The result of the first round of the French presidential election has given the Euro-pessimists a knock over the head. About time too. The European Union is not going to face a break up. Big crises come but they also go. The Euro currency crisis was not dealt with as well as it should have been -- austerity was the policy of the long way round -- but it passed. The great immigration crisis has been contained and the number of would-be refugees has fallen sharply.
The British say they are leaving, but how the biggest political paradox of my lifetime will be squared remains to be seen -- a parliament with a majority of its members in favour of staying in Europe but with a government trying to get out as fast as it can with the support of most MPs of the two largest parties. Moreover, there is another quite counterproductive consequence of Brexit -- pushing Scotland to break from Britain. Leaving big, grand, Europe to become a truncated little England makes no sense at all. When the penny finally drops I expect Britain to reverse course on Brexit -- or to disintegrate.
With or without Britain the EU will remain the world’s best example of political unity. Peoples who have fought each other for thousands of years no longer do. No other part of the planet is so democratic or law abiding. No other large political unit is so committed to trying to solve problems by consensus.
It is a superpower. “China is Russia’s top trading partner” ran one recent headline. But in fact China counts for only 14% of Russia’s trade. Just three EU countries combined -- Germany, Italy and the Netherlands -- account for more than 20% and the EU as a whole for over a half. Despite the political posturing, which way, over the long run, will Moscow be compelled to look?
Europe is the world’s largest trader of goods and services. Europe uses its economic strength in the way the US uses its military might. Aggregate Europe’s national income is only a small fraction less than the US’s. The EU manipulates access to its markets and its economic assistance. It exploits its regulatory dominance. It exports its laws and procedures. Even the biggest American companies have been forced to follow European regulation rather than American, in mergers and acquisitions, genetically modified foods and data privacy.
As for China, Europe’s national income is 63% larger than China’s. If one compares China’s national income per head with Europe’s it will take many decades for it to catch up. In truth China’s leverage should be quite modest.
The US remains the leading superpower for only one reason -- it accounts for more than 40% of global military spending as against Europe’s 16%, China’s 10% and Russia’s 7%. Thankfully, despite Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Congo, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq, the world is not engaged in war. Why should Europe feel second to America when day to day the other parts of life play a much greater role?
Apart from Hollywood films and top universities where does the US out do Europe?
Europe provides 70% of international aid, the US 20%. Who pays 90% of the economic sanctions imposed against Russia for its takeover of Crimea? Who contributes most to the United Nations and other important institutions such as the International Criminal Court, the World Court and the World Trade Organisation? Who educates more foreign students? In all cases, Europe by far.
In sport five of the seven most-watched professional sports are Europe-dominated. European soccer earns twice as much as American football. In the summer Olympics, Europe wins more medals than the US, Russia and China together. In the winter Olympics, Europe always wins more medals than everyone else put together. The number of opera houses and symphony orchestras is far more than America’s.
Forbes magazine asked 40,000 people around the world which countries were the most “reputable”, a composite index of happiness, lack of corruption, tolerance and cleanliness. Of the top 20 countries 15 are European. The US ranks 28th and China 57th.
The Frenchman, Jean Monet, who was the founding spirit of the EU, created, in the words of Mark Leonard, “a machine of political alchemy.” Nations that, as individuals, used to fight each other have been transmuted into a creative, unified force that has both a moral purpose and an effective way of implementing its will. Needless to say, it is not the Holy European Empire. Its capitalism can be brutal. Its attitude to Russia, as over Ukraine, can be counterproductive. Its recent economic policy of austerity can lead it to shoot itself in its own foot, at the expense of the poor. But cumulatively it is a force for good.
With the French election, if there is no unexpected surprise, it looks like Europe is winning a new lease of life.
For 17 years the writer was a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune.