The last five years of crisis have marked us all. After many years of continued prosperity and strong social guarantees, the collapse of Lehman Brothers five years ago sent an unprecedented shockwave through Europe; all of a sudden, those ‘rights’ that many took for granted – the safety of their money in the banks, their long-term jobs prospects, the hope of a good job for well-educated young people or the right to a decent pension for the older generation – suddenly became far less certain. Europeans felt vulnerable, for the first time really since World War Two. And as the crisis continued, the deeper the frustration and sense of vulnerability became.
Today, of course, we know more about the crisis and its causes – and can act accordingly. Globalisation has arrived with vengeance, and has brought both positives and negatives. But one thing is clear: it is not going to go away. We cannot protect ourselves by walls, old style borders or protectionist policies. All these simple medicines so glibly prescribed by most Eurosceptics, nationalists or extremists will simply not work.
So what can we do to get the most out of globalisation and minimise the risks? Well, for starters, Europe needs to overcome its insecurity and embrace this new world order with confidence. Many of our competitors would love to trade positions with us. Millions of people living outside Europe would love to have the same rights and benefits as we are fortunate enough to have.
But if Europe was seen by some as the sick man of the world, why are so many other countries and people aspiring to be like us? Well, the reality is that we tend to forget that we are far from being sick! The EU is the world’s biggest economic power (with GDP of nearly €13 trillion in 2012) and its biggest trading bloc (the EU accounted for 16.4% of global imports and 15.4% of exports in 2011, ahead of the US with 15.5% and 10.5%, and China with 11.9% and 13.4% respectively). And despite the crisis, our share of world trade is not declining; unlike that of many of our trading partners, it is holding steady.
The EU is also the world’s leading recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI) – some €225bn in 2011 – and the leading provider of development and humanitarian aid. Five of the top 10 most competitive nations in the world are EU countries. Add to this the fact that Europe is the place with the highest respect for human rights and personal freedom, the world’s leading fighter in the battle against climate change, the cradle of democracy and the home of the most widespread and effective healthcare and social policies, and it is clear that we have been running ourselves down for too long. This is a mix that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, and as a result it should naturally give us confidence to take the leap into the new era of globalisation.
This is what I think will be the EU’s next ‘big thing’ – to make sure that Europe keeps this competitive edge, responds to this global challenge and guarantees the longevity of European achievements on the ground.
Which, naturally, in these sceptical times, begs the inevitable question: why is this best done by the EU rather than national governments alone?
The answer, I believe, is that no single country or group of countries has the necessary weight to achieve this – not even for themselves let alone the EU as a whole. This is my firm belief after five years of crisis. The sheer scale of the economic and social transformation, the educational reforms and the investments in R&D that we need to really punch at our true weight on the global stage simply cannot be achieved without doing so on a European scale. Banks are simply too big to be regulated or saved by individual countries alone; multinational companies have more economic power then most governments in Europe; we have unemployment in one country and shortage of skilled workers or employees in another. Only a European response will get the results we need.
We set great store by our European way of life – the economic, social and environmental standards that we have worked hard to achieve over the last 60 years. There are many who fear that globalisation is a threat to this way of life – but they are wrong. A fully modern and transformed Europe has nothing to fear from anyone; rather, it should be an example of what other nations should aspire to be: the safest, fairest, cleanest and greenest place on the planet.
And we really are in this together. There can be no doubt that Europe’s future lies together, not apart. Yes, each Member State has its own efforts to make to reform and strengthen its economy; but even the biggest of our Member States remain relative bit-players on the world stage. While it is entirely conceivable that one day there might be no single European country sitting round the G8 table, for example, the combined might of the 28 Member States surely gives us a permanent seat there.
Through self-transformation and modernisation, by leading by example, Europe’s ‘next big thing’ will be nothing more or less than to shape the entire world in positive and fair way. As big things go, that’s a pretty big one – but if we work together, if we stick to the path that we have set for ourselves, Europe’s collective place at the global top table will surely be assured.