Commentary

The European project is in crisis

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The European project is in crisis

On the 14th April, John Ashton participated in a debate in Bonn hosted by Stiftung Zukunftsfähigkeit (the Foundation for Sustainability) and Nordrhein-Westfälische Stiftung für Umwelt und Entwicklung (North-Rhine/Westphalian Foundation for Environment and Development) entitled “Thinking about world responsibility”.

The text of John Ashton’s speech follows below. A report of the event (in German) is attached – John Ashton’s speech is given in English on pages 5 and 6.

The European project is in crisis. Europe needs a new sense of purpose, as a driver of the global transition to sustainable development without which no continent will be able to achieve security and prosperity in the 21st century. We need to show in our dealings not only with the US but with our neighbours, with China and other partners, that sharing sovereignty need not undermine diversity, and that only a universalist approach to our common problems will deliver solutions.

I think as the next step in the European project we should build a mirror. But it should be a special kind of mirror. If any European looks in this mirror, they should be able to see the faces of 6 billion people looking back at them.

We can’t have a meaningful dialogue across the Atlantic unless we know who we are and what we stand for. Such a mirror will show us that, as Europeans, we can now only define ourselves, and derive our sense of purpose, by understanding the consequences of our choices for those outside Europe – by creating in other words a sense of Europe’s role on the world. Let me give two examples, from my own background, the world of diplomacy.

Some of the discussion tonight has reflected a very traditional view of international affairs. This holds that nations struggle with each other to maximise their power, their control over events. They have competing interests, in what is more or less a zero sum game.

But in a globalising, interconnected world that is striving for sustainable development, that is patently not an accurate description of reality. There is a whole range of interests – a stable climate, protection from global epidemics, the worldwide ascent from poverty and so on – that humanity holds in common. That is the meaning of all those those faces in the mirror.

Unless we can secure these goals, our narrower national interests – of course we have those too – make little sense: in the end they will be unattainable. We won’t be able to secure global public goods with a zero sum view of foreign policy.

Second, we treat foreign policy – and people have referred to it tonight – as if it is entirely separate from domestic policy. That is equally no longer true if it ever was. Energy, transport, health, employment and most other fields of policy have growing international footprints and are now just as much part of foreign policy as the stuff of old fashioned diplomacy.

We do not yet have the tools, or even the mental landscapes, appropriate for these new conditions. We are still stuck in the old thinking. But we need to escape from it. And we need to do that in particular if we want to build a sense of purpose for Europe in the world. This is not about building a Common Foreign and Security Policy in the sense in which that is normally understood – a bit more, but not really much more, than traditional diplomacy at a European level. It is about redefining what we mean by foreign policy and making that a defining characteristic of the European persona.

We have heard tonight about the scale of the challenge. Yes, it is daunting. It is as significant as any that we have ever faced. If we cannot meet it, the threat is to civilisation itself. This is the first time in our 200,000 year journey that humanity as a whole has ever stood at such a threshold.

We cannot achieve such a transition on only one level. This is not just about better analysis or changing policy. I agree with what Gret was implying, that sustainable development is a spiritual transition too. It is also philosophical, cultural, political and economic; it has to happen in science, engineering, architecture, the humanities and so on – all at once, in one single highly dynamic and multidimensional explosion of change.

I have been reading recently about the Enlightenment. Something similar happened then. Fundamental change happened virtually simultaneously in almost every realm of thought and action. It made us different people – it changed our identities. What needs to happen now is on the same scale.

It is appropriate to refer to the Enlightenment. Actually we need Enlightenment values – a belief in science, in reason, in objective truth as a basis for decisions – to make this new transition. Only science can tell us useful things about the impacts of our actions on nature.

But those values are under threat, and that threat comes in its strongest form from across the Atlantic. The Bush Administration prides itself on not being a “reality-based Administration”. So part of our challenge in thinking about the conversation Europe should have with the US is to decide whether we want to defend those values, and if so how. It will not do simply to pretend that there is no such struggle going on.

Another thing about sustainable development. For me it is fundamentally about accountability: about making ourselves accountable to more people, for more of the consequences of what we do. The globalisation we are experiencing at present is the globalisation of opportunity. But to go with that, to make it politically sustainable and morally defensible, we need the globalisation of responsibility.

Again, the mirror shows us how, in touching the lives of others we touch our own, and we need to become more aware of that.

So, to sum up, to have a sensible conversation across the Atlantic, we must first look into our new mirror and better understand who we are.

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