John Bruton was Taoiseach (prime minister) of the Republic of Ireland, leading the “Rainbow Coalition” of his own Fine Gael party, Labour and the Democratic Left from 1994-97. He was the EU’s Ambassador to the U.S. (2003-09) and is a former Vice-President of the European People’s Party
2017 will see the clash of big-power nationalisms, triggered by Donald Trump’s forthcoming inauguration as the 45th President of the United States.
The most immediately striking characteristic of the Trump administration is its attitude to China. During the campaign the President-elect threatened to impose very high tariffs on Chinese imports. But his decision to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership leaves China in the driving seat as far as trade policy in East Asia is concerned.
Since the election, he has sought to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip in negotiations with China. Adding a conflict over the island’s status to this mix could have very unpredictable results. After its experience of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries China is very sensitive to western ’humiliations’, and to threats to its raw material supply lines.
There will a fanning of nationalist sentiment on both sides.
We should not forget that the economic transformation of China is the most important global economic event of the past forty years. It has changed the balance of power on the Eurasian landmass in ways we are only beginning to comprehend.
It has led to an increasing number of well-off, high spending consumers. The Boston Consulting Group recently estimated that the number of Chinese people belonging to the ‘upper middle class’ - a group that can afford regular foreign holidays - will rise from 53 million today to 102 million by 2020.
But at the other end of the scale, China has not established a well-developed welfare system. The income gap is very wide. Stress is high. There is a two-tier labour market under which long-established city residents qualify for social support, but recent arrivals in the same cities do not. The latter group can remain in a precarious situation for years.
The economic transformation of China is the most important global economic event of the past forty years
This gap presents a problem of political management. One can foresee the deliberate fomentation of Chinese nationalism by the Communist leadership in an effort to shore up support and to distract attention from the ill-effects of a very uneven distribution of the fruits of prosperity.
Chinese nationalism could, all too easily, collide fatally with the American nationalism that the Trump campaign has rekindled – a nationalism that has risen with great success from quite similar motives.
Faced with this collision, Europe should look out for its own interests – especially as it seems likely that the US will move closer to Russia. The new dynamic this possible Russo- American rapprochement creates in global affairs has consequences for Europe.
Trump’s statements during the campaign and since the election – as well as some of his nominations to the new administration – indicate that a less confrontational approach is in the offing. While benefits may flow from this, it is something that is likely to reinforce the anxiety that some, but not all, central European members of the European Union already feel about Russian intentions.
Russia has traditionally been hostile to the EU, because it has felt excluded from pan-European security structures. It feels hemmed in by NATO members. It has given support to parties in Western Europe that are hostile to EU integration. A disintegrated Europe would offer more opportunities to Russia than a united one, and would mitigate Russia’s sense of being encircled.
On the other hand, the US, like China, has traditionally been a strong supporter of European integration, notably under the administrations of Harry Truman and George H. W. Bush.
But the incoming Trump administration seems to be headed in the opposite direction, giving visible support to political parties that would break up the EU.
President-elect Trump’s decision to give an effusive welcome to Nigel Farage, before he met any other European leader, and immediately after Farage’s success in engineering the first ever exit of a country from the EU, sends a clear and hostile signal. Putin and Trump seem to share the same view of the European Union.
Europe’s voters tend to think about short-term issues, not about the long-term impact of decisions
In the face of this link-up, the EU may find its interests aligned more with those of China – in fields such as climate change and energy, as well as on global issues, given China’s greater economic and strategic weight compared to Russia. On the other hand, Russia is a member, along with the EU countries, of the Council of Europe, and this link could be used to reduce tensions.
Europe needs to draw the right lessons from these global movements. Unlike the US, Europe does not have vast energy resources and is much more dependent on an open global trading system. In this it has similar interests to China.
But Europe is both a crowded and an ageing continent. Its voters tend to think about short-term issues, not about the long-term impact of decisions the EU may make about relationships with the rest of the world, and notably the rapidly-growing and youthful populations of Africa and the Arab world.
So European electorates need to think very carefully about where their protest votes may lead. As we will see with Brexit, protest votes can have consequences far beyond mere protest. These consequences will be felt long after the cause of the original protest is forgotten.
A disunited Europe could become a playground for the clash of great power rivalries. Notwithstanding their notional ‘sovereignty’, individual European countries could find themselves being used as pawns in a wider struggle, in the same way as the religious factions in Syria are now being used.
Twenty years ago, few people thought Syria would ever have a civil war. There are many ancient and buried antagonisms that could be exploited on this continent if European unity is broken.
The UK, which did so much to defend the liberty of Europe in 1914 and 1939, forgot this completely when it voted so recklessly in its recent referendum.
The rest of Europe must not make the same mistake.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC / FLICKR – Luke Price