22nd Oct 2020


Can Europe rise to Obama's challenge?

  • Capitol Hill, Washington - "This is not the time for Europe and the United States to pursue independent paths" (Photo: Wikipedia)

From time to time it is worth reminding ourselves why 27 European nation states have come together voluntarily to form the partnership that is the European Union.

This is not in order to fulfil a misty-eyed aspiration of some species of ‘greater Europe,' though eventually that may be the outcome; nor has it much to do with a ‘union of peoples,' though given our conflict-ridden history we can forgive our own Founding Fathers that aspiration. No, we have come together for a reason far less romantic and far more prosaic: we have come together out of plain self-interest.

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Our individual countries have each considered their national priorities and asked the simple question: ‘taking the rough with the smooth, can our interests - be they domestic or foreign, economic or social - be best achieved alone or by combining with others?'

Each country knows that whatever its ambitions may be it will never be able to achieve everything it wants, but, across the board, more objectives are likely to be achieved by pooling sovereignty than by preserving it intact. This is especially the case when responding to threats to its well-being, whether these be military or economic, environmental or agricultural.

As the globe has shrunk under the influences of trade, travel and communications, so the threats faced by governments come less and less from their domestic populations and more and more from events taking place way beyond their borders. And now this global melting pot, in which we all have become embroiled, faces multiple systemic crises which threaten every country.

We face an environmental crisis, not just climate change, but destruction of the very biosphere that is our life support system; we face a crisis in the provision of secure and clean energy; as we consume finite resources we face the threat of unsustainability; we have a crisis of world poverty which, quite apart from social injustice, increasingly threatens us with massive immigration. Our prosperity is threatened by global economic crisis; we face a significant threat from terrorist groups, sustained and exacerbated by conflict, particularly in the Middle East.

Outside Europe the threats are even more severe: they are to life itself, through hunger, bad governance, poverty, human rights abuse, pandemics.

These threats cannot be ignored. The question is how should we meet them and overcome them. Certainly in Europe we have brought our collective weight to bear on many of these issues with varying degrees of success. Yet as a Union we are still far from united. Our national focus remains.

We compete for what we can get out of the European Union, rather than on what we can achieve collectively through it. As Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, the former Danish Prime Minister, indicated here just the other day: with the possible exception of climate change, too often the European response represents the lowest common denominator, largely devoid of aspiration.

Partly this is due to our inability to resolve our own internal problems of governance. We lack for leadership. There is still no one who can speak pro-actively for Europe, even though Nicolas Sarkozy made a valiant attempt, while France held the European Presidency, to raise Europe's aspirations.

If the Lisbon Treaty does ever come into effect then we shall have a European President but the fact that we cannot say how such a Presidency would work in practice, shows that we are not very serious about it.

Europe's vacillation

Europe's vacillation here is thrown into sharper relief by President Obama's inauguration. In his inaugural address - which should surely be seen not as a stand alone speech but in the context of the step-change he is promoting - he may have set out the structure of a new American order, but his appeal surpassed the United States alone.

For another effect of the ever tighter embrace of globalisation is that the actions and tone of the US Presidency affect ever more countries and ever more peoples. Obama is President of the USA, certainly; but many people listening to his words in many continents will regard him also as a kind of unofficial ‘world president.' Obama knows that whenever he speaks, they, too, will be listening.

My interpretation of this inaugural address was not that it was Obama telling America and the world what he was going to do. Rather it was of Obama subtly telling the world - its peoples and its states - what they themselves should be doing. The world is broken, was his message, but I can give you the frame of mind to help you fix your part of it.

That message is a challenge and in particular a challenge to the European Union. Our traditions and our collective interests in the world overlap those of the United States to a high degree. Europeans found many actions of the Bush Presidency hard to accept - but Obama offers an agenda, spelt out before a crowd of 200,000 in Berlin long before he became President, that might have been drafted on this side of the Atlantic - an agenda multilateralist in tone, inclusive and oriented towards human rights and sustainability.

On all the major issues, economics, climate, sustainability, conflict, proliferation, human rights, social justice, the rule of law, liberty, his US agenda is our European agenda. It's up to us now whether we accept his approach, his frame of mind. If he asks Europe for more troops for Afghanistan it is not to win some barren ideological conflict: it is for the deeper purpose of stopping evil men shooting schoolteachers and throwing acid in the faces of young girls who want an education.

Will Europe respond? Can Europe respond? The Obama agenda seems to be saying that we owe to ourselves the duty of resolving our differences and defending those liberties we jointly adhere to, while at the same time marching in step with the US towards the wider goals we share.

This is not the time for Europe and the United States to pursue independent paths, still less for Europe to vacillate. We shall achieve more if we act collectively and decisively to strengthen the transatlantic partnership. ‘Yes we can' does not have to be a uniquely American message. Europe, too, can be a part of that great global ‘we.' But it will require a conscious and determined action on Europe's part. Nobody in these times of crisis and danger can afford to be too precious about their sovereignty.

The writer is an independent commentator on European affairs


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

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