January 2, 2013

What’s Next? Europe and the World in 2013

It is impossible and thus totally pointless to try and predict what the world will look like in 2013. Only a few weeks ago we were not even sure there would still be a world – luckily the Mayas rephrased their prophecy just in time. However, there is some point in outlining the challenges ahead. There are numerous such articles already and I will not try and outdo any of them. These are merely my concerns for the coming year, but there are many: the economy, war, poverty, nationalism, racism, you name them.

Let us start with the crisis in the EU. I don’t mean the debt crisis, but the political one that really caused it. It is utter nonsense to claim that there is not enough money to solve the crisis. Europe has enough money to buy the moon and industrialise it. But just like buying the moon would be politically quite tricky, so is solving this crisis political, not financial. So the origin of the crisis lies beyond the crisis itself. It lies with the foundational lack of direction the integration project has. Member states, feeling that they are unable to justify their policies towards their populations, are demanding ever more flexibility from the Union in order to keep a national finger on the European cake. True, sometimes this works just fine. But most of the time it means that the EU is taken away the possibility of making a difference. I’m not saying that flexibility is a bad thing, on the contrary I truly believe that the strategic use of flexible methods is the Union’s only way of progressing meaningfully in the near future.

However, hierarchy and stability are important. This is not only so on the individual level, but also at the international level. Stability was wide-spread all through the Cold War, no problem there. But once the Berlin Wall fell and the world became multi-polar instead of bipolar, stability vanished faster than the world could counter it. When Kennedy and Khrushchev made a deal, the world stuck by it. Now, when Obama, Putin and Hu Jintao together would “solve” the Middle East issue, Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad and others would probably not so very kindly tell them to sod off. That is the true challenge of the future, both in Europe and the rest of the world, to establish a stable system of transnational and transcommunal relations that is able to resolve crisis situations without the whole thing exploding in their faces. However, everybody realises today, even the US, that no single country or small elite group of countries can impose global stability the way they did during the Cold War.

Indeed, the impotence of national governments poses a major problem. Based on my previous contributions, one might believe that I think the traditional state obsolete. In a way I do, as there are an increasingly number of topics that can simply no longer be dealt with at a national level – I’m thinking the environment, global peace, the internationally economy, but also core sovereignty issues such as monetary or migration policies. Even the world’s greatest are past believing that they can do it on their own – although the step between knowing it and acknowledging it is still very wide. However, despite the dwindling impact of traditional governments on policymaking, the conventional state still has a hugely important role to play: as a vehicle for democracy. The state is the only legitimate wielder of power, justified and empowered by democratic elections. No other international entity could in the foreseeable future take over this role from a nation-state. Even the EU, the most advanced experiment of international cooperation, is faced with serious democratic deficits.

This paradox would not be a serious problem, were it not that the people are beginning to realise it. Especially in Europe, voters are increasingly aware of the fact that whatever party they elect they are all equally impotent to really deal with the issues at hand. The result is irrational voting and populist politics, whereby people are always voting ‘against something’ no matter what it is and politicians promise everything to everyone. Elections are increasingly becoming a political circus rather than a true democratic way for the people to express their opinions. People, realising their votes no longer matter, vote for the politicians who shoot the hardest and promise the most. Likewise, politicians are trying their best to please the people with what they want to hear, regardless of the issues that truly matter. Just look at the Belgian recent local elections: everybody was rather happy with the way their community was being managed, yet most ruling parties suffered grave losses. Why? Because people are looking for a way in which their votes can matter again.

Politics goes up and down, sometimes they go left, and sometimes they go right. But what worries me most is the increasing populism that rules the debates these days. The people are right to speak up and vote irrational as a way of protest, but as the political class is unable to do anything about it the results are ever increasing populism.  Narrowing their scope, both the people and the political classes lose track of what is really going on. This lack of global perspective is one of my main fears for the future. Do people in Flanders really believe that when they become independent all will be better? Do Russian ultra-nationalists actually consider an old-school Russia as a Russia free of troubles? Are religious extremist really convinced that all problems will be gone once everybody follows their belief? Indeed, I fear not the current right-wing mood in which most of the world is stuck at the moment, those things pass. What I fear is what comes next. What will people do once they realise that intolerance, xenophobia or racism does not deliver on its promises? Stay tuned.

About the Author

Gilles Pittoors
Gilles Pittoors is from Belgium and is a graduate of the Catholic University of Leuven, receiving an MSc in European Politics and Policies and previously also a BA in History and an MA in European Studies. Gilles’ main areas of interest are the European integration process and its history and global and European governance. Gilles is currently studying for his PhD in Political Science and International Relations at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.


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