The astronomer and prolific author Carl Sagan put it perfectly about the merits of analytical logic — what I often refer to as my superpower — when he said: “For me, it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is, rather than to persist in delusions, however satisfying and reassuring.”
I am afraid that to follow Sagan’s advice would end the careers of the lion’s share of EU commentators — often more cheerleaders than analysts — as they seem entirely incapable of looking at “the project” with anything other than rose-tinted glasses.
As the Brexit talks lumber to their Kafka-esque conclusion, it is important to note the larger political risk alarm bells that are ringing, not least the point that the EU leadership and its fawning commentariat blithely have absolutely no sense of their present declining status.
A recent case in point was a Zoom call I was on for a leading European think tank. A senior American Democratic Party analyst — pro-EU to the bone — and I were invited to give our opinions and then, as is the custom, we took questions.
After speaking at great length about the emerging Sino-American bipolar structure of our new era at the superpower level, a series of plaintive queries came from our mainly European audience. But what about Europe as a superpower? Gently, kindly, as if we were dealing with a slightly dotty uncle, we both said that no, that wasn’t going to happen.
But the real question should be, how have European analysts been allowed to get by with wallowing in their delusions of grandeur for so long?
Since time immemorial, there are three basic indices of power: military prowess, economic wherewithal, and political clout. Looking in a Sagan-esque way at all three, it is impossible to find any logic whatsoever for the EU to be considered a superpower that is not merely a fevered dream.
Over military matters, ambitious French President Emmanuel Macron has surely missed the obvious in continuing the perpetual argument about whether future European military outlays should be made primarily through the EU or Nato, as is now generally the case. The ultimate point is not about structure. It is about the glaring and painful reality that the continent remains a military Lilliputian, which will continue to be the case whatever organisational flowchart is dreamed up.
The facts are these: of all the continental militaries, only the French can manage full spectrum missions, doing everything from high-end war-fighting to low-end peacekeeping. That’s it. Great European powers Germany, Spain, and Italy — lotus-eaters all — have spent a pittance on defence over the past generation, and it shows. To pretend that any new institutional configuration will change the ingrained habits of pacifist European publics, however wrongheaded they may be, flies in the face of decades of recent history.
Economically, the pandemic has been hard on low-growth Europe, particularly its southern rim. A Japan-style deflationary spiral seems to be setting in.
Along with economic sclerosis, the south is awash in unsustainable debt. The OECD’s worst-case assessment for the end of 2021 finds Greece with an Olympian 229 per cent debt to GDP ratio, Italy at 192 per cent, Portugal and France 152 pe rcent, and Spain 150 per cent.
Perhaps worst of all — and incredibly — none of these countries have proactively put forward a convincing medium-term plan both to stimulate growth and then to manage this avalanche of debt.
Nor is the EU as a whole riding to the post-Covid rescue. Which brings us to the EU’s perennial political divisions. For a long while the bloc has been split north-south over economic issues and east-west over migration issues. The hyped-up €750bn European Recovery Fund is just the latest case of Brussels over-promising and under-delivering in policy terms.
The seemingly impressive top number is diluted, being split between 27 countries and doled out in smaller tranches until 2026, is hardly the recipe for a quick shot of economic adrenaline for the ailing south, plagued by a year’s worth of lockdowns.
Even worse, a good portion of the money (€360bn) is only given out in loans, which countries from Italy to Portugal will not touch, as accepting them comes with significant limitations on the political sovereignty of their national governments.
But new political divisions further diminish even this less-than-meets-the-eye rescue. Poland and Hungary, both enraged by accusations from the other EU members as to their fundamental political illiberalism (here Brussels is on the money), were blocking final passage of the Recovery Fund, and the seven-year, €1.1 trillion EU budget besides. Their issue was with a clause in the budget making “rule of law” criteria a requirement for EU membership in terms of judicial and media freedoms, and gender rights. While this new political logjam has just been resolved, it has slowed down an already glacial process yet further.
Finally, there is Brexit itself. A thought experiment suffices to dampen the lunacy of the EU commentariat’s overrated opinion of Brussels. Imagine if California had successfully petitioned to leave the United States. Would anyone be writing about the US as a superpower in such a scenario? Far from it — reams of headlines would instead be screaming about the fall of America.
But this is just what has happened to the EU with the loss of the UK as a member. Now, with the EU losing its premier banking and commercial hub and its (along with France) only world-class military, astoundingly not a peep about the bloc’s decline is being mentioned. This is worse than bad analysis; it amounts to living in a parallel universe.
Militarily weak, economically sclerotic, politically divided: this is the present reality of the European Union. Rather than worrying about its dreamed-of superpower status, Brussels would do far better to see the world as it is, advance a bold policy programme to tackle all three of these fronts, and safeguard the great power status it does possess.
Main image credit: Getty