Making the Realist Case for Europe

In his book Europe’s Decline and Fall: The Struggle Against Global Irrelevance, Richard Youngs, Head of the European think tank FRIDE, expertly outlines how, if managed correctly, the EU can retain a critical role in the world by refining its institutions and creating a cosmopolitan strategy based on unyielding support for universal values such as democracy and human rights. That message was echoed in two important articles recently on the future of Europe – both of which emanated outside the EU’s borders. They are interesting because instead of focusing on the present malaise of the EU; they focus on why Europe will be a critical world player in the future.

That insight was replaced by political reality with William Hague going further than any senior cabinet figure yet in underlining his party’s Euro-scepticism. Speaking about the EU in a newspaper interview he said that “it’s true of the euro, it could be true of more areas in future. In fact we may get ahead as a result of being outside.” A vague statement from the Foreign Secretary but its an ominous tone from a senior member of a party that has never fully reconciled its position on Europe.

In contrast the articles in question gave a cogent, pragmatic account of why the EU will become more not less critical over the coming years. In the first of the two articles Parag Khanna and Mark Leonard use the pages of the New York Times to outline why they think the EU, not Brazil or even India, could populate the third spot in what they dub a new G3 with the other two players being China and the US. The authors see the EU as the champions of global governance having done ‘more than anyone else to establish a global legal order and the multilateral economic rules that have allowed globalization to take place since the end of the Cold War.’ The G3 World they talk of ‘combines U.S. military power and consumption, Chinese capital and labour, and European rules and technology.’ Interestingly for the UK, Khanna and Leonard also emphasise the EU-China relationship and the leverage the EU has over the world’s new superpower. You rarely hear UK commentators talking about the fact that the EU is a bigger foreign investor in, and has a larger trade deficit with China than America.

This is especially important here in Britain as the government makes huge political play of its priority in forging bilateral ties with emerging powers like China when in reality Beijing cares little about the UK outside of its role as a decision maker in the EU.

While the first article emanates from New York, the second comes from Sydney where the Australian Ambassador to the EU, Brendan Nelson, writes for The Australian under the headline ‘Europe now a force to be reckoned with.’ When was the last time a UK paper ran such a headline? Nelson claims that while ‘we [Australia] were often bewildered by the EU’s complexity, protectionist tendencies and apparent introspection… things have now changed.’ Citing the EU’s role in the now pivotal G20, its proximity to and leverage in North Africa and the Middle East, its relationship with China, and interestingly its aid footprint, Nelson sees the EU as being a rising power rather than one in decline. He even cites the new European External Action Service positively. The important point here is that rather than grandstanding on how the EU needs to change and how it can serve Australian interests – the Ambassador instead talks in terms of the EU being a force, which outside players like Australia increasingly have no choice but to engage with, language usually used in relation to the BRIC nations rather than Europe.

Both articles are political and both selective. In the same week these articles were published Nouriel Roubini and Nicolas Berggruen reminded us just how existential the economic crisis is for Europe’s union, Greece’s travails also rumble on. However, it is refreshing to see some hubris about Europe – it is after all not that long-ago that the EU was being tipped as future global superpower. For William Hague, taking time-out to read these two articles and to remember the potential power and influence of the EU would be no bad thing. The coalition government is sailing dangerously close to the wind in their approach to Europe. The recently passed European Union Act was the legislative icing on the cake of an increasingly anti-European politics in Britain, not helped by the silence of the Labour Party on the issue.

Hague and his Cabinet colleagues may talk up strengthened relations with the likes of Brazil, China, and India as a new and profitable bilateralism for the UK but these relationships will only become more asymmetric with the leaders of emerging economies increasingly seeing Britain as the lesser party in any trade or diplomatic negotiations. In contrast, while the European economy looks dire, its politics seemingly stalled, and its new External Action Service shambolic, the reality is that the EU is still the best and only platform for Britain to exert influence in the world. EU decisions, especially on trade, matter in Brasilia, Delhi, and Beijing, and until recently the UK was seen as an important player in that decision making process. The Economist recently ran a compelling piece on the attraction of the UK to emerging economies but the article’s focus is on corporate acquisitions and the ease of doing business – on the state level the UK simply can’t operate on equal terms diplomatically or economically with the world’s big powers.

Britain can be proud of its intervention in Libya, it can crow about trade deals with China and India, and it can talk of its unique ‘bridging’ role in the world. But in the long-term the momentum is with the European Union and Britain needs to decide if its wants to remain a key driver within the EU or an increasingly irrelevant passenger. The argument for Europe is no longer ideological, it’s about realpolitik and those outside our borders know it even if Mr Hague doesn’t.