EYE ON THE WORLD

Grandmother Europe has life in her yet

Although challenged on many fronts, EU solidarity holds and the union may emerge from its current trials strengthened

The last few years have not been kind to the European Union.

The EU has yet to emerge from its worst economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1920s. Its single currency, the euro, remains on a life-support machine. Britain, one of the biggest and militarily most significant member-states, is toying with leaving the EU altogether, while Greece, one of the weakest member-states, may face eviction from the union.

Even the EU's claim to have brought lasting peace to the "old continent" which generated two world wars during the past century no longer holds true: A very hot war is now unfolding in Ukraine, most likely to be followed by a prolonged colder war with Russia. In short, failure all around.

But there is an alternative, almost counter-intuitive view of today's Europe which is just as compelling: Far from falling to bits, the continent is slowly getting its act together and is poised to emerge from its current trials much more strengthened.

The snag is - and it is a very big one - that few governments or strategic experts outside Europe have noticed this subtle but significant transformation.

Take the euro crisis as an example. On one level, little has changed since disaster struck: Greece is as bankrupt and as badly governed as ever, Europe is as morose as it has been since the single currency's future was placed in doubt, and hostility to Germany's demands that all Europeans should suffer years of painful economic austerity in order to put their finances in order is as high as ever.

Indeed, the political clouds are darkening even further: Greece is now run by a bunch of far-left populists who only six months ago would have been dismissed as just fringe elements, a fate which may well also await Spain, Italy and even France, where populists can storm to power on the back of an electoral backlash against current political elites.

But such doomsday meltdown scenarios ignore some pretty fundamental European achievements.

The first is the sheer scale of the EU commitment to bailing out its member-states. It cannot be repeated often enough that Greece received a staggering €245 billion (S$366 billion) in loans to keep it afloat, the biggest single bailout in the history of mankind.

One may argue about the wisdom of this bailout and the conditions imposed on Greece, but not about the generosity of the act. Can anyone imagine any other part of the world where such a huge transfer of resources is thinkable, let alone feasible?

Most European governments which contributed to the Greek bailout knew they were throwing good money after bad, but still did it because they genuinely believed that European solidarity was worth paying for.

This solidarity was even more in evidence when Greece's newly elected populist government recently tried to renege on its promises of reform, while still demanding cash: The Greeks found themselves in a minority of one inside the EU, proof of Europe's realisation that economic overhaul is not a choice, but a necessity.

Europe was also transformed by the euro crisis in other ways.

A European Rescue Fund worth half a trillion euros is available to prevent any other member-state from falling into a Greece-style crisis. European banking supervision is a reality and, last week, the European Central Bank started to pump cheap money into the continent's economies in order to revive growth.

All these things were simply unimaginable five years ago.

And then, there is the crisis over Ukraine. True, the Europeans ignored Russia's objections to Ukraine's independence, which were evident for a long time. They were also caught napping as Russian troops stealthily penetrated deep into Ukrainian territory. And, yes, the initial sanctions imposed against Russia were puny, while Europe's political disarray was great. The Europeans stood exposed as high on principles, and low on action.

But it is usually forgotten that the reason Russia intervened in Ukraine is precisely because Ukraine was poised to sign an association agreement with the EU, an indication the Russians realised this agreement was more than just about trade.

For decades, the Russians used to claim they had no difficulty in accepting that the former Soviet states should join the EU; they objected only to membership in the US-led Nato military alliance.

Now, however, Moscow objects to the EU as strongly as it does to Nato, an indirect acknowledgment of the EU's increased importance, albeit one with tragic consequences.

Criticising the EU for its "failure" to prevent or contain the war in Ukraine is about as nonsensical as blaming, say, Asean for its supposed failure to restrict China's behaviour in the South China Sea.

Either way, one year after the imposition of the sanctions which were derided around the world, does anyone doubt their severe impact on the Russian economy?

The real unpleasant surprise for Russia in this conflict was how united the Europeans have been against Moscow's designs, and how Germany was prepared to set aside its considerable trade interests in Russia in order to uphold European unity.

In all likelihood, Ukraine will never again exercise control over all its territory; nobody - including the United States or any other nation - is willing to contemplate a war with Russia over Ukraine.

But those in Moscow who believed that the Europeans would be a pushover will be sorely disappointed: Rump Ukraine is now even more determined to look westward, while other former Soviet republics are desperate to strengthen their links with Europe.

Meanwhile, the new EU energy policy adopted last week represents the first concerted and very real effort to wean Europe away from its dependency on Russian oil and gas. Moscow will end up paying a heavy price for its behaviour in Ukraine.

Still, how can one explain the fact that the one thing which unites right-wing politicians in the US with communists in China is their belief that Europe is now a spent force, worthy more of derision than respect?

One explanation for this curious outcome is the fact that the EU is a huge bureaucracy, an organisation which is simply incapable of projecting its actions in a positive light.

Negotiating free trade agreements, imposing sanctions or drafting bailout packages are boring things, almost impossible to convey to the public. They cannot compete with a table-thumping speech from a US president although, very often, Europe's boring activities are more profound than media-friendly slogans from the White House.

Europeans also jostle with each other for the limelight, and are jealous of each other's achievements. So, while Germany's leadership in the handling of the Ukraine crisis is to be lauded, few Europeans did so in public, and few bureaucrats in the EU capital in Brussels were happy either, as they were excluded from the process. For a variety of selfish reasons, many EU officials play down what are now their continent's biggest achievements.

And then, the Europeans are also curiously reticent about rejecting criticism from outside their continent. Nobody said a word when President Barack Obama, who leads the nation with the biggest national debt in the world, urged the Europeans to sort out their finances. Nobody thought it appropriate to point out to Chinese officials who recently urged the EU to improve its banking supervision that the world will be a safer place if Beijing did exactly the same back home.

And European legislators said nothing when the Pope also recently took part in EU-bashing during a speech to the European Parliament by comparing the continent to "a grandmother who is no longer fertile and vibrant". The criticism came from a man who lived in Argentina, a country shaken by corruption and governance failure.

Either way, the biggest detractors of Europe are the Europeans themselves, either because they readily accept criticism hurled at them or because they simply fail to notice their continent's achievements.

Although the narrative of Europe's slow decline is now accepted as self-evident, the reality remains that nearly 200 million more people live in the EU than the US, that the EU outstrips China and represents the largest economic area in the world, that the per capita income of the average EU citizen is three times that of Russia, and their life expectancy is two years more than in the US. Europe is also the biggest donor to poorer countries in the world.

Of course, the EU is only as good as its next crisis, and it may stumble if confronted with a new challenge. But its achievements remain far more substantial than commonly assumed. And even the Pope may be surprised by what this "grandmother" is still capable of doing.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com