We read frequently in the news about the demise of Pax Americana or the rise of the post-American world. I am not about to discuss at length the decline of America, but I want to bring attention to what many people might have neglected as they watch America’s supposed decline: Europe’s concurrent decline. And Europe’s decline is also of its own making, though of a different nature compared to the Americans: the financial crisis and its aftermath triggered all these claims about America’s decline, but it is the EU (European Union) and the way it operates that will do Europe / the EU in as a global power.
In Time magazine this week, The Incredible Shrinking Europe discusses why EU is beginning to lose its shine as a global power of equal importance compared to America and China. The magazine recognises that it is not that Europe is becoming poorer or that the people in the EU are suffering (unlike in America right now), but rather how the EU administration does things.
I highlight some of the main problems I see with the EU.
Some problems with the EU that have affected its standing in the global arena:
1. EU is too huge. Managing 27 member nations that each want their own voice to be heard is a mess. Obviously there will be countries that dominate (large ones like France & Germany), but its actions seem to be confounded by the differences in opinion between many of the nations, which will hamper what it is trying to say and do. Germany wants to work closely with Russia but the Eastern European nations in the EU are terrified of getting closer to Russia due to fears of the Cold War / Soviet Union days. This makes EU decisions on issues regarding Russia difficult and contentious.
2. EU seeks too much consensus. It goes for the “least-bad options”, which may be useful in slowly amending the status-quo, but when it comes to crucial decisions necessary to reform, the EU might fail because it decides to go for the lowest common factor instead of what is really best even if it might hurt. The procedure and the eventual selection of the permanent President and Foreign Minister reflect this. Picking two affable and unoffending people, Belgian Prime Minister Herman van Rompuy and British Lady Catherine Asthon, may have achieved the purpose of happiness amongst all EU members, but it does not help EU if it really wants people who can “stop traffic” and portray images of leadership, decisiveness and power.
3. EU has too many underwhelming leaders. With regard to too many, it now has 4 leadership axes that will potentially create much conflict. There’s a permanent EU Council President and EU Foreign Minister, on top of the original leaders: the rotating presidency (amongst the EU nations) as well each country’s heads of government / state. This is a “complex mechanism” that makes it difficult for constructive work. It could encourage turf wars as well as make it difficult to show solidarity. Who is American President Obama supposed to call when he needs help from the EU? Chances are, he will probably end up calling French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown or / and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, because he will directly enlist their help rather than go through the EU before reaching these leaders who make the decisions. Especially given current conditions, chances are he’ll skip calling Europe and go straight to other nations (that are, not coincidentally, emerging powers) like China, as evident following the Copenhagen climate summit where EU was almost totally sidelined despite having hosted the key summit in Copenhagen, Denmark.
4. EU is not as democratic as it claims to be. The way the Lisbon treaty was rammed down the throats of governments was evidence of how the EU parliamentarians and decision-makers just wanted to get things done without getting sufficient support from the people for their actions. The French and Dutch in 2005 first rejected amendments to the European Constitution. Then with the Lisbon treaty, making Ireland go through another referendum to force it to ratify the treaty (making little and unexplained amendments in the treaty along the way) does indicate of some undemocratic tendencies.
The United Nations (UN), with close to 200 members, has even more members, but while the UN may often be described as inefficient, it is still serving a huge purpose as a gathering of world governments that can act together in times of crises. At very least, it still has the symbolism and serves a purpose in its existence. While the EU has created much benefit for the member nations, it often seems to undermine or contradict local government decisions, probably because there is an isolated European Parliament that is rather insular to the real, on-the-ground views of the EU citizens.
In addition to this article in Time magazine, Time magazine interviewed EU Foreign Minister Lady Catherine Ashton for her views about EU. She does a good job with the publicity, but we will wait and see how she manages to get her job done given the difficult conditions she’s been placed in.
In my opinion, the EU has a lot of potential to create a balance of powers between America and the East / ascending developing nations such as China, India & Brazil. Indeed if we talk about the decline of Pax Americana, Europe should by right be part of the decline as well because it is after all closely allied with America and part of the West that is seeing stagnation / decline in political and socioeconomic spheres in the global domain. The EU can still serve as a role model in terms of an economic model that generally promotes cooperation and creates wealth for its denizens (but less so after the Greek debt crisis) as well as a relatively peace-loving actor on the global stage that can serve as a reminder for cooler heads to prevail in dealing with touchy issues like Iran and North Korea.