The reality of European power

Tarek Osman
Saturday 2 Feb 2019

Can Europe realise its ambitions to become a global superpower like the US and China

One theme keeps recurring in different meetings in Brussels, the seat of the European Union. This is that Europe wants to be a “pole” in its own right – that is, a global power alongside the US, and almost certainly in the coming few years, China.

With 500 million of the richest consumers on earth and a cohesive regulatory body, Europe is already an economic giant. But Europe also wants to be a political pole. Two factors work in its favour, but four pose serious challenges.

Among the factors working in its favour is the fact that wealth leads to 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 over into economic regulations, investment levels, financial flows, quality standards, and other areas, which in turn affect a country’s decision-making in various domains. This is political power.

Another factor is that Europe is like the prettiest girl in a high-school prom. Everyone looks at her, and everyone 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 find out more about her ways of life. Seduced by her beauty, some will seek her approval, and Europe will know how to use the infatuation of others to her advantage.

However, wealth and beauty alone do not create political giants, and this leads us to the four challenges.

First, Europe remains a long way away from political unity, and this dilutes its 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-à-vis its 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 in securing that deal, but when the Trump administration in the US effectively scrapped it Europe was forced to be a decision-taker and to deal with consequences it hates. This was despite the fact that Europe is certainly much more affected than the US by developments in the Middle East.

Being a decision-taker on an issue that Europe had worked so hard to accomplish made many in Europe feel humiliated. However, thus far such feelings have not coalesced into a determination that this must never happen again.

This leads to the third challenge. Possessing 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 military 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 shows Europe’s strategic defence will remain in the foreseeable future dependent on the US. No global political pole can be dependent for its security on another.

Fourth, the meaning of Europe remains elusive. Europe is a beautiful, but conceptual, idea. Almost all European thinkers and politicians will agree that it encompasses notions such as freedom, the respect for human rights, the rule of law, and perhaps a certain understanding of the journey from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment to Modernity and to the lessons of the two World Wars. But beyond abstractions, definitions of what a European governing system is vary massively between Western and Eastern Europe. And what Europe actually means as a political project, let alone as a political pole in the international arena, also varies massively across the continent.

This elusive narrative regarding Europe’s Europeanness is a fundamental weakness in realising its ambition of becoming a global political pole.

Overcoming Challenges

Europe could, of course, do mental manoeuvres, and it could rise above most of these challenges. 

After all, Europe’s story in the seven decades since the Second World War has been nothing if not a complete overhaul of its political structures, political economy 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 defence budgets, and national cultures about the use of violence on the international scene, and transcend their decades-old views of their identities and historical trajectories.

There is an argument that says that the weakening of liberal democracy in Europe is itself a crisis, and that a more cohesive, united Europe (one that emerges as a global political pole) could be a way out. However, this argument is wrong for two reasons.

First, the rise of the far right (and left) and the decline of the major political parties that have played prominent roles over the last half century has been a clear trend in Europe for at least a decade now, and it has become almost normalised in European politics. It is also a phenomenon that has been witnessed in other parts of the world (such as India, Mexico and Brazil, among others), so there is nothing particularly calamitous.

Second, there is no escaping the fact that economic changes are revealing, rather than creating, illiberal tendencies in large sections of several European societies. These were hidden by the prosperity of the 1990s and 2000s and by political correctness.

But today we can see them more clearly, scarring the image of Europe as the epitome of liberal perfectionism. Yet, despite that, these factors do not really build up into a crisis. To borrow a term from the world of finance, they are merely Europe’s “new normal.” These problems will not summon up a Herculean will to transform Europe, and Europe will not become a global political pole in the foreseeable future.

However, 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 World War II.

For this to happen, it must accrue, and be better at deploying, its soft power. Should it be able to do so, 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 for 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 wealth. And in being so, it will not be competing where it will lose out. 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 could 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, however, three steps are crucial. First, Europe must continue its economic integration. Despite the unpopularity of many of the financial measures taken over the past decade, 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 made by many in Europe to fail to see that the continent’s cultural prowess is a major advantage at a time when hundreds of millions of new middle-class segments in Asia are beginning to become consumers of borderless learning and entertainment. Third, European diplomacy must be strengthened and evolve from mere coordination focusing on developmental objectives towards 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 mere nostalgia for what Europe once was but will not be again in the foreseeable future. Rather, this serious reflection should let Europe glimpse the possibility of a future in which it can leverage its true strengths and that is more in harmony with where its journey over the last seven decades has led it.

* The writer is author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (Yale University Press, 2017).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: The reality of European power

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