A follow up to the 70 years Schuman anniversary: What the EU must still do to be a Great Power

Radu Magdin
12 min readMay 12, 2020

While a lot of focus around the world in May was on the different meaning of 9 May, from Schuman Declaration to Victory Day, we must learn to be more present and future focused amid the twin health and economic covid19 crises. If we want to succeed in our exit strategies and restart and recovery plans, we can get inspiration from the past and our ancestors, but we need to also be focused and walk the talk. Hereby, I propose a follow up to the 70 years anniversary last week, focused on what the EU must still do to be a Great Power. This is a legitimate quest reading again the Schuman Declaration, since the mood of our age, the zeitgeist, is, whether we like it or not, great power competition, and, in the words of a French editorialist in NY Times in 2019, Europe needs to decide what we want to be, power or prey.

In 1950, Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister, delivered one of the most risky declarations Europe was to see for the next 70 years, one that refused individual European states the notion of putting their own national interests first and proposed a radical, collective vision for how the continent should function in order to bring about peace and economic prosperity. His 1950 “Schuman Declaration” stands as the foundation upon which the European Union started being built. It was also to remain the boldest act Europe was to undertake, as no single political decision since, at a continental level, had such a global order significance. It was a risky step but it worked: the European project delivered les trente glorieuses and beyond.

Schuman’s motivation was quite clear. Europe was still not in good shape, 5 years after the end of war, and he had lived through it before: failing reset and mitigating efforts, like the 1919 League of Nations, the Great Depression starting in 1929, the rise of nationalist and extreme parties, the failure by the democratic nations to address rising authoritarian states, and finally WWII. Are we in a similar position today? Have we, as a collective Europe, been failing for the past 20 years to recognise the changes the world is undergoing, and the difficult and radical choices we need to be making? And if so, are COVID-19 or the 5G race the contemporary “war” (obviously, fought with very different “weapons”) that would convince us it is time to act together boldly and rationally? History will tell, but Europe’s reaction to COVID-19 presented a worrying perspective in terms of initial reply, while, Grâce à Dieu, Brussels caught up afterwards in terms of solidarity as well as the perception of solidarity, despite the infodemic and great power competition. The fight over medical gear and equipment, inside and outside the club, sent initially a negative signal about Europe’s unity, but Europe bounced back, including with rescEU. Last but not least, after this week, pro-actively this time, the EU is leading the global financial response to the health crisis, with the organisation of conference that resulted in 7.4 billion euros raised from donors.

A Great Power Game the EU needs to play

But as with NATO, as with the US, and as with Russia, so has the continent shown its fracturing vis-a-vis China. The benevolent image about China that Europe had supported since 2001, when Beijing joined the WTO, has been contradicted by some perceived arm twisting, including in terms of infodemic reports. Mr. Borrell, in an act of courage that may bring about Europe’s first collective confrontation since its creation, declared recently Europe’s naiveté vis-a-vis China. It is an irony that maybe President Trump is the only one to appreciate, while Europe cannot continue to pretend that economic power comes without political consequences: great power competition, on substance but also in terms of perceptions, is a game the EU needs to play. As an Easterner who understands what it means to be at the crossroads of three empires (for us it was Russia, Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian one), I understand the colossal, but fundamental task ahead. The EU has in terms of great power competition three interlocutors, the US, China and Russia, with other medium -and assertive- regional power looking into our neighborhood. It cannot ignore this and pretend the global arena is not also a power — and perceived power — play.

Speaking of great power competition and consequences, if the technology race had been gathering clouds, can a global pandemic be what springs Europe into its 2.0 version of itself? The direct consequences of this pandemic will be a more indebted economy and a more fractured society, and Europe’s social fiber will be tested as this is the second economic crisis in a decade. While many will more easily point fingers at China now, while being still dissatisfied with Trump’s style and Russian disinformation and operations, we will stand apart even easier when it comes to designating our national interest and debate the role of the ECB and the famous coronabonds or our stance on fiscal consolidation. Are we supposed to no longer do business with China (or to drastically cut down our economic dependence on their manufacturing), while there is temptation in some capitals to lift our own sanctions against Russia? Are we supposed to create an appeasing mechanism, like the JCPOA with Iran, which may be beyond our capacity to enforce, or should we maybe force one another to renounce our squabbles over money and adopt a reasoned position as regards Moscow and / or Beijing? Will we confront Mr TaxMan or will we wait for Biden in the hope of a 2021 TTIP and in the meantime try to avoid transatlantic trade wars? All these are strategic dilemmas for Europe and the Geopolitical Commission led by a German, just a few months away before the German Presidency of the EU.

But Europe was designed with a franco-german engine at its core, so, what would Paris and other capitals say if one looks for inspiration in the wise man's writings of the 50s, in the context of the Schuman Declaration’s anniversary? “(World) peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it”, is the opening of the Schuman declaration. Should such creative efforts make Europe push back against its own desire for a good life and acknowledge that it cannot act alone against a resurgent Russia and a fast assertive while still peacefully rising China? Proportionality is ill afforded now by Europe, for when Schuman uttered these words, Europe had yet to reckon with its geographic and demographic destinies: at the end of WWII, Europe comprised about 25% of the world’s population and controlled two thirds of the world’s territory. How much more intense should today’s European decision making be, considering China’s almost 20% of the world’s GDP, versus Europe’s about 16%? US still leads the podium and it remains to be seen if covid19 will accelerate or change the before corona prediction that in 2029 there will be an economic switch with China. In this trend context, the EU wants strategic autonomy but for what (shall we officially race for leadership or for Pax Europeana), from whom (Pax Americana or Sinica?) and how (amid competing health and economic emergencies), these are top questions we need to answer also for Global Europe to take off.

Solve internal problems to shine globally

One must be fair to the EU in terms of quick moves on the economic front, from aid to flexibility in budget rules, while it did not score well in terms of coronabonds and Karslruhe recent judicial decisions. The Europe we live in today is one described in Schuman’s declaration within the first few paragraphs: “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan”, and yes, we don’t seem on the same page in a lot of European Council starting moments, but we end up with a sort of a working compromise in the majority of cases at Summit sunsets. This is also because, honestly, Europe has no alternative but to march on, the other option being chaos and possibly war (like Schuman says it clearly: “A united Europe was not achieved and we had war.”). We think we have gotten very far in our transfer of powers to Brussels, but we also need a reality check compared with initial aspirations. In 1950, looking ahead, Schuman envisioned a united economic and political community for Europe, a united economy for Africa, both still on our to do list. In 1950, he warned about international cartels which would use lock-in (technological) practices to try and restrict us — a Nostradamus moment looking at current global trade temptations. And he envisioned a radical form of transparency, under which we would be checking upon one another and we would be reporting to the world about it. We would track and trace ourselves, and be better and more competitive.

But for Global Europe to take off, the EU must solve its internal problems (first or follow a dual internal and external effort in parallel); I know this well coming from a country consuming too much political energy inside instead of using part of it outside. As Nicolae Titulescu, a top Romanian diplomat and former head of the League of Nations put it, “give me a good internal policy and I will give you a good external one”. So the club must be orderly and seem aligned in values and economic recovery action, since the latter will become our mantra after the immediate health situation seems more under control. If we are slowly but surely getting to checking up on one another — not in the Soviet sense, but in trying to contain manifestations such as those of Viktor Orban, we are yet to be an example of transparency and good governance for the world. We have not been creative enough about this and we cannot be a beacon of soft power for the rest of the world while we do not address internally what makes us weak. And when we do, maybe we will see that more of our own people, but also among the international community, are drawn by our vision of European values and way of life. This is our greatest strength and we should make more of it, as the basis for our renaissance. We don’t have to choose between the US and China, we can offer the world our distinct model and world view.

What should the EU — and Global Europe — do in the context of the 70th anniversary?

There are 3 things that, in my view, Europe should bet on in the context of the 70th anniversary, since symbolic years provide energy and momentum and should not be lost (sorry to say this in context, but a European Convention is a lengthy, non-magical, moment in time):

Europe should continue to be open and transparent to the world; a city on a hill, if we were to look at our Christian roots, not a citadel for defensive purposes or moods. This does not mean more economic emigrants and more social handouts (although we should continue to invest in poverty reduction and equal access to opportunities), but a good governance framework that includes those of the world that want to be part of Europe’s economy and economic world order. Then, nobody is forcing anyone, and others don’t have to weather great power competition alone. Japan clearly understood this and is connecting each year more with the EU; others are following suit and global crises are also opportunities of global cooperation and rapprochement. Europe should allow itself to be held accountable more -like through the pace at which it moves to a net-zero carbon impact- but it should also be able to lead the global movement of the Green Industrial Revolution. The bounce back to Green Recovery from a perception of possible abandonment of the Green Deal is a good move by Brussels.

Europe should be a military and security force — for its internal cohesion, and for ensuring peace in its neighborhood and around the world. The fardeau of post-colonial legacy was forged in the Marxist laboratories of the Soviet Union, we should not forget. Stop thinking about historic legacies and let us secure the future by taking bold decisions at present. This does not mean a difficult past doesn’t exist — but as the EU-G5 Sahel accord signed just last week shows us, we are stronger together. A Europe that cannot help its friends is a Europe that is a weakness for others. If we help others, some of our negative legacy can be forgiven, because people overcome bad history when in need and when help comes. This has been the foundation for Schuman’s vision of putting together the Coal and Steel Community with Germany and France at its core. When global institutions and rules are under stress, including our High Authority, the UN, someone should step in and fill the international leadership gap, which is normally the instinct of our American friends and partners, under wiser administrations.

Europe should be bold and assertive; Venus does not mean weakness or perception of decision impotence, smart beyond soft power can prevail over sharp one. Since the Renaissance and the Age des Lumières, Europe had been at the forefront of grand strategy and global thinking. Yes, Sun Tzu is trendy, particularly in moves related to China, but remember Macchiavelli, Napoleon and Clausewitz. World War Two and the Cold War and its aftermath, just like COVID-19, was the shock that diminished us on the strategic front, leaving the world stage for actors more decisive and more single-minded than us, while we focused on prosperity hoping that soft power is enough. But the world is also clapping Colosseum looking for heroes, we want to secure our bread but we watch out for the global agenda circus. Complaining about disinformation and its corona newborn, the infodemic, is not worth of an aspiring great power, Europe must walk the talk. It has instincts but its muscles don’t have the practice any longer. This should be taken into consideration upon laying in 2020 our new European Security Strategy. A strong Europe, in a safer, economically recovered, world, may be more timely as title and aspiration than the 2018 safe Europe in a better world. Harsh reality shows that a better world does not happen per se, we need to show the path and walk on it with our partners and friends. Venus needs to drop any wishful thinking after seven decades.

But let us also be encouraged in terms of Global Europe. Probably the single most important contribution to the world that Europe has made over the past 5 years, and one that got the least attention globally, is the support the EU has offered to the African Union and the creation of a pan-continental trade accord. This is more than just economics or decreasing migration or Sahel security threats. This is about Africans being empowered by Europeans to rise, to enjoy the fruits of their labour, to develop their own complex and diverse economies, and become partners of the EU. In a way, even in these times of crisis, Europe feels mighty now, but in the greater pond of humanity, we are only 7% and one of the smaller continents. We are getting older, hopefully also wiser not declining. So let us plan as if we had to help others, let us act as if we are helping those that will later help us. Solidarity is at the core of our project inside, let’s make it also our distinctive feature as regards Africa and the wider Global South. As Schuman put it “this production will be offered to the world as a whole without distinction or exception, with the aim of contributing to raising living standards and to promoting peaceful achievements. With increased resources Europe will be able to pursue the achievement of one of its essential tasks, namely, the development of the African continent.” Let’s make that dream come true.

Conclusion: Matusalemic 70, the end of the beginning for the EU, not the beginning of the end

Europe is still in shape at 70, it is Matusalemic from this perspective, not yet a grown up in terms of full integration, despite doom sayers claiming Club destruction, this time in corona context. On this occasion, our leaders in Brussels and national capitals should remember they have a historic mission as we are confronted with a jamais vu cocktail of crises, and here Schuman provides inspiration as well: “The contribution which an organized and living Europe can bring to civilization is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations”. Let us proceed accordingly, we live in difficult times, but it is the end of the beginning for the EU, not the beginning of the end.

Photo credentials: https://www.juniqe.com/captain-europe-premium-poster-portrait-158556.html



Radu Magdin

Global analyst, consultant, trainer & think tanker. Former PM adviser in Eastern Europe. Power Strategist -focus: #leadership #competition #communications #risk