BY now everyone knows: 2016 was the European Union’s “annus horibilus”, the year of living dangerously and on the edge. The year of “polycrises” and much lamenting on how the bloc was drifting towards oblivion, irrelevance and perhaps even dissolution.
Brexit was a body blow to the EU’s self-confidence. Toxic populist politicians dominated the political conversation. Migrants continued to arrive in waves, triggering a wedge between a (relatively) welcoming Western Europe and Poland, Hungary and Slovakia who built fences to keep the unwanted out.
The arrival in the White House of President Donald Trump with his visceral dislike of all things multilateral, including the EU, led to much moaning about the demise of the liberal Western-led liberal order.
Seriously, as Trump would tweet, it was bad. And sad.
But guess what? While America struggles to make sense of the president it elected, Europe is back — and it’s looking good, at least for now.
The repugnant Geert Wilders and equally repellent Marine Le Pen did not secure the votes they needed to hijack democracy in the Netherlands and France respectively.
The Netherlands caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte is still trying to set up a new government following elections on March 15. In France, the reformist, liberal and pro-EU Emmanuel Macron is president.
And although there are German elections later this month, most Europeans admit that the polls are unexciting.
Both candidates — incumbent German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Social Democrat contender Martin Shultz — are stalwart pro-Europeans. So even if Merkel is defeated (unlikely given the current opinion polls), Germany will not veer off the EU trajectory.
Small wonder then that EU policymakers say with a sigh of relief: “We are out of the ‘valley of tears’.”
Indeed. It’s time to stop weeping, to hammer home Europe’s resilience. To tell Europeans that they are not as vulnerable, weak and fragile as the populists would have them believe.
It’s time to spotlight, the EU’s achievements and strengths and to promise to tackle its weaknesses. It’s time for a sober pat on the back, not yet time for a full-fledged celebration.
So what does the EU — EU27 without Britain — have to do to make this temporary reprieve into a permanent peace? Here are some very subjective suggestions:
Stay calm in the midst of all horrible noise, fury and bluster. It’s a noisy and distracting world, crisis-ridden, moth-eaten and getting louder by the day. If it isn’t Trump tweeting, it’s frothing and fuming over Brexit that dominate our lives. Like it or not, the EU is the adult in the room. And the authority it exerts now comes from quiet self-assurance, peacefulness and grace under fire. Let it stay this way.
Change with the times. It’s no use hankering after “US leadership” or the “good old days” when the West ruled the world. That post-World War order is over, forever. It won’t come back after four years or even eight years of Trump. The world is moving on, quickly. The EU should use the coming years to forge its own global identity, move out of America’s shadow and build new strategic friendships — and reenergise existing ones — with the new kids on the bloc, including China and India.
Even as they rejoice in Europe’s rebirth, EU policymakers should be careful not to come across as complacent and arrogant. The populist threat in Europe has not disappeared. The East-West split over refugees, values and freedom of expression is serious and dangerous. Brexit will be a drain on energy and resources. The current peace is not permanent.
Start getting serious about tackling the many challenges in its neighbourhood. It’s fine to criticise and slap sanctions on Russia and Turkey — and to put off further enlargement with the Western Balkans states — but current tensions cannot go on. Like it or not, the EU has to keep engaged with the “bad hombres” who lead some of these countries. And even if it puts relations on hold with governments in the region, there must be no suspension of help and support for long-suffering people.
Avoid creating Fortress Europe. The EU has welcomed thousands of refugees and migrants in recent months and has kept its doors open despite the populists, internal divisions and a nagging press. While the number of people seeking to enter Europe may have gone down, young men and women looking to escape war or find a better life will continue to come to Europe. It’s important to start a serious rethink of EU immigration policy, especially in view of Africa’s growing populations and Europe’s shrinking and ageing one.
Keep Europe open for business. Interestingly, while the US withdraws from trade deals and contemplates new ways of protecting domestic producers, the EU has been seeking out new trade deals with an array of partners. The recent EU-Japan political deal on a free trade agreement has sent the right message on Europe’s desire to keep its markets open. It would be a pity if that message of openness was overshadowed by stringent new EU moves to keep out investments — including those from China.
The short list above is not comprehensive. The months ahead will be dominated by talk of serious reform and change, including in the functioning of the eurozone, and the speed of future integration.
While leaders try and pick up the gauntlet on the big issues of the day, important messages on at least some of the suggestions above would be useful.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels
Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2017