Euro stability 'indispensable' for EU's global power
by Daniel Mason
Europe's foreign policy has been weakened by the economic crisis and it should not expect to "suddenly turn into a new superpower", European Council president Herman Van Rompuy said today, in a speech to the Chatham House think-tank in London. He said it was "counterproductive" to deny that the west was in "relative decline" as emerging powers grew in stature, and argued that the global challenges faced by European Union countries made working more closely together essential.
"Worried voices that 'Europe's foreign policy is falling victim to the public debt crisis' seem to me an exaggeration, but we have been weakened," he said. "It is also a matter of disproportionate expectations. We cannot expect Europe to suddenly turn into a new superpower." He acknowledged that "restoring the eurozone's stability is indispensable for us to punch our full weight at the global stage", and that "our efforts to overcome the crisis have become a key issue in our dealing with international partners".
Eurostat statistics published today showed that while the population of the BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India and China – is six times that of the EU, the EU's gross domestic product remains 50 per cent higher. Van Rompuy denied that the EU was becoming a "disengaged spectator" and said that the "crowded global stage" made it even more important to work together "as a club". He said: "Europe has a role to play: politically, economically, and also militarily. And in most cases, European countries can perform better by working jointly."
"The Europeans share a certain vision and approach, different from that of the Russians, the Chinese, the Japanese, or even the Americans," he added. Disagreements between member states on individual issues "should not be seen as a proof that Europe lacks a common foreign policy. The fact is that today, in the most dangerous hotspots, such as Syria, Iran or the Israeli-Palestine conflict, the 27 very easily find common positions, sometimes within hours." The pressures of the financial crisis and the rise of emerging powers were leading to a greater "synergy" between national diplomacy and Brussels, he said.
"The west still has major assets, the new players are less united than they pretend to be, and they too face huge internal challenges – political as well as economical." Van Rompuy said the "democratic wave" illustrated by the Arab Spring and anti-corruption protests in China would was "irreversible", a point that some emerging powers had not yet grasped. "Russia and China's position on the Syrian uprising shows that they cling to the past. History is on the side of democracy." Both countries have blocked the United Nations from taking firmer action against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Meanwhile in Libya last year, "at stake was the defence, not just of peace on our continent, but of European values. European leaders had to do their utmost to prevent a bloodbath just across the Mediterranean," said Van Rompuy, who will begin his second two-and-a-half-year term as council president tomorrow. He admitted that during that conflict Europe had "discovered that we still need American assistance, if not to win the war, at least to win the battle with overwhelming force. It was a wake-up call. Some concrete progress on pooling and sharing of European military capabilities has been made since then."
But he noted that power and influence were now more "a matter of economy, and less of weapons". The BRICs "inspire awe" for their economic performance and foreign currency reserves than for the size of their army. "On the American side, the experiences of both Iraq and Afghanistan have clearly demonstrated the limits of military power, as the United States has recognised itself."
Van Rompuy acknowledged that the "scramble for markets and resources" was still about "competition and confrontation". But he said the interdependence of global economies meant they could not achieve prosperity by undermining each other. "Access to our common market, the world's largest, is a much sought after prize," he said. "From our side, trade with the rest of the work is a key engine for growth." He said trade was "still the best example" of a strong common approach giving Europe considerable weight in the world.
Elsewhere, the International Monetary Fund's deputy managing director Nemat Shafik said today that "every country in the world, not just in Europe" faced economic difficulties. Speaking at the Brussels Economic Forum, she added: "There is no denying that Europe remains at the epicentre of the current crisis. It is essential to build on the considerable progress that has already been made to overcome the deep challenges facing the region."