It’s been a big week for Josep Borrell, the European Union’s most senior diplomat. In two historic, borderline apocalyptic speeches this week, Borrell laid out a stark vision of Europe’s threatened place in a world of growing insecurity and competition between states, grappling with a reality the continent’s leaders have until now been too slow — perhaps fatally slow — to apprehend.
Channelling Edward Gibbon’s famous opening lines from the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Borrell remarked across both speeches that “Europe is a garden. We have built a garden. Everything works. It is the best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion that humankind has been able to build,” but “the rest of the world is not like this.” Indeed, “Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden… Because the jungle has a strong growth capacity, and the wall will never be high enough in order to protect the garden.”
Echoing the warnings of the German political theorist Hans Kribbe, Borrell observes that “We are too much Kantians and not enough Hobbesians,” because we have failed to “understand the world the way it is,” and attempted to export European norms of governance to a hard world which “is not ready to follow our exportation of model.”
Instead, it is aggressive and expanding authoritarian states like Russia and China which are turning the wheel of history at Europe’s expense. Urging us to read Putin’s dark and threatening speech on the occasion of Russia’s annexation of much of Ukraine — “Every European citizen must read this speech” he insists — Borrell’s essential warning is that unless Europeans recognise and prepare for the gravity of the international situation now upon us, “the rest of the world will invade us, by different ways and means.”
The post-Cold War order, a world in which “You — the United States — take care of our security. You — China and Russia — provided the basis of our prosperity” has evaporated, never to return: “This is a world that is no longer there.” Instead, “We live in a world of power politics. The rules-based system that we defend is challenged like never before, and our interdependency — which was supposed to be a good thing, preventing the war — now is becoming weaponised.”
What does this mean for us? With Europe’s model collapsing, other systems, like China’s authoritarian governance model, in which “maybe you are not going to choose your head of government, but you will have food, and heat, and social services, you will improve your living conditions,” will hold greater appeal, not only worldwide but perhaps in Europe itself. After all, he notes, “the radical Right is increasing their grasp in European politics,” taking pains to remind his audience of budding EU diplomats that this trend is “the choice of the people” and “not an imposition from any power.”
But for the foreseeable future, Europe will be poorer than we have ever experienced, buffeted by global storms we cannot outrun. The foundations of Europe’s Panglossian political worldview and economic prosperity are toppling, one by one, in rapid succession, with no clear sense of what will come next. All that we can be certain of is that we are living in a new era, “a ‘moment of creation’ of a new world.” Europe’s decades-long holiday from history is over: finally, Europe’s leaders appreciate the scale of the challenges facing us. The only problem is that none of Europe’s leaders, including Borrell, possess any convincing plan for the hard road ahead.