Attali: Europe is world’s biggest power but does not recognise it

Jacques Attali sees war as a real possibility if the EU crumbles. [Fondapol/Flickr]

Other world powers would be happy to see the EU fall apart. A defence union would stop this from happening and prevent Europe sliding back into conflict, Jacques Attali said in an interview with

Jacques Attali is a French economic and social theorist, writer, political adviser and senior civil servant. He served in governments under Presidents François Mitterrand and Nicolas Sarkozy and was the first head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development from 1991 to 1993.

Attali spoke to Editor-in-Chief Daniela Vincenti at the Davos World Economic Forum.

Ten years ago, you published A Brief History of the Future. You spoke of the end of the American empire. You were not far wrong. What do you predict for 2030?

I can sum it up in five phases: the relative decline of the American empire, attempts to organise the world around several independent and mutually hostile powers (which will not work), market domination in the absence of global regulation, war and a new order after war.

So where are we now?

At the end of the second phase and the beginning of the third: the beginning of efforts at deregulation. The United States has decided to stop being a dominant world power, to stop ruling the world. So to begin with we will see an attempt to find a replacement for the United States, which will not work.

Do you not think that China could fill this role?

No, China does not want this anymore. It wants to be powerful, but not to govern the world the way the US wanted to. Chinese history is one of Chinese power and influence, but not of world domination. Beijing will do all it can for Chinese economic growth, for the well-being of its citizens.

The Chinese dream of reaching the [current] standard of living enjoyed by Americans by 2050. They will have an immense influence in the region, but will not be the world’s most populous country. And many other issues will have arisen by then.

Let’s go back to the end of the American empire for a moment. You spoke of the end of an empire ten years ago, two years before the election of Barack Obama, who seemed able to turn the situation around.

Not really, because Obama himself has repeated that America was only a relative power, that it should not intervene – which he did not do, by the way – and that it could not be a guiding light for the world. He was even criticised for it, particularly in the context of Syria. He did not intervene in the Middle East, he was firm with Russia, with sanctions, but nothing more. He pushed the Europeans to make a choice between the two powers.

And Donald Trump is a continuation of Obama in this regard, he takes the theme of the American withdrawal even further.

Let’s examine Donald Trump. As the world braces for his inauguration, he made some very hard comments regarding Europe and Angela Merkel, for example. By concentrating on themselves, are the Americans turning their backs on the idea of hegemony?

Trump has hegemony over the media, but that is normal, it was the election. I think his discourse fits into the current ideology of “me first, me now, right now”, without any consideration for others or the possibility that they may be useful in some way.

What he wants is a strong America, which has to be “the strongest”, but without worrying about governing the rest of the world, Latin America, etc. If an ideology hostile to the West took hold in Africa or Latin America, he would not want to intervene.

There are two worst-case scenarios here. The first is that China regains control of Taiwan. Trump has come out in favour of Taiwan’s independence, but would he go to war for it? That is the first question. The second is what would happen if Russia invades the Baltic countries to ensure access to its enclave of Kaliningrad.

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Would the American army intervene in these two cases? I do not think so. That could encourage others to do so in their place, but Trump, like Obama I think, would not intervene.

How do you see relations between the United States and Europe?

We are in a strange period where America, China and Russia all have strong-man presidents for the next four years. Presidents that do not see Europe as an ally but as prey, quarry from which they should take all they can. So all three have an objective interest in Europe’s weakness. It is the first time this has happened. Before, this was not the view of Obama or the Russians. The break-up of Europe would benefit all three.

And at the same time, there will be elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and probably in Italy.  Which means that by October, Europe will be unable to start the big initiatives that are needed. We need a big initiative in favour of European defence integration.

Why do you think they want this?

Why do the others want to break Europe apart? Because they feel that if Europe unites, in the long term, it will become the most important world power. If Europe has a minister for defence, it will become the world’s top power.

Not only that, but the European model will become more attractive. When people say America defined the model for the world they are wrong: it is a European model. The world is not becoming more Americanised, it is Europe that provides the model for America. So whichever point of view you look at it from – soft power, the economy, defence – the decline of the EU is in their interest. That is why they are so happy about Brexit. Both Russia and the US will try to stoke the fires of a possible ‘Ital-exit’ or a ‘Frexit’.

They can plainly see that in the 21st century, the big power, with 550 million inhabitants, the highest standard of living, the best geographical position, the best conditions to attract talent, the highest cultural standards, the best health systems, is Europe.

How do you think Europe can respond, with its busy electoral calendar?

We will have to see if the institutions work independently of the electoral calendars. We are in Davos, I would have loved to have heard a speech from François Hollande and Angela Merkel, saying something like: “In the face of Jinping, May, Trump, we reaffirm that there is continuity in Europe and that whatever the election results, we have decided to launch the defence and security union together.” That is what I would have really liked to hear here in Davos.

So what kind of leadership do we need?

We need leaders who remember the dangers of a fragmented Europe. Europe can slip back into war.

Let’s suppose for a moment that Italy leaves the euro and that France and Germany go off in different directions. Then in 30 years time another French-German war would absolutely be possible. We have to remember that this risk exists if the European construction falls apart. Our leaders need to have a sense of this tragedy, which I do not think they have. What we do not need is neutral leaders, leaders for the good times.

Do you think Europe could end up with leaders like Trump?

Yes, I think there could be a Trump in France with Marine Le Pen or Jean-Luc Mélenchon. In Germany it could happen if Merkel is no longer chancellor or if she gives way to other members of the grand coalition. In Italy it could be Beppe Grillo.

If this scenario does come about and we have little Trumps popping up all over Europe, do you fear that this will accelerate the disintegration of Europe and the potential spiral into war?

Our current period looks a lot like 1910, when there was a wave of technological progress, large-scale globalisation and a wave of democracy…

And then there was the financial crisis, terrorism and we chose protectionism and war. The 20th century could have been a happy century, the building blocks were all in the right place. But instead, we had two world wars and barbarity until 1989.

We only escaped the mistakes of 1910 twenty-five years ago and already we are on the verge of making them again. We have everything we need to make the 21st century a happy one: technological progress, the rise of the middle class, demand for democracy all over the world, the birth of stable states. Everything is in place but at the same time we could end up heading for the rocks. I think that is a real possibility.

Are we headed for the worst?

Yes. The only thing that is different to 1910, and that is positive, is that at that time people wanted war in Europe: the French, the English, the Germans, they all wanted war. Today this is not the case.

In your book you wrote about nine great powers. We have the G20, which is a bit different, but you see the EU as one of these possible great powers now after all is happening?

Tomorrow’s great powers are Russia, China, India, Brazil, the United States, Nigeria and Indonesia. For me the G20 is nothing more than a family photo. It doesn’t really exist.  Now Europe is the biggest world power, but it is the only one that does not want or recognise that title.

The Swiss did something similar: created a state from the bottom up. But in general a state is created by conquerors: Russia is a conqueror, China and the United States too. Global powers are always created by conquerors. Here we are trying to create a country from the bottom upwards, which the Swiss did three centuries ago. They gradually united against their enemies.

We can unite, a bit like the Swiss, against our enemies. That is why the external threat is good news, because it will force us together. What we need to do is right in front of us: we need to create a Europe of defence, of security, which can manage its border policy, which can manage the issue of migration and the threat of terrorism, and which is prepared to take over as the US steps back from the leadership of NATO.

Is democracy in crisis today in Europe and around the world?

The most efficient countries at the moment are not democracies. The three most effective governments are in Russia, China and the Vatican.  But they are not democracies.

Secondly, there is a big enemy of democracy at the moment: the market is becoming global and democracy is staying local. So we have the consequences of an all-powerful market that makes a mockery of democracy, and the citizens know this. There are eight billionaires with personal fortunes worth more than the poorest half of humanity combined, and yet by force or persuasion, the people constantly vote in the interest of the billionaires. Of course this happened recently in the United States.

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This is nothing new or exceptional. Election results always go in favour of the rich. It discredits democracy, which has lost all real power. The only solution is to go higher up. Do not tell me this is not possible, because it is. And do not tell me that global governance is impossible. We are already trying it: the COP21 is an example. Domains with global governance already exist. Take FIFA, for example. It governs football for the whole world. Why can we do this for something as important as football, but not for other less important subjects like equitable taxation or tax harmonisation, the fight against trafficking or prostitution?

So would governance be arranged by themes or would it be truly global?

No, it has to be done thematically. It is a bit like the construction of the state in the Middle Ages: corporations came together to govern their businesses and then the corporations came together to form states. In Europe that is how it happened. The banking sector is already controlled by the Basel standards. And there are many other sectors with global standards, there is just no coherence to them. Even on tax, the OECD is doing tremendous work. The OECD and the European Commission are doing a good job of harmonisation. So we can manage, it is not beyond us.

At the beginning of what promises to be a very difficult year, what do you wish for?

For things to succeed at a global level, we first need not to fail at European level. Because if we are not able to make it at European level, we will never succeed at global level. Europe has to be a model. So my hope for 2017 is above all that Europe holds together and that in spite of the absence of leadership, we can move towards a credible defence and security union, which in my opinion is the key to Europe’s survival and enduring peace.

Europe should have started with that, don’t you think? 

We could not because we were under the American umbrella and the Germans were too close to war and did not want a real army. Today, nobody is questioning German democracy and the Americans are no longer there, so we absolutely need it.

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