Are we too inward-looking?

June 3, 2014

Xavier Devictor Rzeczpospolita Newspaper

As European elections are approaching, there is much talk across the Union about the rise of populist and “anti-EU” forces, from France to Hungary, from the Netherlands to Greece.  Even in mainstream parties, it is increasingly common to question the so-called “European project” and to look for ways to avoid abiding by the common rules. 

It is not my role to comment on these debates.  But it is interesting to observe that there has been a parallel trend, which has been less noticed and less discussed – i.e. that the EU may have become increasingly inward-looking.

The Eurozone crisis, the negotiations of the successive bail-outs, the focus on enforcing the Maastricht rules, the internal functioning of a complex and unprecedented 28-member group, and the building of an “ever-closer” union in areas such as the financial sector have absorbed most of the political energy in the EU.  There is no question that these were important steps and necessary reforms – and that the people in the EU are better off as a result of these efforts.  But in the process, the EU may have been less active in discussions that span beyond its borders, from the multilateral forums to the associations with neighboring countries.

In parallel, the flows of trade and investment have remained heavily “within-EU” focused, with the exception of a few member countries.  Let’s illustrate this with a few numbers.  Global trade has increased by over 120 percent since 2004, but for EU members, trade with non-EU countries has increased by less than 10 percent in the same period.  Trade with the rest of the world represents only about 25 percent of GDP for the EU, compared to 30 percent for the US, 54 percent for China, and 49 percent for the rest of East Asia.

This pattern is particularly worrisome in a time of rapid globalization, when much of the global economic growth is outside of the EU and when global competitors are increasingly asserting themselves.  “Emerging” economies have largely emerged, and while the EU remains a formidable economic block, its relationship with these powers is increasingly on an equal-to-equal footing.  Indian steelmakers own steel plants in France.  Chinese investors are purchasing Italian treasury bonds.  The Brazilian food industry is at the forefront of research.  And the average speed of internet connection in Korea is twice faster than what we consider “fast broadband” in Europe (not to mention that less than 20 percent of EU citizens have a connection faster than 10 Mbps, compared to over 70 percent of Koreans).

A colleague of mine recently told an insightful anecdote: “When I went to China in 1991, I was asked to make a talk at a prestigious Shanghai university.  My lecture was translated into Chinese, and none of the students asked any question.  When I went back in 2001, I was asked to repeat the experience.  This time, there was no translation: all students spoke English, and asked questions.  In 2011, I did it again.  One third of the students were non-Chinese, including a number of Europeans”.  This is the prefiguration of tomorrow’s world, a world in which working together within the EU will be key for individual countries to maintain some influence over the shaping of the global “rules of the game”.

Europe has a long tradition of openness.  Of venturing to other parts of the world, and promoting exchanges (even if this was not always done in a peaceful manner).  Of opening its borders to large numbers of immigrants, who can bring new blood and new ideas.  Europe is not only part of “the old world”: its geography and its history provide it with a unique position to blend ideas, to bridge between continents, and to help create a new world.

The recent crisis forced the people in the EU and their political leadership to focus on internal issues.  This was necessary.  But the continued changes in the global arena should now lead us to look once again beyond our common border.  This is critical for the EU, but this is also critical for each individual EU country, such as Poland. 

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