27th Mar 2023


EU should admonish less, and listen more, to the Global South

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This is no time for short attention spans. Last week's mega jamboree, aka the UN General Assembly, is already history as we grapple with new and pressing EU priorities.

Yet if as many claim geopolitics really is the EU's true calling, the bloc should learn lessons from what did — or rather did not — happen at the UN.

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  • Lip service to global solidarity is not enough. What is needed is empathy and humility, not outmoded Eurocentric arrogance

True, there is much to fret over: Georgia Meloni is poised to head a far-right government in Italy, member states are not sure if they should open their arms to those fleeing Russia's first mobilisation since World War II and Vladimir Putin may — or may not — be bluffing about going nuclear in his Ukraine war.

Also causing sleepless nights across Europe are inter alia the energy crisis, rising inflationary pressures, increasing public anxiety over making ends meet and fears over when and where the virus will strike again.

No wonder then that EU policymakers are in a rush to put last week's New York talk fest behind them.

My advice? Don't do it.

If the EU really wants to get ahead in a complex, complicated and fiercely competitive world, it must move beyond the West-centric transatlantic frame and truly engage with the Global South.

This means sharing Europe's knowledge, experience and wisdom with partners — but not lecturing and hectoring them.

Once in a while, EU folk must listen and learn. Telling others what to do must no longer be considered part and parcel of being European.

Good advice is welcome. But the EU's constant finger-wagging and moralising is becoming unbearably repetitive and self-defeating. Most countries in the Global South view it as Eurocentric and neo-colonial.

French president Emmanuel Macron's call at the UN for non-Western states to stop sitting on the fence and drop their "form of neutrality" in the Russia-Ukraine conflict is one such example.

The French leader, like others in Europe and America, believes that those who say they are non-aligned are wrong and are "making a historic error". He is right to voice his opinion. But he is wrong to berate.

Nobody loves Putin and Russia's violation of Ukraine's sovereignty has sent chills down the backs of many Asian and African leaders.

But their decision to try and stay out of the fray and disregard demands to join the Western war effort is based on national interest, not a whim.

Global South leaders do not want to become a pawn in a dangerous geopolitical 'Great Game' which they know imperils their nations. These arguments must be heard.

The inconvenient truth is that the EU's "we know best" approach is creating resentment among many non-Western states who complain of being infantilised.

An estimated 71 million people worldwide are experiencing poverty because of soaring food and energy prices driven by the conflict in Ukraine, according to the UN Development Programme.

Small surprise then that developing nations want the money being spent on the war to be made available to tackle food insecurity, poverty, energy shortages and the impact of climate change.

New Cold War in Africa?

As Senegalese president Macky Sall, the current chairman of the African Union underlined, "Africa has suffered enough from the burden of history" and does not want to be the "breeding ground of a new cold war."

Asians too are wary of increasing ideological tensions. Southeast Asian nations, with the exception of Myanmar, remain reluctant to take sides — although Singapore has imposed its own unilateral sanctions on Russia.

Importantly China and India, internationally berated for their "pro-Russian neutrality", are now pressing Russia to end the war and opt for democracy, diplomacy and dialogue.

There's also the awkward question of double standards. Much of Europe's legitimate concerns about the erosion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law worldwide is being undermined by its failure to put its own house in order.

Rising racism, the increased popularity of Europe's Far Right parties and now Meloni's victory in Italian elections, are making a mockery of Europe's claims to be a Union of values and equality.

EU leaders can hardly call out discrimination against minorities abroad if they are ready to accommodate racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism at home.

Europe's words of support for Iranian women protesting the compulsory hijab would carry more weight if EU governments did not have a history of interfering in the sartorial choices of their own Muslim female citizens.

The picture on the energy front is no prettier. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, among others, are being starved of access to liquefied natural gas because of the EU's huge appetite for the product to replace Russian energy.

EU countries are also developing offshore gas fields in Africa for export to Europe yet — much to the irritation of African leaders — maintain a ban on development funds for gas investments on the continent.

The EU's geopolitical profile has been lifted by its tough stance and unity on Russia, increased defence spending and solidarity with Ukraine.

Remaining relevant and credible in today's challenging environment requires more than tough talk and hard power. The EU must also adjust, adapt and listen to others' dilemmas and concerns.

Lip service to global solidarity is not enough. What is needed is empathy and humility, not outmoded Eurocentric arrogance.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She is also the editor of the EUobserver magazine.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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