Photo: Reuters
It's time for the UK to start planning and making deals for post-Brexit. Photo: Reuters

While the geography of the world, starting with Asia, is taking a new shape with the growing confrontation on the South China Sea and the Chinese historical initiative of the New Silk Road, Europe is self-absorbed and almost fading away from the global political scene.

Countries of old Europe are apparently choosing to go back to their 19th- and 20th-century history of growing clashes and rivalries. This might well be their privilege, but the world of this century is very different from that of the past.

In fact, a new brick was taken out of the wall of the European Union in October with Hungary’s referendum voting against accepting new immigrants and thus snubbing EU commandments on the subject. Just a few months ago, in June, the UK voted in favor of leaving the EU. Next spring the radical rightist, anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen might win, or lose well with over 40% of the vote, the French presidential elections, something that could push the EU further apart and put more pressure on German chancellor Angela Merkel. She is so far the staunchest paladin of the EU’s pro-immigration policies, the stalwart of unified Europe, and due to be tested in regional elections later in 2017, while anti-immigration sentiments are mounting in Germany as well. If Chancellor Merkel loses the elections, she might have to forfeit her job, too, and all her European unitary policies might sink with it. It could mean bye-bye, EU.

Washington’s role

Of course, if the EU really breaks apart, it will be also because of pushes and pulls from Washington. The process of unifying Europe started with the US at the end of World War II, when the Americans, mostly sons of European immigrants, wanted to put an end to centuries of rivalries culminating in the slaughter of world wars. Moreover, at the end of World War II during the Cold War, a unitary, liberal, economically fast developing Western Europe that distributed its well-being unequally but to all blocked the advance of the lures of communism from the adjacent Soviet Empire, then socially more equal but also more economically stagnant and illiberal.

A second advance into Europe, which included many ex-Soviet satellites, in the early 1990s at the end of the Cold War, came at the behest of America to compensate for the introduction of the unitary currency, which was meant in time to lead to political union. This new enlarged EU, loosely bundled around the euro, was intended to counter future ambitions of Moscow, if and when it came out of the slumber following the demise of the USSR in the early 1990s. Therefore, the results of the American elections in November will have to be factored into the future of the EU, depending on what the new US president will want to do with Russia.

Now many in Europe wish for walls between countries to stem the tide of immigrants coming from war torn Libya and Syria. Yet it is unclear what walls of any kind built by individual countries will do against refugees, desperate people, and, yes, also criminals and terrorists hiding among them. It is clear however that the crumbling of Europe will be the greatest political boon to Russia since the end of World War II, and could embolden the most radical in Moscow seeking “revenge” against the “West” after the humiliation of their defeat in the Cold War.

It is also clear that a pro-active, unitary European Army, which could just threaten an intervention, would work much better than walls. An EU army could help stabilize areas where immigrants come from, and help to stop the terrorist and criminal organizations fomenting chaos, creating refugees and profiting from all. But such an army would need more political unity in Europe, not less, and defensive walls actually help the cause of chaos by signaling to terrorists and criminals they are winning and Europe is on the defensive.

Why China matters

This is not the end of the political story of the continent, however; it is only its beginning. The rise of Asia, after the rise of China, is the future of the story.

Europe, with or without EU, is more and more a part of the larger Eurasian continent that is emerging with China, which in turn has kindled the growth of the rest of Asia and is powered by the new, fast, and cheap communications and transportation.

This has translated into China’s political and economic initiative the New Silk Road. It is a long-term project that may stumble, stagger, or even trip. Yet, with or without Beijing’s communist government, even with or without China, it is an engine that started and will not stop. It will continue with India, Southeast Asia, and the rest of the continent simply because the route is fast and cheap—after all, it dominated world trade until the discovery of America.

Both the EU and all individual European countries including Russia must cope with this problem. In 20 years, roughly the time to conceive a child and send him to university, the usual life cycle of any man and woman, the Asian economy could be twice or four times bigger than now, while at the present pace the European GDP would have just moved up a notch. This is the real challenge and opportunity for Europe, and as with children, if you don’t plan now, in 20 years there will be no one going to college.

Unlike Europe, America is moving forward. With President Barack Obama, it has re-pivoted to Asia, where it is strongly favoring the birth of a new European-style balance of power in the South China Sea. It is also actively engaging China and all its neighbors, who are scared both that China may become too strong and bossy and that China may fall apart.

In China, pundits peruse books of European history teaching that geographic distance, like that of Britain from Europe, was a key factor in the development of continental affairs. Similarly, now America’s physical gap from Eurasia doesn’t mean the US is not and will not be involved in the advance of New Silk Road. Washington’s attentiveness in the South China Sea doesn’t mean it is forgetting Central Asia, the key to the continent and possibly the world, as Mongols knew for centuries and Halford Mackinder theorized. In fact, the present political geography has changed.

Once, before the discovery of America, the US didn’t exist and the world was divided in different regions. Now it is all interactive and it is impossible to think that America will not be part of Eurasian politics, just as it was impossible to think that Great Britain would be not part of European developments. If some Asians think that sooner or later the US will hark back to nowhere, they think that history can’t be erased. Since the discovery of America 500 years ago, it has become an interconnected part of the world and cannot go back to being isolated.

The importance of a politically united Europe

In this world European countries—and America, so important for decades in European choices—perhaps will have to decide first what kind of world they would like to have in 20 years. They can do that knowing that they will not be total masters of the future, that events can at best be nudged, and that with or without a bossy China, Asian growth is bound to happen. Perhaps every country should view the present problems of European political integration and choices on the flow of immigrants and refugees against this backdrop.

Looking at 20 years from now, it is obvious that to cope with new super-states like China, India, and Indonesia, but also demographic explosions like Bangladesh, Vietnam, or Thailand, a politically united Europe is better for all. It is better for present European states, including Russia (less lonely vis-à-vis possible pressures from China), and also for America, which could embrace Asian energy from its west (California) and its east (continental Europe).

Still, long-term goals can march only on the legs of today’s, and every day’s, decisions and risks. People in Europe are scared about the end of their old lifestyles with the whittling down of the entitlements created by the welfare state in 1950s and 1960s. In recent years they saw the end of total free health care, total job security, and total pension coverage. New ideas flagged as “Europe” or “Brussels” have been imposed on old convenient notions like “Britain,” “France,” “Germany,” or “Spain”—so much so that some wonder whether they should in the future think of “England” as they now consider “Sussex.” In the name of “Europe,” a wave of non-Europeans are inside the gates changing the notion and values of Europe as well as those of their host countries.

It is not just cultural; it is practical and economical too. In a shrinking job market, where menial occupations already pay less than 20 years ago, cheaper offers push wages further down. Young educated people may find it attractive to become bilingual in Europe, commanding English and their mother tongue, but older and “uncouth” ones feel lost in a new world that threatens to invade their neighborhoods with signs in languages they can’t read. These people are rightly scared they may not have 20 years to see future Eurasia, and they are suffering and panicking now. These objective concerns should not be manipulated by demagogues, and should be addressed by traditional parties. The present EU is not doing that—it is too aloof, as if long-term plans and people were just cold items on a shopping list. Reasonable politicians have so far failed to gain a true voice moving the hearts of individual European citizens, and waver between true but abstract calculations and false but concrete appeals gut feelings.

Europe, and European countries, cannot be ferried out of the present swamps by cold bureaucrats (in the highest sense of the word) in Brussels lining up reams of pages of regulations, or populists (also in the highest sense of the word) catering to immediate fears.

Having children is extremely painful, but many people have them and want them, because every cell of our bodies, also pushing up to the sexual act, tells us it is our projection into the future, our little shortcut to an earthly immortality. Children are rarely born out of simple cold calculations. Most are acts of love, even if on the spur of the moment, and yet once born and raised, they make perfect sense. In a similar way, only if Europe can find its ideal, its “love,” and its enthusiasm can it then search for ways to mediate between long-term goals and short-term necessities. Without this ideal, it is only bureaucracy versus populism, in the worst senses of the words.

The need for a new Anglo-German embrace

Chancellor Angela Merkel, a woman with both heart and brains and virtually the leader of Europe, certainly understands that. She may also understand that Germany, because of its size (too big) and its history (too bad), cannot lead this unity. This can only happen starting with England, the place that for centuries, after Venice, made European political unification impossible. Perhaps Chancellor Merkel should actively ask her British colleague Theresa May to think differently. Merkel should encourage May to change her ways. The UK should not try to find shortcuts to wiggle out of the EU at the lowest cost, and the EU should not threaten retaliation and trade wars to prevent the Brexit. Both have to try to reform the EU, and the UK should take the lead in Europe with the full support of Germany, both thinking that a new “Europe” must be born, and not an enlarged England or a Grosse Deutschland.

This new Anglo-German embrace, if bold and generous enough and with US blessings, could un-ruffle many feathers in France and thus lead the rest of the continent along a very difficult path.

All of this is not simply difficult; it is almost impossible. But without it, within a year the EU could fall into the hands of the demagogue with the chilliest voice or just drag on for years on a path of slow development and inaction. The history of Europe has seen plenty of both. With either of these, the New Silk Road could come to a standstill and East Asian tensions, without a hope for a positive outcome in the West, could escalate. Then it is up to two women, Merkel and May (maybe three, if Hillary Clinton becomes US president,) to find a path in the next few months, and perhaps mothers rather than fathers will be better fit for the task.

Without a United Europe, not only could single European countries could count less and be far more poor in 20 years, but the global balance of power could also be tilted too much towards the Pacific. Without a strong and fast developing Europe, Asia will have little or no need for a new Silk Road and thus tensions already high on the Pacific rim could further escalate. Therefore, not only Europeans need the EU but so do Asian and American countries. Perhaps this should be reason enough to get Merkel and May act together.

Francesco Sisci

Francesco Sisci is an Italian sinologist, author and columnist who lives and works in Beijing. He works for the Catholic research center