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Time for the EU to get back into the vision-thing (Visions of a World without the War on… Part II)


This is the second of a series of articles based on the – obviously contentious – assumption that in the foreseeable future the War on Terror will end or fade away, and that it is necessary to look beyond the current shadow of mistaken policies in international affairs. For the introductory article to this series, see “ Visions of a World without the War on Terror (Part I)” posted on 25/09/06.

It has been roughly a month since the annual general debates of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Does anyone remember the words of any EU leader or diplomat? Does anyone actually remember seeing any European Union representative? In fact, does anyone know where Europe is, except on Google Earth? Wikipedia tells me that its union has a population of 461 million, and the highest GDP in the world “if ranked”, two words that seems to indicate that even neutral encyclopedias are no longer certain about its relevance.

But let’s go back to the UN. George W. Bush was there, almost perfectly balancing the number of times he used the words “freedom” and “democracy” (fourteen times) with the mentioning of “extremism” (fourteen times), and peace (22 times) vs. terror and violence (only 20 times – he must have skipped some lines). Hugo Chávez was also there, combining his surreal humor with the usual anti-American ranting while at the same time propelling Noam Chomsky to the number one book bestsellers lists. Also Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was there, surprisingly focusing on nuclear technology, Zionism and the unjust occupation of some Holy Lands.

Where were the important actors of the old continent? Did the EU, in a forceful act of defiance of the inequalities and injustice of the present world order decide to boycott the whole affair?

Not quite. The presidents, prime-ministers and ministers of no less than 33 European nations spoke, including Jacques Chirac, Romano Prodi, and the minister of foreign affairs of Liechtenstein ( Rita Kieber-Beck, if you must know). But…what did they say? A quick glance at the UN website comfirms that foreign minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos once again reduced Spain’s international standing by insisting on the “Alliance of Civilizations” routine. At least it is a catchy phrase, certainly when compared to Chirac’s big “j’accuse-moment” that “international legality must prevail”.

The sad fact of the matter is that the European Union – whether understood as its union or as its individual member states – has become virtually irrelevant in international affairs. The usual excuse that it is busy with its internal affairs and ever-closer – or ever-wider, as seems to be the case lately – union is getting old. The argument that it cannot yet speak with one voice is slightly more convincing, but does beg the question why they cannot even manage a few common sound bites among some of its dozens of speakers addressing the UN. The answer is that the European Union, for all its criticism of the US during the Cold War and now during the current War on Terror (WoT), is rather comfy sitting back and enjoying its material possessions and relative security. The fear caused by communist dictators and Saudi terrorists allows politicians not to distance themselves too much from the White House – they wouldn’t want to undermine our basic freedoms and democracies by throwing out the baby with the bathwater – while at the same time catering for the anti-American sentiments by criticizing Washington’s cavalier approach to complicated problems that only sophisticated Europeans can really understand and do nothing about (after all, it’s complicated). With the barbarians at the gate, it is rather useful to stay close to you allies, and the EU is strictly adhering to this policy.

This failure to formulate its own vision of what it wants the world to become stands in stark contrast to the simplistic yet effective White House ideology – “peace vs. terror, democracy vs. extremists, good vs. bad” -, the Chávez philosophy – “US bad, opposing nations good” –, and the Ahmadinejad message – “Muslims are shown no respect by the infidels”. The effectiveness of each of these messages as well as Europe’s failure to have one is dependent on the continuation of the WoT. Without it, only empty rhetoric is left, and barbarians could no longer be an excuse.

This returns us to the initial objective of this article: envisaging a world without the WoT. Without international terrorism as a common, well defined enemy in a warlike environment, the European vacuum would be exposed. The EU – with its unsurpassed historical array of philosophers, visionaries and political movements – has no idea of what it wants with the world or what its role should be. For all its economic wealth, international connections and highly educated population, the Union has been incapable of coherently and productively using those resources at a global level.

When people – let’s say commentators at Fox News Channel – criticize the French defending oil interests in Iraq, the causation is misunderstood. Europeans do not prioritize relatively petty economic interests over the bigger, ethical picture: they simply do not have a bigger picture, and petty interests and intuitive moral guidance are all that is left. Unfortunately, direct interests tend to trump intuition any day of the week.

Even in its kindest interpretations, the WoT is nothing more than a reactionary attempt to hang on to the past, defending every inch of the western lifestyle. In a world without the WoT, what would be the issues that take precedence? These are likely to include the environment, persistent poverty, scarcity of resources, the rise of China, migration, cultural diversity and globalization, and yes, international terrorism. The European Union has a clear stated interest in all of these matters, and it needs decide how it wants to proceed. What should the EU’s role be in shaping the evolution of world affairs? What are its strong points? What relationship does it want with other regions across the globe? How about Washington?

Formulating an EU vision for the 21 st Century would require serious public debate, political leadership and international commitment. None of these are present at the moment; the required intellectual debate seems to have migrated across the Atlantic. The absence of powerful European think tanks, open policy forums, access to responsive politicians and politically influential commentators has made the birthplace of (western) intellectual thought almost free of policy-influencing public discussions, certainly in comparison with the United States. Although not even its worst enemies would wish the likes of Bill O’Reilly or Ann Coulter upon peaceful Europe, the fact remains that the dynamic and open nature of policy making has been replaced by an isolated political decision-making elite in most of its capitals.

As long as we continue to choose to live in the shadows of the WoT, none of the above is likely to change. If, however, the EU chooses its own path, free from the US imposed terror-shackles, there is still hope. Why don’t Europe’s leaders rely on its strengths which, matured through its bloody and painful past, can also boast a unique richness in international ties, cultural diversity, and historical experience and understanding? Its intuitive aversion to moralist intervention stands in useful contrast to the youthful idealism and can-do attitude of its partner across the pond. It is time for the 461 million people to start envisaging a new international role in which there are no longer excuses for inaction or knee-jerk criticisms of those who actually do try; it would prove a lot more satisfying to get into this whole vision-thing. And its leaders could start by reading some American self-development books. The EU should do better. The EU can do better… “The Power of Positive Thinking” would be a good choice.

Then again, some doubters will always remain:

“And some people arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.”
(Cavafy, 1904)

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