Here’s how the EU should start to think long-term

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Kishore Mahbubani
Kishore Mahbubani

The European Union is clearly the most successful regional organisation in human history. It represents the gold standard for regional co-operation, yet it is not perfect. It still suffers from structural flaws that will need to be remedied if the EU wants to go from Version 1.0 to Version 2.0.

One great paradox surrounding the EU is how on the world stage it can be both an economic giant and a political dwarf. Its economic might, despite the recent challenges to the euro, is indisputable. Indeed, its capacity to overcome the eurozone crisis shows its economic resilience. By contrast, when it comes to major geopolitical challenges like the rise of China or the challenge of ISIL, EU remains a marginal player.

Is there a structural cause for this political marginalisation of the EU? Is there something about its decision-making structures that leads to this? The answer is probably yes. But it is a complex yes; complex because in theory the EU has a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and new institutional structures to deliver its CFSP. The EU is represented in international negotiations by its High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, currently Federica Mogherini.

To make matters worse, the EU allowed the U.S. to set the agenda for the EU’s relations with its Islamic neighbours

That’s the theory. In practice, the voice of Europe in international negotiations is relatively weak because the EU has to spend most of its time negotiating internally to arrive at a common point of view. And it is not easy to arrive at a shared viewpoint because even Europe’s three key global actors – Germany, the UK and France – have different interests. To protect their anachronistic interests as permanent members of the UN Security Council, the UK and France refuse to have their hands tied by a common EU policy. Germany, on the other hand, has a greater vested interest in a common position. And even when these three key actors agree, the EU then has to work hard to bring on board its remaining 25 members. The result tends to be an EU position that represents the lowest common denominator.

With this kind of decision-making structure, it is virtually impossible for the EU to come out with bold visionary proposals that take into consideration the EU’s common interest in dealing with a long-term challenge. There are many obvious long-term challenges coming down the road towards the EU. They include the rise of China, Asia’s renaissance, the resurgence of the Islamic world, the need to re-engage Russia and dealing with Africa’s demographic explosion.

It doesn’t take a strategic genius to anticipate the long-term geopolitical challenges that face the EU. But it will take a strategic genius to figure out solutions that will enable the EU to think and act long-term. Although there is no easy “silver bullet” solution, it may be useful to consider the creation of a high-powered strategic planning unit (SPU) whose mandate is to study, anticipate and formulate responses to all these long-term challenges.

Such a SPU should be given a clear mandate to ignore contemporary challenges, whether they be in Ukraine or ISIL, and instead to focus only on the long term. Its task should be to suggest appropriate EU strategies to deal with these challenges, and a few examples might help to illustrate this process.

Let’s take the case of the EU-U.S. relationship. The result of the years of the Cold War is a historical legacy of EU subservience to American strategic interests. During the Cold War there was a strategic rationale for this subservience, but in the post-post-Cold War era the question is whether there will always be a convergence of interests between the EU and the U.S.

It may be useful to consider the creation of a high-powered strategic planning unit whose mandate is to study, anticipate and formulate responses to all these long-term challenges

This is the kind of audit that the SPU should do, clearly and objectively. If the audit shows a continuing convergence of interests, the EU should move to a certain set of geopolitical impulses. If it shows a growing divergence of interests, the EU will need to fashion different impulses. To the best of my knowledge, no EU institution has tried to do such an audit. Why not? It has become an article of faith in the EU that the transatlantic alliance must remain an eternal feature of the geopolitical landscape.

Maybe it should. In the economic arena, when the EU negotiates with the U.S. over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), it strongly and shrewdly defends its economic interests. However, when it comes to geopolitical interests, Europe’s natural tendency is to be subservient to the U.S., even though their interests could diverge significantly.

The biggest problem that the U.S. faces along its southern border is Mexico. Migration flows from Mexico have always been seen to be a challenge, and the U.S. has wisely tried to manage this by negotiating and implementing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to export jobs to Mexico lessen the migratory pressure of Mexicans seeking jobs in the U.S.

The EU’s biggest problem on its southern border is North Africa. Migration flows from North Africa could be anticipated 20 years ago. In a 1993 article in The National Interest, entitled “The West and the Rest”, I myself wrote: “If the belief and expectation of economic development can be planted in the minds of billions of people, massive migrations may be averted. Those western Europeans who are already fearful of such migrations from North Africa should do some fundamental strategic re-thinking and begin viewing the challenge from East Asia in a different light. What is a short-term challenge could bring long-term strategic redemption.” In short, western Europe should 22 years ago have encouraged the countries of North African to learn from the successful economic development of Muslim states like Malaysia and Indonesia.

The EU can never walk away from North Africa’s problems, and should have been careful and pragmatic in dealing with them instead of allowing the ideological interests of the U.S. to trump its own pragmatic interests

Europe’s current migration crisis, like the Mexican migration problem, could have been anticipated. The EU should have signed a North African Free Trade Area (NAFTA) to match the American NAFTA. Yet none was proposed or even considered. Why not? The simple answer is that the U.S. has intelligence and security agencies that focus on long-term challenges, and they anticipated the Mexican challenge. The EU has had none, and failed to identify the looming migratory pressures.

To make matters worse, the EU allowed the U.S. to set the agenda for the EU’s relations with its Islamic neighbours. When the Arab spring began in Tunisia in December 2010, the EU allowed the U.S. to take the driver’s seat in dealing with the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The U.S. was able to take ideological positions because, separated by the Atlantic Ocean, it could walk away from these problems.

The EU can never walk away from North Africa’s problems, and should have been careful and pragmatic in dealing with them instead of allowing the ideological interests of the U.S. to trump its own pragmatic interests.

North Africa is only one example of diverging interests between the EU and the U.S., and over the long term there may well be other divergences. This is why, should the EU even set up an SPU, its mandate must not be to pass political judgements. Its sole role should be to objectively identify common challenges that EU countries will almost certainly face. Such an agency could help the EU to develop a capacity for strategic foresight. By 2035, the EU could become both an economic and a political giant on the world stage.

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