Is the PM's European journey really necessary?

The Prime Minister is in Europe this week. What’s the point?

Sure, she’s chairing an OECD meeting in Paris which will discuss sharing economic gains with developing countries, she’s catching up with Tony Blair and she’s visiting her great-uncle’s war grave — all reasonable reasons to drop by.

But she is also visiting the Belgium Prime Minister, the French President and some European Union commissioners (chief bureaucrats). Do they count, post-Saddam?

Listen to Washington’s insular triumphalists and you would say this is not the time to pay court to those who have angered the world’s dominant power, with which we want free trade and from which we may also want, in some unforeseen time of need, a strategic umbrella.

Paris and Brussels are “old Europe”, United States Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a man of staggering intellectual breadth, has scoffed.

France, Germany and Russia are “the little three”, sneered New York Times columnist William Safire last week, positing that George Bush’s show of force in Iraq is of itself obviating the need for force to sort out other miscreants and bring “sunshine allies” into line.

North Korea, he wrote, is suddenly willing to talk, China is joining those talks and Russia has declared against the rogue regime — all after American threats implying an air assault on North Korea’s nuclear weapons production and hints that Japan and Taiwan might build missile shields, Besides, adding economic squeeze to military fright might bounce Syria out of Lebanon and its support of terrorists.

To which David Makovsky, an American Middle East scholar, has added that the Palestine Legislative Council has taken a turn towards moderacy and negotiation. Yasir Arafat has gone the way of Saddam Hussein — partly the result of Israel’s show of force against suicide bombers.

You get the drift. Whatever the legality of the Iraq invasion, the United States’ armour is shining white while Europe’s rusts and clanks, its military a shadow of peerless American might.

Europe, the much-quoted, dogmatic American Robert Kagan wrote just recently, is “entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realisation of (philosopher Immanuel) Kant’s ‘perpetual peace’ “.

Here at home, this view is shared by ACT and National. Get quickly in lockstep with the victors. There is no time to lose. Europe is the past. The United States is the future. We’ll miss the boat.

There is another perspective.

First, the European Union (EU) is a more important trading partner than the United States: No 2 after Australia, taken as a single trading entity, which it is.

Second, the EU is a powerful force in (and to a disturbing extent against) world trade liberalisation negotiations — and also in climate change and a raft of other multilateral matters. Given New Zealand’s trade dependency, Europe remains a high priority.

Third, the EU is about to expand eastwards, adding 10 new member countries next year to make the total 25. That increases its size and weight to the second biggest economy in the world and around 450 million consumers.

And, fourth, though the process goes in fits and starts and the EU often looks divided — even paralysed — the direction for 50 years has been towards a more integrated political and economic entity. Though doomsayers can always point to potentially disabling obstacles, there is no compelling reason to think this momentum will stop.

For all of those reasons it makes good sense to touch base with the top bureaucrats and some political bosses at this fulcrum point in the “new Europe’s” evolution.

But there is more.

East of the expanded EU lie the Ukraine’s vast agricultural resources and Russia’s oil and gas reserves and minerals. These are complementary to the EU’s industry and technology and could deliver something approaching economic self-sufficiency to a greater Europe. Russian gas already flows west. Russia’s economic interests lie more with Europe than the United States.

It is fanciful to project from this some European superpower. The EU’s foreign policy divisions are legion and Russia makes the EU’s new members nervous. Last week EU heads of government were trying to salvage some respectability out of the split over Iraq between France/Germany (with Russia) and Britain/Spain/Italy (with the United States).

But look ahead to a future in which China, then India, develop much greater economic and strategic weight, and Berlin, capital of an assertive Germany, is centre of gravity of a “new Europe”, with London an outlier.

Prudent attention to a militarily supreme (and economically pre-eminent) United States is axiomatic and our government has underdone the prudence.

But military ascendancy is always temporary. Economic power counts more in the end and American economic ascendancy will eventually be challenged. Slavish devotion to a temporarily rampant United States might prove a trifle shortsighted.

So should the Prime Minister be in Europe this week? Yep.