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World order

“Teetering continent”

by Dirk Messner, Hans ­Dembowski

In depth

Facebook, Amazon und Google pay attention to Margrethe Vestager, the competition commissioner.

Facebook, Amazon und Google pay attention to Margrethe Vestager, the competition commissioner.

The EU has a vital role to play in global affairs, according to political scientist Dirk Messner, but whether it is up to task, remains to be seen.

The EU must be a “superpower project”. That is what Gideon Rachman, the Financial Times’ foreign policy columnist recently wrote. Do you agree?
Well, at very least it must muster the strength to position itself coherently in regard to issues of great world-order relevance. Otherwise, we will be under the pressure of other powers. The performance of the US administration is currently volatile. Its stance is at once protectionist and market liberal. Its style of governance is authoritarian and resembles what used to be called “crony capitalism” in Washington. After Donald Trump, that will hopefully change again, but this is the current scenario. China and Russia are authoritarian regimes, though Russia only has a strong military, but not a strong economy. In this setting, the EU must promote renewed multilateralism and project a vision of capitalism that is embedded in democracy and the rule of law in ways that facilitate social welfare and environmental health. That authoritarian and populist trends are evident in EU member countries, adds to the difficulties, of course.

What must the EU be capable of in the global arena?
It has to be in a position to spell out coherent policies in every significant field of world politics. Five topics of overarching relevance matter in particular:

  • The UN needs more support, and the EU’s interest in multilateral cooperation is strong. Peace depends on it. Moreover, the SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals, constitute a frame of reference that endorses universal human rights, reflects European values and can guide global initiatives.
  • The EU must promote a global economic order that reconciles market competition with social and environmental protection. The major challenge of the 21st century is to facilitate – within the limits of the earth system – equitably shared prosperity for a world population that will soon amount to 10 billion people. The EU’s strong standing in global trade is a good starting point.
  • In this context, digitalisation and innovative technologies deserve particular attention. It is noteworthy that no single nation state, with the exceptions of the USA and China, has an influence that is even close to the EU’s influence on the regulation of major internet multinationals like Facebook, Google and Amazon. Private-sector corporations cannot afford to ignore the EU; its market is far too big. The EU would do well to develop a shared vision for sustainable societies in a digital age (see Sabine Balk on related WBGU proposals in Monitor section of D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2019/07).
  • Stabilising the earth system is of existential urgency. The climate crisis, the state of oceans, deforestation, the erosion of biodiversity – a lot needs to be done.
  • As a major civilian power, the EU must promote peace and reconciliation, but that implies that it needs a minimum level of military capacities. Relying on the USA as in the past is no longer an option.

Global problems require global solutions, and they will not be brought about unless we have players with global reach. The EU must be one of them.

Are you considering the EU’s self-interest or the global common good?
A strong global role serves the EU’s self-interest, but not only. Who would benefit if the EU withdrew from the global arena? Certainly not poor economies and small countries. Their development perspectives depend on a rules-bound and reasonably fair world order.

Does conventional official development assistance (ODA) matter in this regard?
In 2017, the EU and its members spent about $ 75 billion on ODA. That was 57 % of the global total. The better the EU coordinates such efforts, the more they add up to a coherent and convincing proposal in the eyes of partners overseas. ODA fragmentation, by contrast, thwarts effectiveness. The focus must be on overarching issues such as the climate, poverty, inequality and security.

Does that mean that the EU should primarily reach out to developing countries? What other potential allies are there?
We need new alliances, and, among other things, they must bridge the old north-south divide. This does not only concern the poorest and smallest countries. Some 60 nations no longer belong to the least-developed group, nor are they among the fast-rising emerging markets. Classical ODA is hardly attractive to them. Examples include Indonesia, Peru or South Africa. And who says that we always have to cooperate with the same partners? A climate alliance with China is not only feasible; it is imperative. The opposite is true when it comes to human rights. It would be wrong, moreover, to only think of sovereign governments as potential partners. Cooperation with sub-national authorities makes sense too. Consider, for example, the governors of California or New York in the USA. Reaching out to sub-national and municipal leaders can be meaningful, especially in places where it is difficult to cooperate with the national government. Let’s not forget private-sector companies and their associations. They are important players. Finally, interaction with scientific institutions and civil-society organisations is important.

The EU looks weakened after being hit by crises – sovereign debt, refugees and especially Brexit. Is it up to task?
That is hard to tell. It has often emerged stronger from crises.

Would joint social-protection policies help? Might tangible pan-European solidarity boost a sense of a shared European identity?
Yes, proposals of this kind are meaningful. The citizens of member countries basically perceive the EU to be a project of elites who focus on the single market. Citizens’ attitude to the EU would certainly change if they felt the EU was serving their own social protection and human security. Opinion polls show, moreover, that Europeans would appreciate a more effective joint foreign policy.

Over-indebted banks were a serious pan-European problem a few years ago, but there was no joint solution. National responsibility was emphasised, so Spanish and Irish tax money was used to bail out Spanish and Irish banks to the extent that they could service the loans they had been granted by banks in Germany, France and Britain. Needing more money for this purpose, the Irish and Spanish governments incurred huge debts, were then blamed for irresponsible spending and had to impose harsh austerity on their country. The irony was that the sacrifices made in Spain and Ireland prevented people in Germany, France and Britain from suffering similarly harsh constraints.
Unfortunately, there is a long-established pattern of member governments trying to shield their citizens from any kind of hardship. They like to declare anything that goes well to be their own achievement, but they blame “Brussels” for any difficulties. The European Central Bank (ECB) is increasingly scapegoated as well. One lesson of the euro crisis is certainly that Europe needs joint solutions for joint problems. That, in turn, will mean yet more pooling of sovereignty in economic affairs and social protection in order to sustain the monetary union. Another recent lesson is that populist agitation against European institutions must be avoided. Brexit is a result, among other things, of decades-long entirely overblown right-wing anti-EU propaganda. A similar trend is becoming apparent in Germany, with the ECB being attacked. However, the German public is hardly aware of how much our economy is benefiting from the euro. Without it, our exchange rate would be much higher, and our economy would be struggling with similar problems as the Japanese and Swiss economies are. The three economies are actually quite similar.

Is the EU a model of supranational policymaking?
Well, that is how it was seen not long ago. Given its serious internal frictions, it now looks more like a “teetering continent” – to use the words with which the historian Philipp Blom described Europe before World War I. In many ways, the years 1890 to 1910 resembled the time we live in now. Societies, industry and science were undergoing deep and turbulent transformations. What followed from 1939 to 1945, was an era of European self-destruction, with devastating impacts far beyond the continent’s shores. After World War II, Europe then indeed became the world’s most interesting laboratory for cross-border cooperation. We must hope that, once again, the EU will emerge stronger from crisis.


Dirk Messner co-chairs the German Advisory Council on Global Change (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat Globale Umweltveränderungen – WBGU) and is a director at the United Nations University. He will become the president of Germany’s Environmental Protection Agency next year.
[email protected]

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