The forgotten continent and the national interest

Think of Europe. Americans helping Angela Merkel with her phone calls. Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy in economic and social trouble. Month-to-month crises in the Eurozone. A region in a muddle, past its best.

Behind this veil of woes there is a Europe that is gradually, if haltingly, becoming more of a piece and less a haggle of disparate parts, more visible abroad as an entity and driving big trade deals.

What does that offer this nineteenth-century offshoot here? Is that 2010s Europe factored into domestic understanding and foreign policy? John Key goes to London (and Balmoral) and Paris but barely touches the ground in Brussels, Europe’s administrative capital. He has yet to go to the annual Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) which has been running since 1996 and which New Zealand joined in 2010 on the Asian side.

In the 1980s New Zealand turned away from Europe to underline a new, genuine independence in mentality, not just in formality. Te Papa for a time turned inward, ignoring anything that pre-dated arrival of the various races or was not local.

Te Papa has since recognised the European dimension of this country’s heritage in its kaupapa and exhibitions. Have politicians made that transition?

Why would they? The EU encompasses 28 countries with very diverse societies. Britain is to have another referendum on whether to stay in the European Union (EU) and is demanding rule changes. Eurosceptic parties are on the rise across the region and leading in polls in France. As for the 17-country Eurozone, economists have a rule that a single currency will work only with a single fiscal policy, hence the mess in the zone’s peripheral economies.

First: the Eurozone has not broken up. Germany has stumped up cash to keep weaker members from going under. The European Central Bank has done just enough (so far). Some banks look dicey but there is a reasonable prospect that most will trade through and that the rest can be bandaged. New proposals to coordinate fiscal settings might over a decade or so generate something approximating a single fiscal system.

Second: the single-currency stress has not (yet) pulled the union apart. Greece is just about to start growing its GDP, Spain is (just and no more) growing and Ireland is out of bondage. Some countries not in the Eurozone want to be.

Third: the EU is expanding. It is negotiating to incorporate up to five former Soviet states, notably Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova if they can fix their human rights and democratic deficits (a big if in Ukraine’s case). Negotiations with Turkey have resumed.

Fourth: The EU (as distinct from its individual members) has stepped up involvement in east and south-east Asia, in political presence at meetings, in bilateral cooperation and aid and in bilateral trade deals, including Singapore (done), Japan (under negotiation) and China (an investment agreement under negotiation). (New Zealand is for now off the trade deal list.)

Fifth: The European Commission (the EU’s bureaucracy) has full authority from constituent countries to negotiate trade deals. It has negotiated a far-reaching agreement trade and investment agreement with Canada and has started negotiating a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States which will focus on behind-the-border matters, in particular product and services standards. A second round is under way this week.

The EU and US both believe the standards this deal will set, if successful, will become de facto global standards. New Zealand (and China) will have little choice but to conform. Put it together with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, if that comes off, and in effect the World Trade Organisation will have been bypassed.

None of this yet sets Europe alongside the US and China as a distinct world power. Past start-stops, the often fraught and nebulous decision-making and decision-not-making (as at the most recent summit in October), diversions and retreats and grindingly slow progress on high-minded treaties and other agreements generates pessimistic commentary in much of the European media.

Also, part of the context for the above five points is a week I spent in Brussels in October funded by the European Commission, which naturally talks up unity and progress.

But my other reading and discussions before and since suggest the positive mood in Brussels has some basis in fact — that there is a boat New Zealand might miss while fixated on China and the TPP.

Moreover, if Europe as an entity does become a more visible global presence and more active in east Asia, that could be a valuable rule-of-law-based balancing factor as China expands its global and regional role and the US responds to that rising China. This country’s nightmare is that it might in some crisis have to choose between China and the United States.

Small nations need sharp wits and strong relationships across many bridges. It might be time to inquire about the forgotten continent.