The G20 summit in London will be missing one great power. Guess who?

When President Barack Obama comes to London next week, he will find one great power missing at the world’s summit table: Europe. The US and China may end up carrying on as a G2

This article first appeared in the Guardian on 26 March 2009.

When President Barack Obama comes to London next week, he will find one great power missing at the world’s summit table: Europe. Five of the 20 leaders at the G20 meeting will be Europeans, representing France, Germany, Britain, Italy and the EU, but the whole will be less than the sum of its parts. There will be plenty of Europeans but no Europe.

Gordon Brown told the European parliament this week, on the first leg of his pre-summit globe-hopping, that Europe was “uniquely placed to lead the world” in meeting the challenges of globalisation. Placed, maybe, but at the moment it’s spectacularly failing to take that place. Europe’s response to the biggest financial and economic crisis since the process of European integration began more than 50 years ago has been weak and divided.

China and the United States have both launched massive fiscal stimulus packages. By comparison, Europe has so far brought peanuts to the table. The French economist Nicolas Baverez recently estimated the total of Europe’s stimulus packages at some 1.5% of gross domestic product, compared with 12% in the US. While doing so relatively little, Europeans have engaged in two other characteristic activities: squabbling among themselves about who gets which peanut, and carping at the Americans.

Thus, for instance, the economist Christoph Schmidt, one of the five so-called sages who give the German government economic advice, complains bitterly about the US pumping up its national debt and risking future inflation by printing money. True enough – but at the same time, Germany once again waits for American consumers to lift its export industry out of the doldrums by spending those dollars. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

European solidarity does not even extend to other Europeans. Last week, EU governments were still quarrelling in Brussels about the distribution of a tiny €5bn infrastructure fund. It’s not only France that has introduced targeted national stimulus measures which effectively roll back the fair competition rules inside Europe’s single market. As for the poor cousins in Europe’s east, they are largely left to fend for themselves – although rich west Europeans will graciously intercede with the IMF to ask it to offer them more.

Obama’s European trip, which continues to the Nato summit and then an EU-US meeting in Prague, will also be about foreign and security policy. Here, Europe is even less of a single player. To be fair, Europeans have got their act together on diplomacy with Iran, though it remains to be seen whether that European unity would survive an American request for more economic sanctions on Tehran. On most of the other big issues on Obama’s agenda – Afghanistan, Pakistan, relations with Russia and China, nuclear proliferation – there is no Europe. There are individual European countries.

Unlike George W Bush at the beginning of his first term, President Obama is both ideologically and pragmatically predisposed to work with a stronger, more united Europe. But even he can’t work with something that doesn’t exist.

Looking back, one begins to see that Europe has spent the best part of 10 years failing to get its act together. A decade that began with ambitious plans for a European constitution ends with the fate of a much more modest Lisbon treaty hanging on a dubiously democratic attempt to persuade the Irish to alter their “no” to a “yes”. If we had spent half the time we wasted in that constitutional debate simply co-ordinating our actions better, under the existing treaties, we would be in a better position today. Europe talks the talk but does not walk the walk.

Every EU member state bears some responsibility for this shambles, as does the institutional leadership in Brussels. But its three largest member states are especially to blame. It was France’s “no” that killed the original constitutional treaty. Britain’s New Labour government came to power in 1997 promising a new era in the country’s relations with Europe. Instead, Britain has reverted to type, preferring to play second fiddle to Washington rather than take its place in the front row of a European orchestra.

The British prime minister told the European parliament that Britain “does not see itself as an island adrift from Europe but as a country at the centre of Europe”. Well, speak for yourself. I doubt if that is true of most Brits. Indeed, inspired by Gordon Brown, I invite one of our pollsters to ask the great British public this exact question: “Do you see Britain as a country at the centre of Europe?” Even if it were true that this is how Britain “sees itself”, that is not how others see us, either in Europe or beyond. Britain’s European engagement will further diminish under the Conservatives, if they win the next election. Without Britain, there can be no serious European foreign policy.

The biggest change, however, is in Germany. Ten years ago, Helmut Kohl had only recently stepped down as chancellor. Germany was still the major European country most fully committed to European unification. There were voices on right and left, however, suggesting that Germany should now step out from the shadows and become a “normal” country – by which they meant more like France and Britain. Ten years on, those voices have triumphed. Today’s Berlin republic has no compunction about putting its short-term national interests first.

This may not be Angela Merkel’s own personal preference. But in a year of elections, the competition for votes is intense; and that competition will not be won by politicians who suggest sacrificing a single German job, euro or soldier to a larger European or western interest. “What, us pay to bail them out?” goes up the populist cry from Merkel’s allies in the Christian Social Union, as they fight for their own political lives in Bavaria. The Social Democrats, facing a populist challenge from a party that calls itself The Left, are little better.

It’s nothing new that France and Britain are behaving like France and Britain. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. What’s new is that Germany is now behaving like France and Britain.

In this constellation, neither the Americans nor the Chinese see Europe as a single, coherent partner. The G20 seems to be gaining acceptance as a new institutional framework for global collective action, at least in financial and economic policy. But it is just that: a framework. To make such frameworks work, you always need, behind the scenes, a strategic coalition of major players. Increasingly, here in Beijing as well as in Washington, one hears talk of a “G2” inside the G20. G2 means the US and China. Yet it’s the EU, not China, that has an economy the size of the United States’. Especially in economic policy, the strategic coalition should be G3. But where is Europe?

If Europe resiles from playing a part still available to it, and which both the US and China would, on balance, still want it to play, this is not a conscious choice. But not to choose is also to choose. If we carry on like this, we Europeans will have chosen not to hang together – and we will end up hanging separately.


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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