Peace in our time? Not really, but that should be the real aim of EU’s new leaders

Frankly Speaking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

Oh, the excitement and the suspense, the breathless reporting and the angry tweets. Osaka, Brussels, dinner, breakfast. Jet lag. Is anyone really surprised that – despite hours of back-biting, horse-trading and secret deals – exhausted leaders called it a day on Monday and are meeting again on 2 July to seek agreement on the EU’s top jobs?

Of course not. It’s the way Europe chooses its political leaders. Has always done and will continue to do so until we say: stop.

Enough is enough. Europe can’t aim to connect with citizens and be a more forceful global actor until it puts its house in order. Yes, it’s difficult to get the political balance right. There’s geography and gender to consider. Egos to manage. Alliances to respect.

Lost in the arcane process is quality and qualifications, merit and substance. So when the whole circus restarts on Tuesday, what about putting the focus on the ‘best woman and man’ for the jobs? Someone who gets the internal EU dynamics right but can also command attention and respect on a very crowded global stage.

Someone who doesn’t just sign up to the wishy-washy G20 communiqué published after the leaders’ meeting in Osaka or follow the narrow-minded trajectory set out in the recently-adopted ‘EU strategic agenda’.

A person who maintains the transatlantic alliance while also eschewing emulation of US President Donald Trump’s instinct for deliberate disruption.

The women and men taking charge of the different EU institutions must set their global ambitions sky high. They must be ready to talk and walk very quickly on tackling major global challenges. And they should do so with confidence, vision and determination.

With America no longer the shining city on the hill, Europeans cannot look away and seek isolation

It won’t be easy. The world today is not just more complex, contested and competitive than ever before, it is going through a period of massive change and upheaval. A new era is unfolding in myriad messy ways.

The dominance of America and Europe is well and truly over. Political, military and economic power is visibly – and often not so visibly – shifting away from the West to emerging economies.

Just outside Europe’s borders, there are countries still entangled in futile but endless wars, while others face grinding poverty, hunger and disease. Migration and climate change confront all nations.

Vladimir Putin has reminded us that liberalism is under threat. Racism is being mainstreamed, technological change and innovation challenge both the rich and the poor – albeit in different ways – and there’s a push back against gender equality. Add to this the ongoing discrimination faced by minorities and the threat posed to press and civil society. Zero-sum games prevail. And in a world dominated by ‘strong men’ it’s always ‘us versus them’.

The list is long and painful to read. With America no longer the shining city on the hill, Europeans cannot look away and seek isolation. They must engage, connect and persist. Turning inwards is not an option.

Europe’s voice still counts. Here are some suggestions on how to make Europe matter even more in the months ahead:

First, don’t give up on Iran or the Middle East. Yes, this does mean more areas of discord with the US Administration. But so be it. Europe must salvage the nuclear deal with Iran while broadening the conversation to include regional issues. And Jared Kushner’s so-called ‘deal of the century’ Middle East Development Project? Forget it. The EU was right not to attend the Bahrain workshop and to stick to it’s long-standing commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.

Second, build on the impressive recent EU trade deal with the South American Mercosur bloc and with Vietnam by embarking on a similar process of serious consultation and exploration of a trade pact with the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) while also seeking synergies with the African Union’s even more visionary Continental Free Trade Agreement. Why not consider joining the revamped CCTPP – the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership – that brings together 11 major economies but does not include the US?

Standing up for liberal democracy requires more than statements denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin

Third, open discussions with all interested countries on negotiating a multilateral agreement which covers internationally-agreed standards and norms on transparency, sustainability and fiscal elements of connectivity projects. The world needs more infrastructure connectivity – not just China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The EU should take seriously President Xi Jinping’s commitment of ‘multilateralising’ the BRI and work with all countries with similar projects – Japan, ASEAN, India – to draw up binding quality and procurement standards for infrastructure connectivity.

Fourth, replace slapdash and ad hoc Internet and digital governance initiatives with a coherent international effort to set global standards. The Osaka Track to formulate rules on digital governance adopted by 24 signatories, including China, at the G20 Leaders’ Summit is one way forward. As a first step, it commits countries to international rule-making on trade-related aspects of e-commerce at the WTO. India and some others are not participating – but should be persuaded to do so. Other issues to address concern privacy and data security.

Fifth, make Agenda 2030 the driving force for EU ambitions and policies both at home and abroad. Adopted by the United Nations in 2015, the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) are often shrugged off as little more than a sideshow to the real task of tackling climate change, women’s empowerment and combating poverty. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. If implemented and enforced, the goals will go a long way in reversing environmental degradation, ensuring fair taxation and tackling ocean pollution.

And last, but not least, ignore the Far Right nay-sayers and adopt a humane and respectful policy for managing migration which meets Europe’s need for skills, labour and talent. Italy’s action against Carola Rackete, the captain of the Sea-Watch 3 rescue ship, who sailed into the port of Lampedusa with 42 asylum seekers on board despite a ban from Rome, is just one example of an EU policy gone terribly wrong. It clearly erodes the EU’s moral credibility. Standing up for liberal democracy requires more than statements denouncing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims that liberalism has become “obsolete”. It requires action at home.

There is more of course. Europe alone can’t ensure peace in our world. But new EU leaders should try and make a start.

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