How to reconnect Europeans with the EU

The EU elections, like the Eurovision song contest is, for some, a chance to poke fun at the EU and at the more colourful characters contesting seats. Turnout will be relatively low, reflecting the fact that for many Europeans, power lies in national assemblies, and also the fact that they do not entirely understand the role and purpose of the EU Parliament.

In this respect the EU Parliamentary elections will do little to bridge the political and emotional gulf between the EU and its citizens. My own experience is that whether I am in the north of Greece, west of France or south of Ireland, Europe’s citizens are losing their sense of what the EU means to them in a tangible way.

The core elements of the project need to be remade, and done so in a way that brings them closer and more meaningful to Europeans. One example is the constitution. One frequently noted rejoinder during debates on the politics of the EU is to ask whether anyone has in fact read the EU constitution. Few have.

The EU constitution is some four hundred pages long (at seventy thousand words, it is seven times as long as the French and Dutch constitutions), and it is unlikely that many Europeans have read it or that they keep a copy close to hand.

Lawyers and academics will tell us that constitutions are legal documents and as such are long and complicated. Still, weighty texts like the European Constitution put distance between people and those who govern over them.

This is one of the ways in which politics today has created a sense of disconnect between insiders and outsiders. From a socio-political point of view, it is a disturbing divide because Europeans are losing confidence in the European Union, and as multiple economic and humanitarian crises take their political toll, Europeans are losing their sense of what Europe stands for.

One proposal, which may go just a small way to repairing the gap between the EU and its citizens, is for Europeans to have a short, tangible and agreed account of what it means to be European.

One thoroughly modern response might be to use artificial intelligence to optimize the constitutions of the various European states and to condense them into one, meaningful page. The algorithm would extract core beliefs and principles from the constitutions of a range of countries and boil them down into a single, short document.

A more straightforward tack would be produce a short document that highlights the meaning and relevance of the European Union for its many citizens. It could be done as follows, and maybe the next Commission might take this up.

The exercise would involve European citizens running pilot projects to discover what they feel they have in common, where they feel they are different, and what policies might, to their advantage, draw them together. To think aloud, an initial pilot project could be based on the participation of a retired Portuguese teacher, a Polish bank clerk, a German policewoman, a Latvian student, an Italian pensioner, and a Swedish nurse.

Their goal is to produce, on a single sheet of paper, the answers to the following questions: What do they, as Europeans, have in common? What can they stress as common values and aspirations, what policies might bring them closer together as Europeans (i.e. the Erasmus pan-European student-exchange program).

The answers might start off with the fact that most Europeans have a common history, one that has been marked by wars, scarred by the rise and fall of empires, shrouded in Christianity, and shaped by the passage of monarchy to democracy and autarchy, the rise of learning and culture, and, from the thirteenth century onward, the evolution of great cities.

This is an altogether broad and historical view of European identity, and it might well permit the inclusion of countries, such as Russia, that are not considered part of Europe today. The sum total of this historic experience might well inspire citizens to say that they have the following common values: peace (not to have another European war), the influence of the Christian church(es), democracy, recognition of the benefits of social democracy, and free movement of EU citizens.

This may just be a starting point, and it might even gain clarity through the participation of the growing number of pan-European couples and their children. Such an exercise may not also produce the unity of views that pro-Europeans may desire, but it will make Europeans think about what defines their region at a time when the US and China are reinforcing their own identities.

The next trick will be to get Europe’s leaders to react to such a template.

From the Banquet at Hongmen to Hong Kong

…as I was saying…regular readers of the Sunday letter will know that I have taken a break from it in recent weeks to recast the note around my forthcoming book ‘The Levelling’, and I hope that some will be happy it is back.

For those of you who are new to my list (please let me know if I should not have you on the list, or if you have colleagues or friends who would like to join it) I will send out a letter each Sunday morning (the one time people have a chance to read something) that mixes history, politics, markets, geopolitics and economics.

Given the intersection of these factors a good place to start this week is the Banquet at Hongmen, which occurred in China in 206 BC. In an age that is in Game of Thrones overdrive the story of Hongmen will appeal to many (indeed there is already a film about it called White Vengeance (2012)). In China, the tale is short-hand for duplicity and assassination and it featured in the Chinese press last week as part of the more popular response to President Trump’s tariff increase on China.

As an anchor point, ‘Hongmen’ serves a number of purposes that of course effortlessly dovetail into the themes of The Levelling. The first is that internal politics matter – Hongmen occurred at a time when the Qin and Han dynasties were contesting power. In this regard, for all that we hear today about the 2020 Presidential election campaign, we hear equally little about political debate within the Communist Party on topics like trade and relations with the USA.

Second, the cycles of the rise and fall of nations matter a lot. China has had many such cycles and America has effectively to complete a full cycle. Some may feel that this comes across in the bravoura of America’s interaction with other countries, but we should also bear in mind the context and patience that China’s history affords its leadership.

A third related point here is that China’s long history has given it a deep culture and sense of civilization. This is lost on some. Kiron Skinner a State Department official has recently tried to cast US-China relations as a ‘Clash of Civilisations’.  This is a lazy use of Samuel Huntington’s work. A better parsing of the situation is multipolarity, where the world moves away from globalization towards a system driven by three large regions (US, EU and China) who do things in distinctly different ways.

In this context, the trade dispute is a marker of China’s rise and the belated realization of America’s elite as to how it should curb this. Tariffs are not at all the apt tool. There are better avenues. For example, America is extremely powerful financially, in terms of the usage of the dollar, depth and centrality of its markets and the power of its banks. Indeed, one could argue that the US is more hegemonic in finance than it is militarily.

Another avenue is leadership in international rules and standards. Many new fields such as artificial intelligence, genetic editing and cyber war have grown so quickly that they have bypassed international laws, philosophies and norms regarding them. One challenge for the US is to take the lead in outlining new standards and laws in these areas. Unfortunately this is something it does not appear prepared to do, especially in areas like climate change. If anything the US is ceding soft power to China.

To jump to finance, the market view of the trade dispute is that some form of resolution will be forthcoming. The drop in volatility on Friday suggested that US markets are moving from being positioned for a risky outcome, to one that is more sanguine. Other Asia centric ones like the KOSPI index South Korea and the Australian dollar will need to strengthen in order to give the all clear.

If a trade deal is struck, it will mark the beginning of a formal rivalry between the US and China, the start of more ‘nation first’ patterns in consumption and corporate investment and the end of bodies like the World Trade Organisation. There may be many more flash points.

Here, many tend to focus on great naval battles of the future in the South China Sea. In my view, one looming touchpoint is Hong Kong, where there is a fierce debate ongoing around a proposal to permit the imprisonment in China of those sentenced by courts in Hong Kong. For a city-state with a very expensive housing market, dollar currency peg and large stock market, this may be one area where geopolitics again ripples through markets.  

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

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