Feb 7, 2011

The Strategic Union: Rising to the Multipolar Challenge

It’s all very well saying the EU’s great strength lies in its capacity to speak with one voice on international affairs, argue Thomas Renard and Sven Biscop, but to what end? Its voice will only count if used strategically and in occasional harmony with other international actors. The two authors set out criteria to make European unity really count.

Academics are, of course, always right. So it’s tricky when they disagree. For some of them, Brussels is a new Rome, the capital of a novel kind of superpower which rules over a large territory, and extends its influence well beyond its borders. Surprisingly, this view is not confined to the “Brussels bubble”. It has been developed by prominent scholars across Europe and elsewhere, including the US and China. For other authors, by contrast, the EU is a new Atlantis, a mythical power invented and debated among élites (Plato in Ancient times, Schuman and Monnet 60 years ago). Its international reach – not to mention influence – stops at the Schuman roundabout. Unsurprisingly, this view is spread worldwide.

These two visions are undoubtedly too extreme. There is no Emperor in Brussels commanding a legio (EU battlegroups?) to protect the imperial limes (the EU-27 territory?) against the Barbarians (from Russia, China or the Middle East?). Europe is too divided, too Byzantine in a way, to become a new Rome. On the other hand, the European project is far from a myth: in 60 years, Europe has gained nothing less than peace and prosperity, two concepts that most earthlings can only aspire to. Save an extraordinary rise of sea levels due to climate change, the EU is too real to become a new Atlantis.

What kind of power is the EU then? And how is it coping with its international environment, more particularly with the great and emerging powers which are fundamentally reshaping our world? This article offers a short reflection on how the EU can actively shape and adapt to the coming world order instead of passively resigning itself to irrelevance and marginalization.

A Declining Europe…

All this talk about Atlantis and Rome obscures the rather more mundane reality of Europe’s position in the world: greying, shrinking and complaining all the time, Europe is an old lady. The international crisis (financial first, then economic, social and political) only accelerated the trends of a declining Europe vis-à-vis emerging powers. It is not difficult to illustrate the relative rise of new powers, such as China, India or Brazil. In terms of GDP for instance, the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, China and India) economies (by far dominated by China) have risen from 7 per cent of the global economy in 1995 to over 20 per cent today at Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).

During the same period, the EU’s share remained more or less stable essentially thanks to successive enlargements rather than to its own dynamism. In the political realm, emerging powers increasingly share centre stage with established powers, as illustrated by the Copenhagen climate conference. The rise of new powers vis-à-vis the old West (to paraphrase a famous American Secretary), is also palpable in the fields of defence (either looking at military budgets or involvement in peacekeeping operations for instance), culture (think about the rapid expansion of Bollywood or the worldwide mushrooming of Confucius centres), or science & technology (as shown by the UNESCO Science Report 2010).

The relative decline of Europe was further accelerated by the global crisis. Indeed, European countries are facing a difficult recovery, with negative growth rates in 2008-2009 and positive but low rates in 2010. At the same time, China has been maintaining a growth rate above 6 per cent even during the worst of the crisis. And, when he was still Brazil’s President, Lula was bragging that his country “entered the crisis last and exited it first”. Dynamic economies are slowly but surely replacing Europe – and tomorrow maybe even the US – as the engines of the global economy. In the field of aid and development as well, one of Europe’s strongholds in terms of external action, China and others have emerged stronger from the crisis as their share of aid to developing countries increased relative to that of developed countries.

The story is not only about surging rivals. The EU is also undergoing an internal crisis. The near bankruptcy of Greece and Ireland, and the debates on (the lack of) European solidarity were nothing less than an alarm bell for the EU: solidarity is not merely about rhetoric, and it does not come cheap either. The words solidarity and solitary are suspiciously similar, and the crisis reminded us how easy it is to jump from the former to the latter. If anything, the crisis triggered more Europe but less Union. The Europe emerging from the crisis looks more divided, more multipolar, at the precise moment that the changing international environment and the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty should push the EU towards more unity. This is certainly a worrisome trend.

Yet, the EU has overcome many crises in the past, and the chances are good that it will overcome this one as well. Some might see this as wishful thinking of course, but let them answer this: what other choice do we have? Without the EU, Europe ceases to exist at the international level and falls into oblivion. Just like Atlantis.

…Versus a Rising European Union?

It might take years, maybe decades, for the world to become truly multipolar and for the BRIC countries, or any other combination of countries, to share global power with the US and (perhaps) the EU. What is certain though is that the drivers of change are in place and that Europe is no longer in the driving seat.

European member states already struggle to deal with emerging powers bilaterally. As the relative weight of individual European states continues its inexorable decline, it will become increasingly difficult (if not impossible) for them to position themselves as significant partners to China and the likes. Member states like France, Germany and the UK are simply too small to deal with continent-like powers. It is a bitter pill which European leaders have resisted swallowing ever since former Belgian Minister Paul-Henri Spaak made out his prescription: “Europe consists only of small countries – some of which know it and some of which don’t yet”. The more we move towards a multipolar world, the more Europe will need to offer a unipolar front, which can only be embodied by the EU.

The world is increasingly led by new forces – emerging powers. The EU itself needs to become a driving force to remain a significant actor on the international stage. The EU has not dealt well with these new forces, particularly as they show a certain mastery of divide and rule. The EU has no strategy to deal with global powers and is more reactive than proactive in its external action. As Brig-Gen. (R) Jo Coelmont said, whereas the other global powers are playing chess, the EU is playing ping-pong. What the EU fundamentally needs therefore is to develop truly strategic partnerships with today’s and tomorrow’s great powers. As Van Rompuy rightly pointed out: “We have strategic partnerships; now we need a strategy”. Such partnerships can only take place within a broader vision for foreign policy, i.e. within the framework of a Grand Strategy.

The 2003 European Security Strategy (ESS) operates at the level of grand strategy, but it is incomplete. It tells us how to do things – in a holistic, preventive and multilateral way – but it doesn’t really tell us what to do. Member States have been half-hearted about translating the ESS into clear objectives. A true Grand Strategy is needed. Starting from the EU’s vital interests, it would define the foreign policy priorities which the EU will achieve through its holistic, preventive and multilateral approach, making optimal use of the post-Lisbon institutions. What are the key issues on which the EU wants to be a game-changer?

Partnerships for a Strategic Union

It is widely accepted that the EU stands where it is today partly thanks to its enduring alliance with the American superpower. As the world becomes more globalized and more interconnected, the EU will be increasingly confronted with the other emerging powers – a confrontation that can lead either to cooperation or competition. Given that these states need one another if they are to cope with issues as crucial as climate change, nuclear proliferation and sustainable development, cooperation should be privileged over competition. This is why it is so important to develop our strategic partnerships with emerging powers today: it takes time to build sustainable trust among partners.

What makes a partnership “strategic”? First, a strategic partnership must be comprehensive, in order to allow linkages and tradeoffs between various policies. Second, it must be built upon reciprocity, short of which it cannot be deemed a partnership at all. Third, a strategic partnership has a strong empathic dimension, which means that both partners share a common understanding of their mutual values and objectives. Fourth, a strategic partnership must be oriented towards the long-term, which is to say that it is not put into question by casual disputes. Finally, a strategic partnership must go beyond bilateral issues to tackle (with the potential to solve) regional and global challenges, because that is its true raison d’être.

Based on those standards, how strategic are the EU’s “strategic partnerships”? Among the current ten strategic partnerships (with Brazil, Canada, China, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, and the United States) probably only the US-relationship qualifies as a true strategic partnership. The others are, variously, not comprehensive (e.g. India), not oriented towards global issues (e.g. South Africa) and not based on reciprocity and empathy (e.g. Russia and China).

What then would be the next steps to make those partnerships truly strategic?
  • The EU must become a truly strategic partner itself, speaking with one voice and carrying one message whenever possible (starting with areas of EU exclusive competencies and slowly expanding beyond), or at least speaking in harmony and carrying complementary and coordinated messages (particularly true for areas of shared competencies). Our relationship with China and Russia has too often shown that the EU stops where national interests begin.
  • The EU should make sure to establish true dialogues on key regional and global issues with its strategic partners, rather than the often observed cross-monologues – when both parties speak but do not listen to each other. This would for instance include coordination mechanisms ahead of and within multilateral forums, as well as a multiplication of high-level and sectoral dialogues at the bilateral level.
  • The EU and its strategic partners should start deepening their cooperation on issues where they already share a common vision. Indeed, successful cooperation will create positive dynamics with a potential for spill-over into other areas of cooperation. For instance, the EU and China could deepen their cooperation in the Gulf of Aden to ensure security for maritime transportation (which is so important to both economies) with a potential for more cooperation in the field of security and defence in the future.
  • Last but not least, we should massively invest in efforts to bring European society closer to the societies of our strategic partners. A truly strategic partnership implies the building of bridges and the tearing down of walls between our communities. What makes a partnership truly strategic is not common interests (in this regard, even our partnership with the US is not strategic) but instead mutual understanding and, in times, common understanding of the world. Bridges can take the form of parliamentary exchanges, civil society dialogues, education exchange programmes or cultural events.
In short: as the world is increasingly driven by new forces, the relative power of Europe is rapidly declining. However, this power is not entirely lost: it could be transferred to and pooled at the EU level. The EU is a “potential power” more than an emerging power because we still need to convince the member states to play collectively. It is not a power comparable to that of Europe in ancient times though – some call it “normative power”, others “civilian power” or “soft power” – but it is a power nonetheless. At the end of the day, what truly matters is not how much power you have or what kind of power you are, as the US is now experiencing the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is how you make use of that power. Strategic partnerships are precisely a blueprint for a smart use of the EU’s power.

Thomas Renard is Research Fellow and Prof. Dr. Sven Biscop Director of the “Europe in the World Programme” at Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations, a Brussels-based think tank.