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Europe’s Two Futures

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PARIS – Once again, Europe seems to have reached a fork in the road. In one direction lies the future as described by pessimists, who argue that rising populist movements and the plunge of the euro are evidence of the continent’s coming slide into geopolitical and economic oblivion. In the other direction lies a steep upward path to Europe’s integration and reemergence as a global power – the course, optimists say, that the continent will take as it wakes up and recognizes that it must have the capacity to weather the harshest storms.

There is no telling which future will be realized. Is Europe “a grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant,” as Pope Francis put it when he addressed the European Parliament last November? Or is it a phoenix, about to rise (yet again) from its ashes? The outcome depends, of course, on how Europeans respond to their current travails. And as they contemplate their choices, they would be wise to consider how the continent is perceived from the outside.

For starters, it is important to acknowledge that the outlook looks bleak. Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Jews are still being attacked and murdered in European cities. More than 50 years after the end of the Algerian War, European Muslims face more discrimination than ever. With Russian-backed separatists – and maybe even Russian troops – battling government forces in Ukraine, the specter of war is once again stalking the continent. And the election of a leftist government in Greece has raised the question of whether introducing the euro was a good idea.

On the other hand, Europe has faced worse – much worse – and emerged stronger than ever. After the first half of the twentieth century – the bloodiest period of human history – the continent’s leaders returned from the battlefield to lay the foundations of lasting European peace. Europe may never regain its standing as the center of the world, but it can continue to be both an important actor and an attractive model for others.

Indeed, with the benefit of distance, a broader picture emerges. Seen from China, Europe is first and foremost an attractive investment opportunity; and the euro’s spectacular fall now makes it a particularly tempting one. The continent may not be the island of stability it once was – Russian President Vladimir Putin and a few thousand European jihadists have seen to that. But the risks it faces are mild when compared with the chronic instability and acute threats facing much of the rest of the world.

Europe’s bloodstained history also provides a useful warning for China and the rest of Asia, and can serve as an example for overcoming the region’s long-standing animosities. Though tensions between China and its neighbors over territorial claims in the East and South China Seas have receded somewhat in recent months, the prospect of worsening Sino-Japanese relations, in particular, remains worrisome. Reconciliation along the Franco-German model may not yet be in the cards, but the two Asian powers would be well advised to learn from Europe’s experience.

The view from the United States is completely different. From the American perspective, Europe is less a model than a historical relic. The continent’s national characteristics have returned to the fore: Germany with its economic power, France with its terrorists, Greece with its leftists, and so forth.

From the perspective of the poorest parts of the world, Europe represents the weakest link in the coalition fighting radical Islam, a battle that is taking its highest toll – despite the impression created by Western media coverage – primarily in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. For many of those fleeing the conflicts in these regions, Europe is also the Promised Land – the object of the hopes and dreams of those risking their lives to reach the prosperous side of the Mediterranean Sea.

In the end, how Europeans view themselves will determine their collective fate. If they do not seize this decisive moment to define themselves – by beginning to institute the difficult reforms their countries so desperately need, for example – they risk ending up on a path they never intended to take.

Dominique Moisi, a professor at L’Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), is Senior Adviser at the French Institute for International Affairs (IFRI) and a visiting professor at King’s College London.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.

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