On the 25thof October 2013 former South African president Frederik Willem de Klerk and professor Karel van Wolferen delivered the 12th Europe Lecture. Both speakers proved critical of the functioning of European Union today, and both noted the EU is a global power in decline. If not in absolute terms, its relative importance at the global stage is dwindling. The speakers diverged on what underlying structural problems are the root causes of this decline. And where De Klerk saw opportunities Van Wolferen remained sceptical, even disillusioned.
It is worth noting, however, that both speakers did acknowledge the achievements of the European Union. The ideal of preventing war has succeeded admirably. Europe proved it has the potential to serve as an example, but now faces the challenge to make good on its promise.
Acting as moderator was the Dutch former minister of foreign affairs Bernard Bot, who has worked at the forefront of EU integration for decades. Mr. Bot briefly engaged both speakers in a short Q&A, often stressing what the EU has to offer. The ensuing discussion proved interesting, but for all intent purposes Bot was unable to sway the speakers away from their basis critique of the role the EU plays in today’s world.
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Africa, a new rise to prominence
F.W. De Klerk is Afrikaner, South African and an African. Nonetheless, ties with Europe are part of his identity. The same may be said of Africa as a whole; Europe has had a tremendous influence on the continent. During the colonial era it was Europe that drew the borders, and European-style institutions were created to govern the African nations. Without taking the local traditions into account such institutions failed to root in the African soil. With the surge of anti-colonialism that swept the continent the European institutions were often uprooted. The rulers of Africa created their own systems, readily treading on western values.
In current day sub-Saharan Africa things are improving. Democracy is on the rise, and economic growth is amongst the highest in the world and is projected to remain so for decades to come. Sub-Saharan Africa is rich in natural resources, and in the words of De Klerk is “the least developed real estate in the world”.
Surprisingly, Europe fails to grasp the opportunities Africa offers. Europe’s position in the world is waning, with the US and the BRIC-countries in open competition for Africa. It is even more surprising as three EU member states list in Africa’s top five investor countries. By comparison, much vaunted China is only the 6thlargest investor. Europe has strong economic ties, cultural ties and it is in the interest of both the EU acts. The question becomes why it fails to do so.
The EU on Africa
The EU lacks a coherent strategy on Africa. As an example De Klerk noted that in 2003 then South African president Mbeki was surprised to learn the EU did not have a strategy on Africa at all. Ten years later it seems little has changed. The latest round of trade negotiations has lost momentum, and the EU lacks a coherent policy towards Africa. Africa deserves to be higher on the agenda.
When mr. Bot later referred to current EU involvement in Africa De Klerk remained adamant in his call for the EU to bring business to Africa. Despite the need for development aid to combat hunger and disease it is not enough. Only investment and business will lift Africa out of poverty. And both Africa and the EU stand to profit.
And the EU can be a competitive player. In geo-political terms it can provide a counterweight to the US and China. In contractual terms, China is not as welcome as often thought in EU. They bring in Chinese labour, stunting the African labour force looking for work. Nor should the fear of possible anti-colonial sentiments mr. Bot brought up stop the EU from trying to do business.
De Klerk also issued a warning: if Africa fails to develop the current number of immigrants will be nothing compared to the tides of refugees that will arrive on Europe’s shores in the future.
On European integration
The EU does not just lack a coherent strategy on Africa. The EU lacks competiveness by default. The EU has pacifies states in wrong ways as well: competition between states is hardly encouraged, stifling growth and innovation. The EU should pursue close(r) cooperation in the field of security, foreign affairs and economic and financial policy. Any other powers should be subject to devolution as much as possible. One conclusion drawn from De Klerk is that if the EU takes to this line of integration the lack of a coherent strategy on the global stage would be far less of an issue.
Even more troubling is the demographic time bomb. Birth rates in most of the larger European states are well below the 2.1 children per family necessary to maintain the continents population. With a declining and aging population Europe will have great difficulties in maintaining current standards of living. Whilst migration may provide the solution, it will chance the nature of Europe. That will create a whole set of problems in itself. Again, the EU has to act. Not doing so it detrimental to itself.
De Klerk concluded telling the audience Africa wants a strong Europe. A strong Europe will make for a far better partner for Africa, and a vast improvement over the current state of affairs.
A bleak picture
When asked what the world thinks of Europe the answer is: it does not dwell on it. Europe and the European Union are not doing much as entity to give it thought. It is an enormous market and good for business. It has a high concentration of tourist attractions, nice for holidays. But diplomatically it is invisible and its views do not reverberate with the rest of the world. It is a “realm of unrealised promises”.
The founders of the EU created an example for the rest to follow. Admittedly, the EU has brought political civilisation to the world, which is to be commended. But the EU as a paragon and any related claims to superior virtue has also produced an attitude that irks the rest of the world.
Looking at the EU from inside it does not make for a brighter or better picture. Van Wolferen noted broken promises abound in the EU. The nation states hide their failures behind ‘silly’ EU regulations. The EU used as a smokescreen.
All of these problems have been exacerbated by the eurocrisis that erupted in 2008 and still plagues the continent. The EU itself is hardly to blame for the crisis. National politicians created an internal market and a single currency without the appropriate political institutions to match. Grave mistakes such as these are all too common as politicians and economists do not communicate, and the fact both groups eschew notion surrounding power. Therein lies danger, as the EU is a political entity dealing with a complex economic and financial crisis. Its powers are limited out of political necessity, making it hard to deal with the crisis on its own terms.
How did we allow the EU to become a land of broken promises, of non-importance on the global stage? Van Wolferen spared no one.
Hidden structural problems: Atlanticism
The first structural problem is that of pervasive Atlanticism. The EU, or rather, the individual member states still cling to the US to lead them. Enthusiastically or grudgingly, European states do what the US tells them to do. At the eve of the Iraq invasion the EU could have blocked US intervention at the UN. The move would have made the EU a dominant player in international diplomacy. Instead it was made clear once more the US decides much of European foreign policy.
At the time of the Cold War this was the logical choice. The US provided the necessary protection against the Soviet threat. The Alliance was effectively useless until the US began the war on terror. An American foreign policy agenda was imposed on the EU, and it followed suit, counter to any other interests Europe might have. The Alliance has become vassalage. Van Wolferen was quick to note that it is not just typical for the EU. US pressure once toppled a Japanese government pushing for better relations with China. It is another example of how US foreign policy interests are inimical to the interests of the rest of the world.
As it has no agenda of its own and the member states loyalties lay elsewhere the EU will not have a presence to act.
The political elites are either incapable or unwilling to face this fact, let alone change policies. Many politicians and the public are painfully unaware of the EU’s position. Van Wolferen scolded the press for failing to uncover these truths. Their orientation towards American press has them forego the European interest.
The US sees ‘the empty heart of Europe’. As long as the EU approaches China, Russia and others through US prescriptions the rest of the world will not take the EU seriously. The EU helps maintain the American fantasy of global dominance, much to its own detriment. Van Wolferen concludes with a conundrum: should the EU’s elite admit to this fact the EU might very well collapse.
Hidden structural problems: wrong brand of neo-liberalism
On economic and financial policy the EU’s elite again fails to recognise much of the mechanisms underlying the current system. The role of finance and the financial sector in capitalism has grown dramatically. Banker entered politics. And as group, the bankers have little regard for EU interests or any other government. Van Wolferen refers them as an international plutocracy.
The democratic deficit in the EU then is much wider then problems in and between the EU institutions. It is grounded in the inability of European political entities to act responsibly and to set and change EU policy. Hiding behind the EU’s technocrats is evidence of that inability. Adding to those problems is that with the financialisation of policy making traditional organisation that facilitated communication between citizens and politicians are in decline. International business interest has taken centre stage in policy making.
This became evident in the wake of the eurocrisis. The harsh measures imposed on southern European countries and Ireland by troikas led by the IMF serve the interest of the northern European banks. Their well-paying loans to these countries had to be safeguarded to ensure the balance sheet remains positive. Much like IMF dealings in Latin America and elsewhere the IMF has a one-sided approach, with a track record filled with failures and broken economies. But it helped the banks, and the politicians let it happen. Even worse, discourse was changed so as to blame the Greeks, the Portugese, etc. rather then the financial sector.
Van Wolferen followed up with a brief exposition that German policy preferences were and are fraught with intentions that counter the EU’s interest as a whole. Current measures do not support the member states. Neo-liberal ideas and notions have been taken for granted, and are now used for policies that do not serve the people. The EU suffers a conceptual crisis, as much of its economic policy is based on ill-garnered presuppositions.
The EU once was the most exiting project in its time, a historic landmark. But with two of its underlying foundations fundamentally aligned against its own best interests the EU is disillusionment to an increasing number of people.
Bot asked whether his words were not too harsh in light of all that the EU achieved, and the slow but steady progress made in fighting the crisis. Van Wolferen found Bot reiterating past achievements, and these are not valid anymore. Whilst agreeing with all that has been achieved, the EU needs to face up to the fact that from a global perspective the EU is not significant. It fails to deal with developing powers, and struggles internally. The EU can redeem itself, but only if it drops many of the ideological underpinnings of current policies. And the political class is not ready, able or willing to do so.
Prior to delivering his lecture F.W. De Klerk engaged in a Q&A session with several journalists. Much of what was debated there was covered in his lecture, but when asked De Klerk made a few remarks about the current state of affairs in South Africa well worth mentioning. Another point that was raised in the Q&A was the role the EU can and cannot play in processes of democratisation.
Regarding South Africa De Klerk pointed out that its democratic system works. The constitution guarantees equal representation and freedom of speech. Elections are fair and held regularly, and freedom of speech is guaranteed. But the dominance of the ANC worries. Yet the monolithic ANC is under pressure, both internally and externally. Disenfranchised voters are angry because the ANC has not brought them improved living conditions and may very well turn away from the party next elections. Within the ANC old divisions are stirring up now the common goal of ending apartheid has been reached. De Klerk predicts the ANC will crack. Exactly when is unclear, but it will happen.
Democratisation is a very tricky process, and advising states even more so. NGO’s like De Klerks’ Global Leadership Foundation can provide just that, and do so discreetly. For a state to publicly acknowledge another state or an organisation like the EU to help them in such matter leads to an unacceptable loss of face. Countries and/or the EU can best aid developing democracies by engaging with them economically.