The inevitability of the East (and Asia) for the EU

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Dharmendra Kanani
Dharmendra Kanani

Chief Operating Officer and Chief Spokesperson of Friends of Europe

It might seem odd to suggest that the EU looks eastwards rather than westwards as its default position in the midst of vaccine wars, political debate about pharma contracts and the predictable narrative of global vaccine gainers and losers.

This is perhaps a parable to learn from.

The pandemic and its precipitation of an economic crisis is a masterclass on the importance of foresight and scenario planning by governments across the globe.

Here’s the reality: if we look ahead using global trends and analysis of global demographics and associated economic growth forecasting, we know without a shadow of doubt that for the ‘West’, its future lies ‘East’.

The point of foresight is to understand what’s coming and how to prepare

In Europe, we have an ageing population and lack enough skilled youth labour in the market to sustain pensions or fill the employment needs of major companies and industries. It’s a diametrically opposite curve on the same indicators in the East.

Moreover, witnessing a bounce back from the pandemic and economic crises, it’s the economies in the East that are experiencing faster growth than any economy in the West, with China being the most notable example. Combined with higher rates of investment in R&D in comparison to the majority of the West, there is a sense of an unassailable force emerging, technologically, in highly qualified young people and in the largest emerging young middle class on the planet.

Is this simply an evolution of our world or a post-colonial bite back?

We are in what some have referenced as the ‘Asian Century’. But the point of foresight is to understand what’s coming and how to prepare rather than simply noting emerging ‘revolutions’ in the world’s trading and economic order.

Hoping for the best and relying on a misguided confidence in the untrammelled success of the ‘West’ and its way of doing things simply isn’t a credible response. Markets and capital flows don’t pay homage to or abide by such notions; these will increasingly set a course of global development hitherto unseen. This is particularly relevant in the current context, as the pandemic has haemorrhaged Western economies to a level we have yet to fully comprehend.

The EU needs to be more savvy and foresight-driven in its future development

The policy question for the EU is how to make the most of these future trends and embrace them as an opportunity. The forces of digitalisation and climate change will favour the bold and the prepared.

We know that authoritarian governments have greater control of societal systems and are able to direct themselves to quickly pivot to the reality of an emerging world order. The human and social cost of such governance in terms of values, human rights and the rule of law are not the primary concerns of this dynamic, and the concept of the ‘market’ has never been an ally of equality and fairness.

For the EU, looking East rather than West should be about using all its experience and capabilities to find common ground and build a new global narrative that is not premised on global market and demographic realities alone but also on its values. The EU needs to be more savvy and foresight-driven in its future development. Grandstanding on values, whilst making trade deals because of the inevitability of market pressures, demand and the climb out of the economic carnage created by the pandemic, would be foolhardy and a missed opportunity.

In the early part of the century, mistrust was a guiding force on all levels of societal development across EU member states and globally. Regrettably, digitalisation was its handmaiden.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Hyper-connectivity is here to stay

Here is the EU’s opportunity to lead by example, using its trade, security and innovation capabilities to adopt a post-colonial, modern approach to its relationship with the East – one that is based on global trends, sharing capabilities and finding ways to create trust.

The inevitability of climate change, digitalisation and health crises are the determinants of our future world; they are borderless and do not respect outdated notions of a nation state with all its paraphernalia of sovereign laws and regulations. Hyper-connectivity is here to stay, as are consumption patterns and the force of a global market.

The trick is to look in the eye of these developments and chart a journey, using multilateralism in an enlightened manner.

Binding communities of innovation between the East and the EU would be a good starting point. Silicon Valley was a symptom of an initial phase of digitalisation, but what’s to come from Asia is likely to be more powerful and potent given its investments into education, bulging population and forensic eye on innovation across all sectors driven by the power of digitalisation.

Foresight, data and analysis should be the new gold standard

We often forget that those outside our immediate bubbles have the same insecurities, concerns, desires and values. They are simply coated in differing political ideologies and moored in historical narratives which won’t stand the test of time as we now know it.

Perhaps this is a naive statement given the orthodoxies of our global politics and economies but the one thing we should learn from the pandemic is that the past, or at least what we have learned from it, is most definitely not a safeguard in predicating our future.

Foresight, data and analysis should be the new gold standard – the new path to guide us towards resilience.

Adopting such a mindset, taking preventative action and creating a coalition of the willing with partners in the East, based on shared values and a recognition of our global interconnectedness, would be a worthwhile EU ambition of its role on the global stage.

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