Europe must act as one on the world stage

Instead of talking in the abstract about a single EU voice, Europeans should forge pragmatic arrangements to simplify and make more effective their external representation

This article was published in the Financial
on 20 November 2008.

When Italy
takes up the chair of the Group of Eight leading nations in January the context
will be very different to that of its 2001 presidency. Back then, the G8 was
dealing with the consequences of a unipolar international system. Come 2009,
near the top of the agenda will be the enlargement of the club to new powers,
starting with China and India. But it
is still not clear whether Italy
will preside over the reform of the G8 or its burial; which, in a way, is the
same thing.

Any reform of the G8 starts from the assumption that the current format is
outdated. Until recently, however, it was not clear whether all G8 members
wanted to engage in much more than an outreach exercise.

Equally, it was not clear whether a country such as China actually
wanted to join the club and shoulder the attendant responsibilities. The
financial crisis has overtaken such hesitation on both sides.

In 2009, as Britain
chairs the G20, Gordon Brown, the prime minister, has the opportunity to take
the lead on international financial reform. In a few months, the G8’s own
enlargement may appear superseded by the G20. Co-ordination between the Italian
G8 and the British G20 presidencies is much needed: it will be crucial in
defining a division of labour and allowing a smooth transition to a
double-digit international club.

But is the G20 a better format? The US has never liked the idea of
enlarging already unwieldy forums. This time around things are different, with
Barack Obama, the president-elect, shifting the US foreign outlook from
“westernism” to “globalism”. Europe
would find itself in a very delicate position if it wanted to object. A smaller
and more effective group – yet still representative of the new global balance
of power – can only be achieved by slashing Europe’s

There lies the European paradox. For a decade, Europeans have been the main
proponents of “reformed” multilateral governance. They have played a
decisive role in responding to the financial crisis and came up first with the
idea of a “new Bretton Woods” (whatever that means in detail). Yet, a
fragmented Europe is also an obstacle to that very goal: why should the rest of
the world have to cope with a plethora of people, each claiming to speak for

The simple truth is that, today, Europeans are over-represented in all
international institutions. A single euro-zone voice at the International
Monetary Fund, for instance, would definitely make sense. Everybody knows,
however, that this is not going to happen any time soon. This contradiction
cannot remain if Europeans wish to be taken seriously when they promote
international governance reform. Instead of talking in the abstract about a
single EU voice, Europeans should forge pragmatic arrangements to simplify and
make more effective their external representation.

The lesson of the financial crisis can help. When Britain first announced sweeping
intervention in the banking system, the markets did not react positively. But
when the Eurogroup embraced the same proposition, it brought along the entire
G7 including the US.
The decisive role was played by a body that has no formal existence – the
eurozone heads of state and government, plus Mr Brown, the European Central
Bank and the European Commission.

The lesson to be learnt is hardly new: progress occurs in Europe
only when strong national leadership combines with the collective weight of the
eurozone. This suggests that we should be actively building on the
“Eurogroup plus” format set in motion by the financial crisis. Such
an arrangement may look like the second death of the Lisbon Treaty. But if and
when the treaty enters into force, Europe
could be represented by a similar configuration, gaining the advantage of a
stable presidency.

There is indeed a potential mismatch between enlargement and effectiveness: Europe knows that by first-hand experience. This is why
any enlargement of the G8 may ultimately lead to smaller informal cores, some
of which (such as a de facto G2 between the US
and China, for instance)
would leave Europe aside. Yet the eurozone,
which is also expanding, is simply too important to be overlooked. Precisely
when the old club is opening up to new powers, a like-minded transatlantic core
becomes more important than ever – provided Europe
proves capable of better organising itself.

Marta Dassù is the director-general
of international programmes at the Aspen Institute Italia and a member of the
European Council on Foreign Relations.

The Financial Times Limited 2008

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Advisor Europe, the Aspen Institute

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