The Decade Ahead for Europe: An EU Perspective


By Robbin Laird

Clearly, Europe is in crisis. In my own view, it faces a double constitutional crisis.

Brexit is an internal constitutional crisis in the “United” Kingdom and poses a constitutional crisis within the European “Union” which is itself undergoing significant regional devolution.

The continental European economies are facing as well significant challenges economically with average growth rates of around 1.5%.

While these internal dynamics are going on, Europe is challenged by the rise of 21st century authoritarian states.

In addition, the United States remains the strongest Western economy and, in spite of mainstream European views of President Trump., continues as the significant backbone for military defense for Europe as well.

There is a growing impact of Australia and Asia upon Europe both in terms of trade, but also in terms of internal engagement.

That in a nutshell would be my cryptic view.

Now let us look at the analyses proffered by a recently released “Inter-Institutional EU Project,” entitled Global Trends to 2030: Challenges and Choices for Europe.

Whatever the global challenges. we are advised at the outset of the importance of Europe globally and, by its de facto importance, that Europe as an integrated entity will have a persisting positive strategic impact.

With these profound changes underway, it may seem easy to dismiss Europe, as too small and too insignificant to really make a difference, but that would be a grave mistake.

Not only does Europe need Europe, but the world needs Europe as well – as an inspiration for a better future; a sound balance between economic, social and environmental objectives; a beacon of democracy, diversity and freedom; and a true champion of multilateral solutions and collaborative approaches in a world increasingly dominated by nationalism and zero-sum politics.

Europe is still a normative superpower, the place that sets the global gold standard when it comes to human-centric technology and digital rights, to regulation and consumer welfare, to social protection and inclusive societies.

We learn as well that we are entering a new historical epoch — the poly-nodal one.

Multilateralism is a key dynamic, and the ability of states to belong to international organizations and alliances will “constitute capital.”

“Soft power and the ability to inspire others will also increase in importance. This means that values will not go out of style, and states with shared ones will continue to gravitate towards each other.”

We learn that Europe will be the second major economic power by 2030 with strong growth continuing.

We learn that globalization and trade will increase, and that the European Union because of its acceptance of multiculturalism, climate change, globalization and the other positive forces will be central to the world’s evolution as seen in the projected 2030 world.

Terrorism and conflict will remain as threats of course.

And with regard to the future of warfare:

There are a few things we can say with certainty about future conflicts: for instance, extrapolating from past trends, we can assert that while interstate wars have become less prevalent, we will still witness one per decade at the global level.

This can take place in many different forms: at sea, in the air, on land, in space – and in the cyber domain. But it can also take on hybrid forms and come without a formal declaration or open acts of war: propaganda and political agitation, too, will be part of the offensive portfolio of others.

In addition, the current unravelling of the non- proliferation regime re-opens the possibility of stand-offs between nuclear powers.

The number of intrastate (or civil) wars will either remain the same, or increase in the coming years – that is, to over 40 ongoing conflicts per year. We can assume this because all the indicators for the drivers of conflict are projected to grow: climate change, inequality, youth bulges, repression, the unchecked spread of small arms and the connectivity of non-state actors all mean that states that are already facing numerous internal challenges will probably face even more difficulties in the coming years….

Different types of warfare will require very different skillsets from our armed forces: whereas conflict stabilisation is normally less sophisticated and more manpower intensive, it also lasts longer and requires long-term political commitment.

Conflicts that we are the victim of can happen at any time, in any place, in any way: a 360° type of conflict for which we are currently not ready – but others are. It might include modern technology in the shape of unmanned aircraft and ‘killer robots’

But there are other more pressing threats. The real danger emanates from all those types of attack which we do not immediately recognise as such, be it infiltration, media and political manipulation or cyber-attacks.

This is a problem area because “Europe needs to ready itself for all the aspects of war likely to unfold — while also engaging in conflict prevention and resolution.”

But we are warned that “the majority of conflicts that break out in the coming years will take place within a state, rather than between states.”

There are a number of projections:

  • Trade will increase;
  • Food and water will have to be watched;
  • Warfare will change;
  • Terrorism will remain;
  • Technology will spring ahead;
  • People will move;
  • Populists will try (and we learn that the American case shows that populism is less about past performance and more about future expectation);

The report then addresses what it considers to be the game changers:

  • How do we save the planet?
  • How do we improve aging?
  • How doe we manage new technologies?
  • How do we position Europe in the world?
  • How do we manage conflict?
  • How do we protect democracy at home?
  • How do we reach equality?

Each of these sections have some amazing judgments inserted.

“As Europeans, we reject violence, but we will have to be ready for those who do not.”

Or this one: “In both types of conflict, at home or abroad, defence will not be the only tool, but will be the main tool.”

Or this one: “The more equal our societies are, the better prepared we are to face the challenges of the future.”

I think this comment best captures the tone of the report:

Many aspects of the poly-nodal system we are entering are familiar to Europeans: we have built our foundations on relations and communication between powers of different sizes, and the plural nature of the world will mirror the plural nature of Europe. That said, this does not mean that finding our distinct place (and ability to influence) in this context will be an easy task.

But we do not have to wait for a place to be assigned to us. Indeed, the EU Global Strategy already contains the vision that we have for ourselves as a global player – now is the time to implement it with even more determination.

We can do this proactively by continuing to be a strong leader in the fight against climate change, a stout defender of democracy and human rights, a continuous supporter of the global trade system, a reliable contributor to multilateral organisations, and an agenda-setter for the development of human-centric technology and ethical uses of AI.

But to be defined as distinctly European in future geopolitics will require more than this: it will also require a change in mindset (and perhaps also institutions and procedures) as it will mean being more active in areas we did not sufficiently address before (for instance, in defence and conflict abroad). We will have to acknowledge the fact that the peaceful world we dreamt of is not yet within reach, adjust the way we communicate with the world and present ourselves, and act with conviction.

If we do so, and continue to build on the EU’s achievements of the past decades, we have the potential to be one of the shapers and innovators of this century – and continue to serve as an inspiration for others despite its flaws.

In this case, a united Unity in foreign policy will also help us forge a closer bond with our citizens again: overwhelmingly and regularly, two-thirds to three quarters of Europeans are in favour of common action in defence and foreign policy. We have a mandate to achieve this goal.

Perhaps this is inspirational, but my problem with the report and it is a key one — this is more about how to keep the German vision of the post unification period alive than it is realistic analysis of the world we live in and which is being battled over in the period ahead.

The report reflects a clear denial that there is any constitutional crises going on in Europe, or a realistic view of the continued central importance of the United States to the viability of Europe itself, or a realistic understanding of what an authoritarian China, an oligarchic Russia or new Sultan in Turkey is able to influence events within Europe let alone its global role.

These states clearly are playing on Europe a la carte even if the Commission works to avoid dealing with a reality in which the nation state has returned in significance, even if it is not a version of 19th century nationalism

We are in a different historical epoch from the post-unification period; it is about time we had some realistic assessment of how to navigate this new period of history so that it does not look like older ones.