Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century

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The present moment might seem a curious time to be arguing, against the conventional wisdom, that Europe will “run” the 21st century. After all, isn’t the EU famously rife with internal division? Didn’t France and the Netherlands recently reject the new EU constitution? Didn’t Austria just come perilously close to derailing Turkish membership, the union’s latest grand design? Isn’t Europe’s population graying, and aren’t its major economies struggling, trussed up in red tape and burdened by overgenerous welfare states? As for Europe’s military power, the less said the better. What does Europe have to compare with the United States, the greatest, wealthiest power in world history? Or, for that matter, with China and India, the 21st century’s rising giants?

What Europe has, argues Mark Leonard in his provocatively titled book, Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century, is a model, one centered around a new understanding of power and embodied in the institutions and norms of the European Union. The EU exerts an irresistible attraction on the countries around it, Leonard says, drawing them into its orbit, embedding them in its legal and economic framework and changing them from the inside out. Next to this “transformative power,” the United States’ military might, which can change regimes but not societies, and whose application is necessarily fleeting, seems a weak instrument indeed. Increasingly, Leonard tells us, we’ll see more regional groupings emerge bound, as the EU is, by mutual self-interest and common values. It’s in this sense, he argues, that Europe—or, more precisely, the “European way”—will dominate the 21st century.

Leonard is Director of Foreign Policy at the Center for European Reform in London, where he works on transatlantic and EU-China relations. He recently spoke with Mother Jones by phone from the UK.

Mother Jones: As we’re forever being told, the United States is the most powerful country in the history of the world and is likely to remain so, even as China rises, for the foreseeable future. But you’re arguing that this view rests on a minsunderstanding of power. How so?

Mark Leonard: My book isn’t about Europe so much as it’s about power, and how you go about getting your way and acting in the world. I’m not arguing that Europe will be the most vibrant economic bloc in the world or that it will have the biggest army; I’m saying that the European way of doing things, the European model, will change the way the world works.

What we’re coming to realize is that the classic 19th century idea of power is coming unstuck in an interdependent, globalized world. In this world, military power is still important, but it’s becoming less so, and the price for using it is much higher than before, as the US has found in Iraq.

Why Europe Will Run The 21st Century

MJ: So what kind of power does Europe have, by contrast?

ML: Europe has what I call “transformative power,” the power to change countries from within. First of all, the EU is not a superstate or an empire; it’s a sort of decentralized club. It has developed the biggest single market in the world, and it can offer other countries trade and aid and all the carrots that major powers have been able to dangle in the past. Secondly, the EU projects power not by threatening to invade other countries but by threatening to exclude them from its benefits—either from being members of the club or from being engaged with the club in some way. And thirdly, the power of the EU is embedded in law. To join the European club you have to adopt 80,000 pages of laws, stored in 34 volumes, which govern everything from human rights and the protection of minorities to the composition of tomato ketchup. And that sort of legal power allows you to transform not just the regimes in other countries but the whole of their societies. You can see that with countries like Turkey and the Balkans, which are completely changing the way they’re governed so as to meet EU membership criteria. That’s very different from military power, which lasts only as long as your troops are on the ground.

MJ: It also assumes the countries outside the system are actively choosing to change, rather than having change imposed upon them.

ML: Exactly. One of the key reasons the EU is less threatening than great powers in the past is that when it deals with diversity, as in so many other areas, it’s reacting violently against many of its own mistakes in the past. It’s a post-imperial superpower. During the imperial period, Europeans did have this idea that there was a single sustainable model of human progress, and they sought to impose it forcibly upon people around the world. The EU has a way of accommodating and nurturing diversity in a liberal way. It has a set of norms that are essentially about respecting difference—the rule of law, human rights, etc., which it embodies in its relations with other countries.

MJ: You write in the book that a key factor in the EU’s success is its “invisibility,” the fact that it’s virtually never experienced directly.

ML: Yes, it works through national parliaments and national governments. The central bureaucracy of the EU is skeletal; it’s smaller than most city councils. And all the policies are implemented by national governments or sub-national governments—local councils and regional bodies—rather than by the EU itself. That has meant that people generally haven’t felt that the EU was some sort of imperial project that was destroying their national governments or their country as a national entity. And 99.9 percent of what the EU does is highly technical and largely about regulation of the market and regulation of government. It generally isn’t involved with issues of great political salience.

MJ: But that cuts both ways, doesn’t it, in that people don’t see the benefits they’re getting from the EU—or don’t recognize the EU as the source of those benefits?

ML: The EU isn’t involved in the issues that people say they go to the polls to vote on in elections, like taxes, education, pensions, and healthcare. What’s starting to happend is that the EU is now getting involved in areas that have an impact on people’s lives, but not by delivering things they actually care about. It creates regulations, often in a way that’s slightly blunt and blind to cultural differences. And some of the macroeconomic policy measures, like the growth and stability pact for the euro, for example, does have big implications for governments’ national economic policies.

And so people have started to ask more questions about its legitimacy—partly mistakenly, I think, because while it is important, obviously, for political systems to be legitimate, it’s wrong to compare the EU with a nation state, because you’re never going to have to pay taxes to it. The amount of money that goes to the EU is barely one percent of European GDP, compared to 40 percent or more for EU countries. And nobody’s ever going to have to fight in a European army, or die for it, so it’s wrong to think it should have the same standards of legitimacy that the British government or the French government have. But at the same time, as we’ve seen in France, Spain and the Netherlands too many people have a sense that Europe is something that’s done to them rather than something they can control.

MJ: How can the EU counter that perception?

ML: What has always helped the EU are crises, when people are afraid of losing what they have at the moment. The EU isn’t the result of a brilliant plan for the future that everybody signed up to. All of its energy has come from negative events, to escape from the Second World War and the Holocaust, above all, of course, but every significant step along the way has stemmed from a more minor failure. In terms of the EU’s relationship with its citizens, things like the defeat of the French and Dutch referenda are a powerful wake-up call to national governments that they can’t really afford to continue making decisions in the way they have been. There’s a good quote in the book from Douglas Hurd, a former British foreign secretary, who said “What we do is we act now and legitimate it later.” The EU acts and sometimes forgets to legitimate it at all. I think that model of European integration has run its course.

People are now asking much more difficult questions, and leaders need to go out and make the case for what they’re doing. We’ve just had an enlargement process, admitting ten new countries, which was very much the right thing to do; but in no EU country was this fully explained to the citizens or was there a real national debate about it. So as a result you have myths and incomprehension, and the issues haven’t been thrashed out. Next, we’ll have Turkey and another wave of enlargement. France has changed its constitution, so they’re going to have to have a referendum on Turkish membership, and that means it’s going to be impossible to treat Turkey joining as a technical issue that doesn’t need to be discussed. There will be a big national debate, and this will force European governments to do things in a different way.

MJ: How optimistic are you that the EU can enlarge and still remain effective?

ML: In the past, everyone has said that there’s an inherent conflict between widening and deepening, and that the bigger Europe gets the more difficult it will become to do anything at all. Actually, the reverse has been true. At first there were six members, there was no single currency, no single market. It was far less ambitious than it is with 25 members. And each time the EU has gone through a process of enlargement it has also deepened at the same time and reformed itself. In fact one of the reasons it has ever done anything is because of the pressure to sort things out before it enlarges.

Another point is that the EU is no longer going through its construction phase. Over the past 50 years they’ve gone through quite an impressive process of building up European institutions and laws and common policies, and when you’re trying to build something it can difficult if you have lots of members each with veto power. The challenge now is managing and reforming what’s already there. Also, there are many provisions to prevent gridlock. There are areas where decisions are made by qualified majority voting rather than requiring unanimity, so you don’t have a situation like the UN, where a single country can simply veto things. In all but the most sensitive areas of national sovereignty, decisions are made in that way.

MJ: Some of the big European countries are struggling economically, and Europe’s population is aging in a pretty dramatic way. How is Europe going to tackle these problems?

ML: Well, it’s important to point out that Europe is in a much better state than many of its critics claim, largely due to the success of the European project. But Europe does face big challenges. The demographic decline is a massive threat to individual economies, and all European countries are starting to grapple with it. They’re going to deal with it by a combination of slightly modifying their migration regimes, so that every country moves toward a model of managed migration and economic migration, which was not on the agenda ten or fifteen years ago; and reforming their pensions systems, to avoid a pensions time bomb. Finally—and this is the most difficult thing, but it’s starting to work in some countries—countries will need some kind of natalist policy, where you use a combination of fiscal incentives, paid parental leave, child care, and other things to get people to have kids.

For Europe as a whole, its share of the global economy will hopefully be maintained, at the very least, simply by the process of enlargement, much as the US has enlarged its economy simply by sucking in more and more people each year. The EU economy, even as countries like Britain and France and Germany drop out of the G7 and are overtaken by the countries of the East, will maintain its market share by expanding from 25 to 27 to 35 members.

MJ: As more and more manufacturing and services move offshore to China and India, can Europe maintain its standards of living?

ML: It’s going to be a challenge, but on the plus side you have the European project itself, which means you have a home market of half a billion people. Also, they’re removing barriers in the home market, which gives individual countries a bounce; and the next big thing for the EU is to create a single market in services, which will give everyone a bounce. And that market will grow as the EU keeps expanding. And I think the fourth thing, which is a more contentious argument, is that in this kind of economy that will emerge, where you have China and India moving up the value chain and creating more and more of a threat to different sectors of our economies, the name of the game is going to be about trying to develop added value.

MJ: And how is Europe going to do that?

ML: In the book I describe what I call the Stockholm Consensus, which is a direction a lot of countries are moving towards. If you look at Denmark, Sweden, Finland, for example, what you have is quite a large and well-resourced state investing massively in its citizens to make them flexible so they can be productive in the economy, so you have a flexible and very adaptive state, and the welfare system is not just a safety net but is active, making sure people have the skills they need to adapt and move around and do high value-added things.

MJ: As you say, though, Europe is going to have to admit more immigrants, via some kind of “managed” process, because otherwise there won’t be enough people to do the available jobs. But we’ve already seen an anti-immigrant backlash in some European countries. So while ramped-up immigration might be economically necessary, in political terms it could be unviable.

ML: I don’t think there’s a universal move against immigration. Over the past few years there’s been an attempt to create channels for legal, economic migration. There has been a backlash in some countries, and especially in countries where there have been terrorist attacks. It is a problem for Europe that, unlike the US, the idea of being a nation of immigrants isn’t part of the national myth of any of the member countries, but there are hopeful signs. If you look at the big metropolises, like London, there is a very high level of integration, and most people see that diversity as a source of strength. And other countries, such as Ireland or Sweden, you’ve gone from having a very homogeneous population to an extremely heterogeneous one, without a big backlash. I think a lot of it depends on public policy and how you manage it—what kind of stories politicians tell, what kind of policies are used to integrate people, give them language tuition, work with citizen education, and so on.

MJ: Where does the US fit into this new world of legal networks and transformative power?

ML: The US for the foreseeable future will continue to be the single most powerful country in economic and military terms. In the past, it has understood that the best way of maintaining its preeminent position in the world is to win the consent of other countries, and to embody its values in international institutions, the rule of law, etcetera. The recent departure from that kind of orientation hasn’t been the most successful phase in US foreign policy. So I imagine there’ll be a swing back. But I think the worry for a lot of Europeans is that the US will swing back into a version of isolationism rather than a new engagement with the world similar to the one it had with Europe at end of the Second World War. I think ultimately that America is the country that’s closest to Europe in terms of its values and goals.

I’m fairly confident that the US will return to a more multilateral, rule-based approach to the world. And I think the two things that will drive that are, first of all, the development of a multipolar world as power shifts to the East and China and India rise in power and influence, which I hope will impress on the US the value of systems of law as a way of reining in great powers. Second, I think the success of the EU will serve as a model for other regional communities, which will often work around the US. In the meantime, what we’ll probably see from the US is this kind of thrashing about from a kind of missionary zeal on the one hand to a kind of isolationism on the other, though not classic isolationism, as the US is so integrated into the global economy. The US is going through a crisis at the moment in that its values and goals have been detached from any system that could deliver them. Increasingly, though, it will find itself having to respond to the changes that the EU is driving.


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