'Peace and security' was the central topic of the 13th Europe Lecture. A topic well-suited for the two distinguished speakers of this years' lecture, former Latvian president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga i and professor of global politics Jonathan Holslag i. Their common thread was that the global balance of power is shifting, much to the detriment of Europe. However, Europe has the resources and potential to regain much of what is being lost. This will require considerable effort, and a revaluation of some of the current societal, economic and political models.
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Economic affairs featured a prominent role in both lectures. Prosperity and security are intrinsically linked to one another. For decades Europe - or at least, the part of Europe that cooperated in the European Union and its predecessors - experienced unprecedented economic affluence, peace and stability. When the Iron Curtain was lifted the eastern European countries, including the newly reconstituted Baltic states, were eager to join the EU. In the aftermath of the 2008 crisis the Union is losing popular and political support. Economic recovery is fragile. A revamped economic model is needed to achieve real growth. As it stands the EU is seeing its already limited presence diminished even more.
Other major powers like the US, China and Russia will not take pity on the EU. Though each power has its own set of specific weaknesses, they are still able and willing to press their point of view. It provides them with leverage, which in turn leads to a greater ability to sway matters in their direction. The EU requires greater cooperation in the field of foreign policy in the form of a 'grand political vision'. And it needs to invest in defence. These things matter on the global stage, and it will allow Europe to act more firmly in other policy areas as well. It also serves to reassure the Europeans that suffered from Soviet occupation only two decades ago.
Security and prosperity are translated in both soft and hard power. The EU needs to work on both if it is to yield influence in the global arena. That warning was the central tenet lectures of both dr. Vīķe-Freiberga and dr. Holslag.
Two hundred years ago Europe's leaders gathered in Vienna. The supposed century of peace that ensued is an illusion. Conflict, wars and upheaval were rife in Europe and its sphere of influence. The next great gathering of leaders to forge an enduring peace was held in the wake of World War I. While they cannot be blamed for failing to foresee what was to come to pass, the choices they made were not conducive to a sustained peace. Extremist ideals gained popular and intellectual support resulting in massive devastation, destruction and death. World War II ended with the liberation of the western half of Europe.
That Europe enjoyed peace and stability, safe and secure. In hindsight it seems akin to a fairy-tale. Wise men constituted the European Community of Coal and Steel, a wholly new way of interstate cooperation. It channelled conflict into political debate, and it proved to be a success. Outside of Europe however, it largely remained an unknown.
On the Iron Curtain and Russia
In the east however a fifty yearlong Soviets occupation began. The Baltic states were absorbed in the Soviet Union and were quite literally wiped off the map. It was an illegal occupation, but it remained unchallenged for the sake of global stability and 'good relations'.
In todays' world quite a few people lament the crumbling of the Soviet empire. Russia, they say, was humiliated. This is not true. The Baltic states and the other nations did not infringe on Russian rights when they regained their independence. Or when they chose to join the European Union.
Much of that rhetoric can be seen with regards to the Ukraine crisis. Even a president that favoured Russia over the EU did pursue an association agreement with the Union. Since its sovereignty has been trampled upon, past treaties cast aside and its territorial integrity broken.
EU faces a choice
The EU has focused on economic concerns. Further reform and systemic chance is required, still. However, it will also have to realise there is no free ride where security is concerned.
Joining the Union was a costly process, but Eastern Europe took the necessary steps. The new member states are the example you can chance if the need arises. And it has. Neutrality is not and never has been the sure option.
Recounting how the bombs fell as she hid in shelters, her time as a refugee travelling across a ruined Europe, dr. Vīķe-Freiberga reminded us to count our blessings. We should neither complain nor despair. Europe should act.
A weakened Europe: economic troubles
Europe is weakened and one of the primary factors behind its decline is our economy. The problems it faces are structural in nature.
A growing part of the population is suffering from a loss in real income. No longer just an issue of the lower classes, but sections of the middle class, too, are losing out. As a result they grow ever more sceptical of mainstream politics and its capacity to provide a solution. They are also losing faith in the social model. This breeds uncertainty, which is detrimental for people's sense of security in the broadest sense of the word.
Externalising debt and growth of public debt have masked a shift in economic balance in the world. Europe's share on the global economy is dwindling; manufacturing is decreasing even in absolute terms and in the high-tech sectors, too, Europe is lagging. Europe will have to service a higher debt, being less competitive, dependant on strategic resources from outside the continent and facing an aging population. The social model will face increasing pressure, and is quite likely to unravel even faster.
A weak Europe: shifts in the global balance of power
The EU is not the only fragile power. All the major global actors have their weaknesses. The US has growth, but it seems to lack substantial basis and it is not creating jobs. China maintains higher levels of growth, but debts are increasing and the financial sector faces several severe problems. And so forth.
The problem with fragile powers is their uncertainty. It prompts them to adopt strategies to re-entrench themselves. Nationalism is a common trait. Protectionism, in various subtle guises, is used. Unilateral actions and deals outside of the traditional, western-inclined international organisations, are increasingly common and push Europe even further into the margin. Military spending is on the rise. So much it constitutes more than simple maintenance. There is marked increase in offensive capabilities. Raw materials are being used for political leverage more clearly than before. Other global actors are ruthless, more so then the EU.
A European response: new models needed
The other strategic option as a fragile power is to invest and cooperate. It will create a more stable global economy and relieve some of the growing tensions. The EU has the capacity to do so, but it needs a game plan.
The solution is not more or less Europe. It certainly is not abandoning our social standards. What is required is a grand vision that unites politicians and through them, the European peoples. It requires solidarity, especially in the field of foreign politics. It requires Europeans understand that in the global competition cooperation is necessary. It is a bargain, not a matter of institutionalisation.
The EU has to invest in new industries: efficient, self-sufficient if possible and creating high added value. Europe should not rely on huge multinationals, but on diversity and smaller, innovative companies. High standards should be the norm, and Europe should impose those standards to its trading partners. The same principle of high standards can be applied in healthcare and education; some member states are already proving it can be done. In short: Europe needs to elevate itself.
If Europe manages to do so it can share and increase prosperity globally. In turn, it will increase security. It is not just Europe that should be free of want. Dr. Holslag also warned his audience: if we waver, or fail to even try, then the current models will collapse and global power politics will grow even nastier. The choice is clear.
On the UK and economic discontent
Alderman of the city of The Hague and former Permanent Representative to the EU for the Netherlands Tom de Bruin iremarked on the emphasis put on material wealth and on the importance of values in a lecture on security. And the sore state of affairs in the Union today. It faces internal problems, too, as the United Kingdom considers a withdrawal of the EU.
Both speakers agree that it would weaken the Union further. It would be the first time a country exits the Union, tarnishing its perfect track record. It might prove even worse for Britain itself, as it will be left in the fringes of power.
Dr. Vīķe-Freiberga added a general disconcerting note. Britain's actions are those of politicians concerned with the results of the next election. Short-sightedness which is even more prevalent in companies. The systemic failure evident in the 2008 crisis has not been redressed properly. Politics seems unable to fulfil promises to an electorate that has suffered increased economic inequality.
On the new European Commission
The new Commission has to deliver no less then perfection, according to dr. Vīķe-Freiberga. It will be hard, but the novel approach by Juncker in organising the Commission is a promising start. Dr. Holslag supplemented what perfection means: jobs, jobs, jobs. Everything, from trade to energy, should be instrumental to provide those jobs. It is an essential element if the EU is to win back people's trust.
On Latvia and the 'eastern marches'
Latvia has a significant Russian minority, causing quite stir in the last elections. Quite a few were not able to vote. Dr. Vīķe-Freiberga stressed that was a choice made by those very people. The Russians in Latvia had every opportunity to become Latvian citizens. They chose not to. They are not victims and Russia has no business acting as if their rights are infringed upon.
Not allowing Russia to play the victim of unjust humiliation is a lesson Europe needs to learn, and quickly. The Soviet Union wiped Latvia of the map; that was unjust.
Dr. Holslag added to this by stating Europe acted too little too late in the wake of the MH17 disaster. Russia was on the ropes, but they got away. What leverage Europe had, it failed to make use of it. That fact alone damaged the perception of Europe as a global power.
On EU foreign policy
Do the large countries have convergent interests? Dr. Vīķe-Freiberga sees foreign policy as a missing component in the European project. Despite the best efforts of the EU's diplomatic service and Ashton, convergence has not materialised. They should realise that vis-a-vis China they are all puny.
Dr. Holslag wondered why countries are sticking to this strategy, these policies. Maybe for the photo-opportunity for their respective national audiences? Regardless, they feel it is in their national interest, but they are deluding themselves. Tending to the interests of multinationals makes matters even worse. The dominance of the US, militarily and - in these matters - intellectually hinders Europe to see where its own interests lie. Has NATO hindered that development? NATO and article 5 have their uses, but it should be used in the strictest sense. To help protect European territory. Other then that the EU ought to be able to project its own power, and it will need to invest in the means to do so.
If it requires further integration, then do so. The common interest is to do what is necessary.
Why it really is different this time
Europe has been called a has-been continent many times before. In 2014 it is the very model that is being threatened. Politicians, business and the people alike look at China or neo-liberal capitalism for answers to the current crisis. These are failing in their own ways, it is folly to pursue them. But if you lack the conviction you can solve it yourself within your own paradigm, it changes things.
Europe cannot win on their terms as it will lose the financial battle of attrition. It needs to focus on its own core strengths. And it needs to learn how to play the field. Acting tough on the international stage is necessary. This time around the other powers have alternatives. Europe cannot afford to lose even more ground.