Europe will leave G20 with a unilateral future

Europeans are strongly in favor of global governance when it is a process they inflict on others, but they are not so keen when others comment on Europe’s affairs. So, is Europe losing its religion on multilateralism?  

It may have been championed by European leaders such as Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy, but the G20 is increasingly seen as a disaster for Europe’s vision of global order. “We are not coming here to take lessons on democracy or on how to handle the economy,” said EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso ahead of the G20 meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, where the euro zone crisis was expected to play a central part in discussions.

But after years of being on the receiving end of lectures from Europeans about how to run their affairs, the leaders of the world’s largest economies, including the “BRICS” nations (Brazil, India, Russia, China and now also South Africa) are seizing the chance to return the favor.

The EU’s lack of solidarity in the face of the debt crisis has squandered its moral high ground and engineered the region’s marginalization. Europeans are strongly in favor of global governance when it is a process they inflict on others, but they are not so keen when others comment on Europe’s affairs.

As Richard Gowan has argued: “European officials have become disillusioned with multilateral dealmaking both inside the EU and beyond it.” In the halcyon days before 2008, when the G8 was known as “the committee to save the world,” EU members held half the seats around the table. Although the rest of the world complains about European over-representation, EU nations account for just a quarter of the G20 today.

Power grabs and plays for more influence are rampant as the summit meets. At their informal caucus before the G20 meeting started, the BRICS pledged 75 billion euros to help Europeans through the euro crisis, a move that was likely designed to increase their voting weights.

Historically, Europe has been pushing for a world governed by international law and multilateral institutions rather than a balance of powers. The Europeans were behind the creation of the World Trade Organization, which can override national sovereignty and make treaties to solve global problems from climate change to genocide. One might say that if the U.S. was the sheriff of the liberal order, the European Union was its constitutional court.

But the G20 is not a global institution bound by treaties – it is a self-appointed group of powerful states that make decisions in informal settings. And many of those states do not share the European obsession with treaties. Although globalization may be limiting sovereignty in the West, for former colonies like China, India and Brazil, it is boosting their power in a way that is unprecedented. Now that they are strong, it is hard to imagine that the BRICS nations will invite the former colonial powers to interfere in their internal affairs.

Until recently, Western capitals hoped that integrating rising powers such as China into global institutions would encourage capitals like Beijing to identify their interests with the preservation of the postwar international system. But the result has been the notion that one power can use global groups as a means to contain another. Take the Copenhagen conference on the environment as an example. Denmark spent years preparing the conference, only for the outcome to be decided by a small meeting between Obama and the BRICS. The Europeans were not even invited.

Even in the General Assembly, the balance of power is shifting: Ten years ago, China won 43 percent of the votes on human rights in the United Nations, compared with Europe’s 78 percent. Last year, the EU won only 44 percent – more than 10 points behind China and Russia. Rather than being transformed by global institutions, China’s sophisticated multilateral diplomacy is changing the global order itself.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is increasingly turning against Europe. On the one hand, Americans continue to believe that they will transform rising powers by integrating them into existing institutions. On the other hand, they think that Europe’s over-representation in the existing institutions is a threat to the consolidation of that order. When Washington looks at issues such as climate change and international justice, it often finds Europeans isolated in their stance. Walter Russell Meade writes: “increasingly it will be in the American interest to help Asian powers rebalance the world power structure in ways that redistribute power from the former great powers of Europe to the rising great powers of Asia today.

The EU is still the world’s largest market and represents 17 percent of world trade, compared with 12 percent for the U.S. (The EU is also the world’s second greatest military power, comfortably outspending all the BRICS combined.) The euro zone collectively has less debt and lower deficits than the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan, and together its countries have enough capital to drag themselves out of the crisis.

It was only because of a breakdown of trust among EU members that the IMF was called in to act as an arbiter on the bailouts of Ireland, Greece and Portugal. But once the invitation was issued it changed the dynamics of the relationship and accelerated a more fundamental change in global governance.

Los Cabos may come to be seen in the future as the place where EU governments lost their religion on multilateralism. While EU diplomats joke that they don’t need tips on balancing budgets from the Americans, free trade from the Russians, climate change from the Indians, or the democratic deficit from the Chinese, their concerns about the G20 go much deeper than an aversion to posturing.

This article first appeared on the Reuters blog website.

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


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