PARIS – Are non-Europeans much less pessimistic about Europe than Europeans themselves? Could distance be a prerequisite for a more balanced view of the continent’s predicament?
In an interview a few months ago, Wang Hongzhang, the chairman of China Construction Bank, indirectly expressed his subdued enthusiasm for Europe. Quoting the Chinese proverb, “A starved camel is still bigger than a horse,” he went on to say that Europe’s economies are much stronger than many people believe. And, without saying so explicitly, he suggested that the time was right to go on a European buying spree at the right price.
Of course, not everyone would share this optimistic vision. Across the English Channel, British Euroskeptics rejoice that they have kept their distance from a “sinking ship.” But, while The Economist recently described France as being “in denial,” the same could be said of the United Kingdom. True, the French had neither the Olympic Games nor a royal celebration this year; but, when it comes to the state of their economies, the two countries are largely in the same boat.
If one travels to America or Asia, as I did this autumn, Europe’s image becomes selectively brighter: while it continues to be perceived as a positive model, it is no longer considered a global actor. Seen from the United States, Europe may no longer be a problem, but it is not considered a part of any solution to the world’s problems, either – with the possible exception of those that concern Europe directly (and, even then, doubts linger).
Yet, for many international investors, Europe continues to be, or is once again, a risk worth taking, if not – as in the case of Wang – a golden opportunity. In a time of growing complexity – and thus uncertainty – investors want to hedge their bets. At least some of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) appear to be running out of steam economically; and, while new emerging powers, such as Mexico, are tempting, they may prove to be more fragile than they look.
In this context, Europe may be a tired, aging, and depressed continent, but, as its luxury and aeronautics industries attest, it would be premature to bury it. Relative decline is obvious: Europe accounted for 20% of the world’s population at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but only around 7% today, while its share is expected to be even lower in 2050. But demography is not destiny: a small population has not prevented Singapore from sustaining a hyper-competitive economy.
Europe may not be a source of economic inspiration, but it still makes people dream. It is perceived as a model of “civility.” Whatever their other disagreements, Chinese and Japanese concur on one point: if Asia today, with its rising nationalist tensions, evokes Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, it is precisely because Asia has not embarked on a reconciliation process such as that which enabled France and Germany to transcend their centuries-old rivalry.
Likewise, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, may emphasize the specificity of “Russian civilization” in a manner evocative of nineteenth-century anti-Western thinkers; but many in the Russian elite still consider the European Union, despite its many weaknesses, the most civilized model of governance that exists. When Chinese seek a benchmark model for social protection, they go on study trips to Scandinavia.
But can Europe remain a model if it is no longer a serious geopolitical actor? When US officials say to the Europeans, “We need you,” what they mean is quite minimal: “Please do not collapse and bring down the global economy with you.” Europeans have become the Japanese of the West – financial contributors who at best play a supporting role in global strategic affairs.
For example, if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can still be resolved, a solution can come only with strong US involvement. Barack Obama, who wants to be a transformative president like his role model, Abraham Lincoln, could do worse to deserve the Nobel Peace Prize that he received prematurely than to facilitate a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement. Few expect such a colossal achievement, of course, but far fewer expect anything remotely similar from Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy czarina, or, for that matter, any European leader.
Europe remains a significant economic and commercial actor – one that can rebound at any time, now that it has at least partly transcended its systemic crisis. It also remains a model of reconciliation in which people can continue to dream, despite unacceptably high levels of unemployment, particularly among the young.
But Europe is no longer perceived as a global actor – and rightly so. It is an oasis of peace, if not dynamism. The question for Europeans today is whether they can – and, more important, should – be content with their status.