Whether leaders have verbalised it as such or not, whether it is mere instinct or intuition, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a means of confronting what Sorin Mois? calls the ‘Big Contraction’.
MEP Sorin Mois? (Romania, S&D), is a former Chief of Cabinet of Romanian Commissioner Dacian Ciolo?.
For the first time since the early modern age the Western world is contracting. It is being pushed back.
For the West, globalisation was to some extent a tale of the unexpected. It led to a serious restructuring of economic power on the planet, triggering a power shift in the political and military realms. Very big countries, and of course first and foremost China, jumped in very few decades from economies based on resources to economies relying on efficiency, and now they are making serious steps towards innovation economies. Economic and technological sophistication are no longer quasi-exclusive features of the West, its companies, universities or polytechnic schools. Most indicators measuring productivity and economic sophistication show a strong catch-up effect, albeit in different ways and at different speeds for the various new economic powerhouses. The latter seek to better align the international system with their interests, they seek political voice and authority. Quite naturally so. What is in peril is the capacity of the Western world to withstand long term economic and strategic competition. As everybody else, the West is entitled to devise strategies with a view to maintaining its competitive edge in the world, while respecting the rules of the game it has itself helped create.
A second phenomenon contributing to the contraction is the so-called return of geopolitics. This is a false return, as power politics never left anywhere. There was simply a reprieve after the end of the Cold War, a very brief period in historical terms. Only two years ago, before the Ukrainian crisis, a couple of important European leaders with whom I happened to be able to discuss privately were convinced that their Western European countries might soon not need armies anymore. In a very short time span, a false sense of security had taken over nations and leaders. In an environment protected by others [the US] against threats which themselves seemed difficult to imagine even theoretically, survival instinct seemed to be fading away. We never had this problem in Central and Eastern Europe. The best explanation for the return of geopolitics is as a challenge to Western power incentivised by perceived weakness. In Europe, the economic crisis still consuming the EU on a daily basis added to the feeling that a sharp strategic reaction was unlikely, and that on top of proven strategies, such as divide and rule with EU member states.
Being pushed back is far from being cornered. With the exception of Russia, nobody is framing things in blatantly bellicose terms. The push back is mostly a process of structural economic, political and military capability rebalancing. Material rebalancing is accompanied by some attempts at ideological rebalancing. That takes the form of offensive propaganda in borderline democracies and vulnerable areas of the world, such as Eastern Europe and Africa. But more seriously, it takes the form of aggressively instilling self-doubt, cynicism and fatalism within the Western core itself, taking advantage of its pluralism, of its open societies, notably by Russia. Self-doubt is part of the great regenerative strength of the Western world in normal times, but it creates vulnerability to propaganda in this day of apparent socio-economic weakness.
What does this mean? It means that for the first time in centuries it makes sense for the Western world to seriously consider unity. Unity for the sake of survival. For more than 500 years the West had been expanding. It did not need unity. On the contrary, it could ’’afford’’ disunity and conflict, with all the known tragic consequences for humanity. As it contracts, at the beginning of a new long historic cycle, it needs unity, whether it likes it or not, in order to remain competitive and maintain the attractiveness of its liberal democratic system.
The reaction should have three components: more economic unity, the rediscovery of the West’s own identity, and an atoning attitude about past mistakes vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
Economic unity means gradually more integration between Western countries, notably between Europe and North America, still generating slightly more than half of the world’s GDP and being together the cradle and the engine of the Western civilisation. Within the Atlantic world, of course the EU-US relationship is central and vital. Against this backdrop, whether leaders have verbalised it as such or not, whether it is mere instinct or intuition, the TTIP is a means of confronting the Big Contraction. What is remarkable is that the move happened early in the Big Contraction, and it gathered momentum, unlike the previous TAFTA proposal of the mid 90s, which was quickly abandoned.
The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada, already concluded, and a modernised free trade agreement with Mexico – process under way – are vital stepping stones for what should be our aim for 30 to 50 years from now: a fully fledged Atlantic Economic Union. This Union would bring the West the scale, diversity and combined sophistication needed for averting the risk of being provincialised in the new world. It would increase intra-Western interdependence and limit [relative, only relative] interdependence with non-Western powers, and thus increase the West’s margins of political freedom. We saw how painful the discussions on the Russia sanctions were, varying with the degree of economic interdependence with Russia. In essence, the Atlantic Union would allow the preservation of a reasonable degree of centrality and gravitas by the West in the world.
The three agreements (TTIP, CETA, Mexico) and then a future Union would help find a balance between post-industrial, post-material values and economic survival, addressing the core tension between preservation of high societal standards and competitiveness in an open world, in contrast to a race towards the bottom with economies less constrained by democratic systems and post-material social values. Exporting high standards to the rest of the world is a vital economic interest, not only a worthy objective.
New Zealand, Australia, consolidated democracies of all continents, Japan could all become part of the future Union, should they wish to join. New generation free trade agreements with the EU and the US would in all cases be the stepping stones.
A sense of pride for belonging to the various Western national cultures, with the myriad links among each other, and a fresh awareness of the privilege of enjoying freedoms that should no longer be taken for granted should form the second leg of our reaction. For some [good, I think] reason, the André Rieu phenomenon springs to mind as one pointer towards this serene and joyful popular rediscovery of a certain collective Western self.
Is this is a ‘West against the Rest’ project? Not at all. On the contrary. The project should be atoning about past mistakes and failures. We have to give up – provided there’s some left – any missionary zeal and simply offer what we have best to offer, with confidence but no sense of entitlement. We need to negotiate with what appear to be deep-rooted local realities and ways of doing things in more humble ways. But always bearing in mind that we, too, have the right to survive.
In order to be successful, we need to address the culture of opposition that has emerged in Europe, brilliant at seeing problems but never at finding solutions. Building political careers on opposing things and riding on frustration rather than confronting the truth is not exactly what politics should be about. Last but not least, any economic integration project, TTIP, CETA or future Union, perceived as a project of the elites (the privileged, the corporations) against or in spite of the people is doomed to fail.
This article is the first in series that will address and seek to suggest solutions and initiatives for a number of our problems: TTIP and the EU-US relationship, political parties, tackling the legitimacy problem of EU institutions, including by means of possible reforms of the European Commission, the future of European social democracy.