Rumours of the death of the European project are, as Mark Twain would have put it, vastly exaggerated. The importance of European powers and the contribution of the European Union (EU) in recent years are indelible. It was evident that even as the United States and Iran took binary positions, it was the EU’s outreach to Iran that paved the way for a diplomatic breakthrough. Its contested, yet continuing and valiant efforts to absorb Syrian war refugees are seminal. And, its clever, geo-economic manoeuvres have succeeded in effectively containing Russia’s sphere of influence across central and eastern Europe. These are all examples of the contemporary impact of that geography to world affairs. However, it is undeniable that Brand EU is taking a beating. It is time to unpack where the scepticism and perceived frailty stems from.
Patchy integration The first of the two most visible weaknesses of the project has to be that this strong collective of European nations has achieved only patchy social integration within its members. The states have been open to economic migrants and welcoming distressed populations from across the world’s conflict zones in the past (most recently from West Asia). The Gastarbeiter model adopted by several of them in the 1960s and 1970s may have addressed short-run labour problems but may not have been as efficient in assimilating newcomers into their society. Arguably, an immediate consequence of this is the emergence and consolidation of radical Islamism and its twin, racist-right-wing politics. As such, liberal EU is now grappling with two illiberal ideologies.
The second is in the economic sphere — the touchstone of the European integration project. The EU finds itself caught in the inevitable confusion that comes from being a monetary union without being a fiscal union. The periodic eruption of the Greek tragedy fundamentally arises from this cleavage.
But besides these, there are essentially four issues that dilute what the EU could potentially offer. To begin with, as a brand, it is behind its time. While smaller countries and developing regions of the world are seeking new collectives and the weight of these larger aggregations to reform the global order, the EU and the European project are seen and presented as status quo-ist, primarily concerned with perpetuating entrenched interests. From reforms of key Bretton Woods institutions like the International Monetary Fund to that of the UN Security Council, European powers are seen to want more of the same. While some European powers do realise that this posture may not be sustainable in the long run — witness their enthusiasm for the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — they are either unwilling or unable to upend the existing global governance order and allow it to be refashioned according to the realities of the 21st century.
Too Atlantic-centric The second issue seems to be Europe’s conception of the map — and its place in the extant geography of the world. Europe must realise that its future is to a large extent coupled to that of Asia’s and Africa’s. Instead of a serious institutional push towards building a common future with the powers that will shape these two regions, Europe and the EU have functionally de-hyphenated themselves from both. For example, Paris consults Washington for guidance on its Syria policy, but not New Delhi, from which it may have obtained more sage advice. It is not hard to get an impression that Europe’s penchant with trans-Atlanticism is a sentimental anachronism. Such attitudes also reinforce the impression that Europe is too busy consolidating the old boys’ club to realise that the geopolitical centre of gravity is inexorably moving eastwards. Obsessed with the Atlantic Order, Europe is near absent in the great debates of the Indo-Pacific.
Europeans could, defensively, justify this trans-Atlantic orientation in the name of values, except that the tyranny of values — whether it is as self-proclaimed champions of human rights, or of liberal non-invasive multiculturalism — has cost Europe tremendously in recent years in real political terms. Europe’s promotion of norms was driven by self-interest in the past. A world remade in its own image was a self-serving agenda from the colonial era to the Cold War, with tangible material benefits. What Europe has engaged in since is promotion of self-determined values and norms divorced from immediate political interests. This has led to the establishment of a tremendously inelastic value system that seeks to enforce conformity on those who see the world differently. Arguably Europe's problems with integrating minorities in its national mainstream are one though not the only consequence of this social inelasticity.
All of these problems are compounded by the fact that Brand EU has a serious marketing problem. Brussels has made very little effort to engage the world beyond the borders of Europe in any meaningful way, and to great consequence. At a meeting between European and Indian scholars last year, both sides bemoaned the lack of communication initiated by the European side. EU public diplomacy has been fairly ineffective in large parts of Asia and Africa, with the consequence that the many positive messages that the EU could communicate to countries and regions to its east have been muted, to be crowded out by narratives emerging from eurosceptics in Britain and the U.S. instead. Therefore, the EU in India seems to be in the news mostly for the wrong reasons. It is time Europe took a hard look at its messaging, the medium, and at the concrete steps it needs to take to establish and reinvent itself among people it would need the most in the coming years.
Samir Saran is Vice-President at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi.