of the state are both welcome; but the EU’s retraction from core economic internationalism is less benign. Beyond the economic sphere, too, European governments are scaling back their security engagement; they are adopting a more instrumental strain of multi-lateralism, questioning their own commitment to international human rights and democracy, and now seem to be favouring a more exclusivist and less tolerant notion of European identity. From climate change to trade, EU actions are increasingly driven by the search for short-term pay-offs rather than by rule-based principles.
Why, then, is Europe so disinclined to look beyond makeshift short-termism? Among the most oft-cited reasons for euro-sluggishness is the contention that this inertia is a result of the EU's institutional design. Its institutional processes undoubtedly need to be improved, and let's hope the Lisbon treaty's reforms start to yield concrete improvements. But institutional re-design will not be a magic wand for a smooth and effective EU foreign policy. Nobody believes that two or three EU governments hold in their hands superbly crafted plans for reacting to Europe's decline but are prevented from implementing by minority blocking votes.
Nor can Europe's policy inertia be attributed to a lack of awareness of how serious its plight has become. This may have been the case three or four years ago, but not now. Until then the very gradual nature of European decline meant that its seriousness had not fully registered, but today ministerial speeches and formal policy documents stress the urgency of an effective and assertive European response. Some Brussels officials may bristle at the hyperbole of declinists, but few still claim the EU is on a glide-path to superpower status. European leaders can no longer be accused of being in denial.
So how should we explain the EU’s torpor? One contributing factor is the feeling that Europe’s economic crisis has removed foreign affairs from the EU's policy priorities. Some analysts believe the financial crisis heralds the end of a strongly active EU foreign policy, so that from now on it will be limited to immediate material needs and self-preservation. Few now make the converse case that a more dynamic foreign policy is required precisely because of the depth of internal crisis. In terms of EU governments’ domestic political calculations, foreign policy commitments appear easily expendable, even though deeper and more engaged internationalism could help Europe's economic recovery. The logic of ‘getting our own house in order’ before turning to the wider world is misplaced because the way Europe deals with that wider world will condition the prospects for recovery and the viability of a recalibrated, long-term economic model capable of generating growth. The problem in countries like Spain is not debt so much as the lack of means to generate sustained economic growth. Turning away from international engagement, in deference to short-term cash flow cannot be a far-sighted strategy.
Another impediment is that the EU is struggling to move beyond its distinctively soft power model of ‘external governance’, based on the gradual extension outwards of its own rules and regulations. European policymakers are coming to realise that more flexibility is needed, and that states like Ukraine have alternative partners and cannot have EU rules foisted upon them in blanket fashion. The EU is giving such states more say in choosing which of the Union’s rules are most useful, but in much of its external policy the basic model is still that of influence sought through transfer of the EU's acquis communautaire.
A broader concern is that the EU continues to lack a geostrategic blueprint. Although the EU shouldn't be aiming for an overly-simplistic strategic approach, it needs to engage in deeper thinking that could provide a geopolitical compass for its external policies. Such a geostrategy would need to be eclectic and should contain doses of co-operative realism, mixed with internationalism, the encouragement of transnational linkages and pinches of regionalism. It should also work at steering the U.S. towards a less hegemonic form of multi-lateralism.
American hegemony persists even in a world that is fast becoming more polycentric. The EU must work to remould U.S. power rather than situating itself as a pole equidistant between the U.S. and the rising powers. Eventually a rules-based world order must move from depending on U.S. oversight to enjoying a multiplicity of guarantors. The EU must work with the U.S. in influencing this trajectory, if the international order is to retain some degree of liberal internationalism even as it moves beyond the underwriting of U.S. hegemony.
Some tough realpolitik is now needed, and the EU has already been drifting in this direction for several years. But Europe would be wrong to go for a power-politics vision of the new world order, because that would risk leaping in panic from one form of structural determinism to another – from an overly benign view of liberal globalism to a fatalistic acceptance of predatory zero-sum rivalry. Even though it's becoming received wisdom, it is not yet entirely pre-ordained that the emerging world order’s most determining feature will be multipolarity.
The EU has come to fret about the strength of rising powers, yet all of these suffer from major internal tensions and disparities. We may have to worry as much about their brittleness as their growing self-confidence. Rising powers deserve a seat at the top table of international politics; but they are still equally in need of political, social and economic modernisation.
What Europe now requires is an almost counter-intuitive twin manoeuvre; it must be more hard-headed and unapologetic about pursuing its own interests rather than fretting about an across-the-board, abstract ‘presence’ in international relations. And it must intensify its focus on certain principles and norms precisely because these offer the most robust means of advancing these interests.
These are difficult questions that require searching and profound political debate. It is disquieting that national parliaments still don't give a high priority to this, with domestic priorities eclipsing international issues.
At a European level, the EU now has little excuse for not moving up a gear. The Union needs to define its interests and mould its policy instruments accordingly, rather than maximising the number of ad hoc policy initiatives almost as an end in itself. There are no simple answers, so the EU will need to avoid both under- and over-reaction, but it needs simultaneously to correct over-ambition and introspection. It certainly is clear that a deepening of the EU's internationally-oriented strategic reflection is urgently needed before inertia mutates into terminal paralysis.