It’s a tough world - Europe shouldn't become part of the problem

Frankly Speaking

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe

Angry, polarised and confrontational. The world’s arguments over rights, territory and sovereignty are getting shriller and more violent.

Can Europe step in and help heal divides? It could. But for the moment, with its divisions, arguments and power struggles, Europe has become part of the problem.

European citizens certainly want a more pro-active Global Europe. Ensuring world peace is the second most important priority for them according to a recent Friends of Europe poll, right after the climate crisis and ahead of jobs and growth.

For a brief moment, all eyes were on Europe. There were hopes that Brussels was ready for action. The EU seemed like the only adult in the room when Trump moved into the White House and British politicians, entangled in their Brexit comic-tragedy, lost the plot.

Turning Europe’s back on the Western Balkans is a gift to other geopolitical actors to occupy the space

There were valiant efforts to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive, tough talk about EU strategic autonomy and brave efforts to try and manage migration and refugee arrivals. A new relationship with Africa was envisaged, new trade deals were negotiated and the EU was seen as a leader on climate change.

Alas – it hasn’t been a walk in the park. The sad state of the world is certainly not Europe’s fault but Europeans bear some responsibility. It’s not too late to change course. Here are eight suggestions on how the EU can do more in this fraught and frantic world:

  • Nostalgia for the transatlantic relationship is all very well but it’s now time to take on the challenge of acting on a more complex and challenging Eurasian stage. That means pursuing the dual-track competition/cooperation track with China as well as finding some common ground – however small – with Russia and Turkey, despite the difficulties and challenges that entails. Geography and geopolitics demand it – for everyone’s sake.
  • Get real about the massive negative strategic implications of the decision to delay accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. Achieving the name change deal between North Macedonia and Greece certainly required a significant effort both by the two countries’ politicians and citizens. It’s no secret that more reforms will be needed in Skopje and Tirana. But, as in earlier EU enlargements, it’s the negotiating process that obliges prospective members to fall into line. Turning Europe’s back on the Western Balkans is a gift to other geopolitical actors to occupy the space.
  • Take the lead – really – on climate change. It’s now time to make the financial, technical and policy changes that are required to ensure that Europe really meets the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. This requires a ‘whole systems approach’ to change the current stop-start approaches to tackling the climate crisis. Beware: it’s not just Greta Thunberg but millions of other Europeans who are asking: “how dare you” ignore science?
  • Stop playing the game of party politics and ceding space and power to governments and groups which make no secret of their illiberal character and are proud of their racist, xenophobic and Eurosceptic sentiments. It’s a no-brainer: an EU commissioner for “protecting the European Way of Life” is a dog whistle to the Far Right. What a tragedy that Ursula von der Leyen and her friends and allies in the European People’s Party think those who oppose such pandering to the extremists are ‘hysterical’.

Sloganeering about a ‘geopolitical’ Commission and pandering to the Far Right on values and migration through silly job titles won’t help

  • Instead of talking about ‘European values’ which sends chills down the spines of those who dislike Europe’s arrogance, focus on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which recognises the inherent dignity of all members of the human family. As the Anna Lindh Foundation notes, “The gaps in mutual understanding across cultures are nowhere as great as is often reported.” In other words, stop deepening the divide.
  • Begin a serious reflection on improved management of migration to reassure Europeans that governments are dealing with the issue in a sensible, pragmatic and humane manner. This requires a review and updating of the Dublin Convention and work on opening up more legal pathways for entry into Europe
  • Recognise that in modern Europe, the real heroes are not national politicians but local ones: it’s mayors and local authorities who are standing up for immigration, fighting climate change and working in myriad ways to improve the lives of ‘ordinary’ citizens. Global networks give added power to such initiatives.
  • Finally, acknowledge once and for all that Europe will only thrive and flourish when the European body politic becomes truly inclusive through the active participation of women, youth, migrants and ethnic minorities. Navigating today’s complex and rapidly-changing world requires a new definition of power, new skill sets and fresh approaches. European policymaking will remain confused and muddled unless EU institutions use the vast pool of talent, knowledge and experience of its citizens with links to many of today’s trouble spots.

Von der Leyen’s new Commission has already run into trouble with the European Parliament. Sloganeering about a ‘geopolitical’ Commission and pandering to the Far Right on values and migration through silly job titles won’t help.

Europe is neither the hopeless basket case that its critics allege or the superhero that some of its advocates believe. In a tough world, Europe can matter. But only if it dares to be different.

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