The European Union needs to lead the world towards a secure, multipolar future. If not, it will fall victim to the law of the political jungle.
In 1884-5, 14 European states gathered in Berlin to decide how to divide Africa into ‘spheres of influence’. The resulting ‘scramble for Africa’ sparked a flow of European emigration to the African continent. In the 21st century, however, the reverse of this process is under way, with the mass emigration of Africans to Europe.
In his recent The Scramble for Europe, Stephen Smith, an expert on African society and politics, intelligently analyses the population flows, noting that seven out of ten Africans are under 30. The inevitable desire of the younger generations to be free of the old patriarchal social order led them to pour into Africa’s cities, turning these into gigantic metropolises. Nowadays, given the facility with which young Africans can observe the lifestyle of the rich western world, the push to emigrate to Europe and further beyond has gained undeniable appeal, and many decide to take their chance.
Smith asserts: ‘The massive migration of Africans to Europe is in the interest of neither Young Africa nor the Old Continent.’ It impoverishes African society, draining it of resources which could accelerate civil and economic development. In particular the many graduates, especially doctors, leaving the continent represents a considerable social, economic and political cost for African countries. On the other hand, it is difficult for Europe to accept massive flows of immigrants because the European welfare system is based on services financed by public taxation, which would no longer be sustainable if completely open.
Mass immigration is not the only challenge facing the EU but, due to its divided governments, it is the one that has enabled national-populist forces to seriously endanger the future of the union. The ‘scramble for Africa’ was the race to split up and portion off the continent, and Europe now faces a similar threat: a number of continental powers have realised that the EU is politically fragile, and that by practising divide-and-rule it is possible to appropriate its economic and human resources.
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The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, never misses an opportunity to encourage the parties intent on dismembering the EU, such as those of Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini in Italy. Russia harbours some justifiable resentment towards the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, after NATO reneged on its promise to limit its expansion east of Germany in exchange for the consent of the then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to the unification of east and west Germany in 1990.
This promise was quickly forgotten after the break-up of the USSR, partly because of the EU’s inability to guarantee security to the countries of the east. This has resulted in the Ukraine crisis and confrontation between Russia and the west, which have clouded the prospect of a European foreign policy based on good-neighbourly relations and the construction of the ‘common European home’ from the Atlantic to the Urals which Gorbachev and the former French president François Mitterrand envisaged.
The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative should be encouraged. It is in the interest of Europe and all the Euro-Asian countries to intensify lines of communication with China. Yet, once again, each country is approaching negotiation with a view to gaining the maximum individual benefit and China is well aware that it is more advantageous to negotiate with European countries separately than with the EU.
While the EU has exclusive competence in international trade—albeit Chinese investments in European infrastructure are also at stake—it has been easy for the Chinese government to initiate separate negotiations with Greece, Italy, Germany and 16 central- and eastern-European countries. The European Commission has merely played the role of observer.
EU as hindrance
And of course the attitude of the US president, Donald Trump, towards multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, is well-known: not being able to dismantle them at will, he is doing everything in his power to reduce their influence. His international strategy is based on bilateralism, not multilateralism, and the supranational EU represents a hindrance. This is why Trump is in favour of ‘Brexit’ and why his former advisor Steve Bannon lent support to populist parties in Europe prior to the European Parliament elections in May.
The most serious threat comes from Trump’s policy to destabilise the international economic order: bilateral trade conflicts, in particular with China, have already caused substantial damage to international trade and a worrying phase of monetary instability is looming. Initially, Trump reproached the European Central Bank for wanting to lower interest rates, fearing that the euro would depreciate towards the dollar; then he ordered the Federal Reserve (in theory an independent institution) to lower its rates, with no concern for the international consequences. When China in turn depreciated the yuan, he accused it of being a currency manipulator.
As a result of these tensions, the exchange rates of the currencies of Brazil, India, South Africa and New Zealand have also fallen. In this situation, we cannot be surprised if the global market slows down and some countries, such as Germany, risk recession.
Will the EU be able to meet the challenges involved in the Scramble for Europe? This will depend on whether there is the political will to achieve what was already provided for in the Maastricht treaty (1992), which resolved to ‘implement a common foreign and security policy including the eventual framing of a common defence policy, which might in time lead to a common defence’. After 27 years little has been achieved. If things continue at the same pace, it is likely the EU will soon be dominated by external powers. Such a world would be a jungle in which the weak would inevitably be subjugated by the strong.
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The new commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has promised a two-year Conference on the Future of Europe, starting in 2020. What will happen before the conference ends? Will the union’s relatively stable, peaceful international order survive, despite US attempts to undermine multilateral institutions? Fears of another financial crisis are meanwhile growing.
European foreign policy cannot be created overnight. But the EU has to show its willingness to act, using the powers it already has, which have been kept on the back burner. The EU is a world economic power, on a par with the USA, China and India, although the euro as a currency still has no international status: the ECB is only admitted as an observer at meetings of the International Monetary Fund.
A 2019 European Parliament briefing on unified representation of the euro area within the IMF affirmed: ‘If euro-area Member States were to unite within a single constituency, the combined voting share of the latter would be bigger than the voting share of the current biggest single chair on the Executive Board, i.e. the US chair.’ In other words, the EU could have the same political weight as the US, ‘since the EU alone would find itself in the same position as presently the USA, and could block major IMF decisions at an 85 % majority threshold’.
France and Germany have always opposed this reform. Yet article 138 of the Lisbon treaty makes it possible to move forward without making any substantial institutional reforms. The time has come for countries opposed to an effective EU foreign policy to give up their veto right, because a new financial crisis could inflict a deadly blow to the EU.
A first step in this direction could be taken following the appointment of the new managing director of the IMF, arising from the departure of the former French centre-right figure Christine Lagarde to the ECB. This position normally goes to a European and European governments have already taken a decision in favour of Kristalina Georgieva, the Bulgarian head of the World Bank. But times have changed: many emerging countries, first and foremost China and India, are calling for a reform of the IMF statute.
In the ‘agenda’ she presented as candidate for the commission presidency, von der Leyen wrote: ‘I want to strengthen the international role of the euro, including its external representation. A strong, integrated and resilient capital market is the best starting point for the single currency to become more widely used internationally.’ If the eurozone becomes a single capital market, with a kind of eurobond similar to US Treasury bonds, the euro will become an international alternative currency to the dollar.
Will this reform stabilise or destabilise the international monetary order? The issue is crucial. It falls to the EU to advance ideas for the reform of the IMF—in agreement not only with the US, but also with Japan, Russia, China, India and the other emerging countries—in the perspective of a new Bretton Woods.
A return to multipolarism in the international institutions is possible and necessary. The EU has the power to be the driver of the new global order of the 21st century.
Guido Montani is professor of international political economy at the University of Pavia. He is a former president of the European Federalist Movement in Italy. His latest book is Antropocene, nazionalismo e cosmopolitismo: Prospettive per i cittadini del mondo (Mimesis, 2022).