It happens rarely that I write ‘Dear Mr/Mrs…’ to people younger than me. But with Professor dr. Jonathan Holslag, that is the case. He is only 32 years old, professor of international politics at the Free University of Brussels since 2011 (!) and has written three academic books, mainly on China, Asia and Europe. After the interview I told him one of my heroes is Robert Kaplan. Holslag responded: ‘He’s a good friend of mine. We read our work to each other.’
I was notified on Holslag’s existence by Luuk van Middelaar, the speech writer to Herman Van Rompuy, who is also a hors categorie of his generation. It took me months to get a date for the interview, because Holslag was busy with the preparation of his latest book, The Power of Paradise. Which deals with the future of Europe and our relations with Asia. The book is out since two months – first as a Dutch version – and has already sold nearly 10,000 copies, which is extremely good for the Dutch-language book market and especially for political non-fiction.
Europe isn’t the prime focus of research for the young professor. ‘My career has developed quite capriciously. Initially I started in Africa, working on African affairs like rebel groups in Congo, and then I was almost forced to start working on Asia by my supervisor.’ But now his prism turned to the old continent. ‘By traveling extensively to the Asian region, also by talking to a lot of decision makers and business folks from Asia, it really became clear that Europe is in quite an uncomfortable position nowadays. But also in terms of perceptions it is going down rapidly.’
That perspective from the East instigated Holslag to ponder about the question how bad our position is, as a market, as a society, as a political constillation, as an international actor. And will our ‘fragile European construction’ be altered further by ‘a turbulent and uncertain international order?’
The fourfold crisis of Europe
‘It has been said many times that Europe was in a death struggle and that it was reaching its terminal stage,’ argues the researcher. ‘Each time Europe came out of those episodes of uncertainty in a stronger way. But this crisis is different. Altogether the world order has changed and it will make it less easy for us to adjust as we did in the past.’ His analysis is one of a fourfold crisis.
- The most manifest one is that there is a collective action problem at the European level. Many of the negotiations, very complicated ones, have moved to more discreet technical committees, where national powers are still very blatant and outspoken.
- A stark weakening of pragmatic elites, the central parties in the member states. They used to bear the European project. The electoral shift is really sliding to a critical point. The electoral share of the central parties will become smaller than a colorful array of populist, conservative and extremist parties.
- The fraying of the welfare state, as a system of redistributing economic opportunities. The bottom fourty percent of the European population are losing out rapidly in terms of purchasing power and employment opportunities. That reverses the positive current that we witnessed in the last six decades.
- The altering of the economic balance of power at our expense. Europe bit by bit becomes less competitive, and more dependent on external debt. Government debt has become the most successful export product of the EU.
Looking beyond these immediate crises, Holslag reckons that the failure of Europe ‘to provide tangible economic opportunities’ is the biggest long term threat. ‘Europe as a political project is not an exception. Like each political project it will only survive if it visibly advances the interests of the majority of its people. And it is no longer able to do that, as the member states are also no longer able to do that.’ But what about all the measures that have been taken in the past years to reform our economies and stabilize the eurozone? ‘I don’t see with the current answers to the crisis, the banking union, some efforts to create new jobs amongst the youth, sufficient reassureances that we will turn the tide. So my prediction is we will slither further down into our legitimacy trap and the EU will fray.’
Europe as a playground, not a player
As we become weaker, the world will take advantage of us, predicts Holslag – who is a realpolitik thinker. ‘Friction between the member states will be exploited ruthlessly by the other major powers. That we already see. In the past week the Chinese president came here to visit several member states. In spite of not giving anything in terms of clear concessions, or giving clear gestures to Europe, still all the governments went on their knees, flat on the ground, and they walked over us.’
The way we kowtowed in front of China, bodes ill. In the upcoming power politics between the major powers, ‘Europe is not going to emerge as a player but as a playground,’ thinks Jonathan Holslag. ‘The situation is really gloomy. What the reality bears a lot of resemblance with, is with Italy in the 15th-16th century, the time of Machiavelli and the Liliputer states in Italy. They believed they could use the great powers around them – the Austrians, the French, the Turks – to maintain their position. Whereas in fact the reality showed the opposite. These powers trampled the Italians because they couldn’t agree and form partnerships, cooperation that was solid enough to deflect the ambitions of the others.’
Luckily, the other kids on the playground all have their own issues. ‘I don’t think the world order is characterized by new strong leaders. We are all fragile in our own way. China is struggling, India is at disarray almost, the US is also having serious problems.’
Though we may not be played upon, Europe can expect a very volatile – even violent – world in the 21st century. ‘In such order characterized by fragile powers, there is a greater tendency towards greed, selfishness, free riding, economic power politics, mercantilism, protectionism.’ In such an environment we are bound for trouble. ‘The very tough economic power politics will ultimately merge with the military one. The chance that things spiral out of control is quite large, it will spill over into Europe’s backyard, which is a belt of uncertainty.’ Holslag even thinks that we will see a militarization of space as well as of cyber, and that is just the start.
Sham power politics
In his book the researcher calls for stronger foreign policy by the EU. But as we witnessed in the Ukraine crisis, Europe fails to take a collective stance because the interests of national member states are too different. Holslag is very critical of the policy towards Russia. ‘I am not sure these countries, are playing their national interests. They are departing from very opportunistic, short-sighted interests, not from what basically is for this generation of citizens and the next one. It is sham power politics. It is sham statemanship. It is not real. We see politicians pretending to pursue statecraft but in fact they are selling out the future of their own citizens.’
‘What is missing is an institution in Brussels, a group of officials that is able to turn the natural differences of political orientations into a sort of consensus. What the External Action Service ought to do, is to do less external action, and more internal action. It has to invest in brokering this consensus, it has to explain why it is in the interest of the Swedes to mind the instability in North Africa, why it is in the interest of the Italians to mind the power play in the Arctic, what the Russians are doing there and so forth.’
‘Only by striking that geopolitical consensus and also by explaining it to the people, not just to the governments, we can overcome the problem. We can do this fairly easily. The message of Europe at the brink of drowning, submerging into its new, complicated security environment is a very compelling one, and could even turn the tide of euroscepticism. We have to explain, and I think it is doable, to European people that we are in the same boat. This is a tiny tail piece of Eurasia and we do not have any other option but to stick together.’
Maintaining the paradise
In a world of realpolitik, how can we maintain legitimacy for Europe-wide cooperation and even further integration? Jonathan Holslag is not too worrisome about the supposed lack of democracy. ‘The European Union is one of the most democratic projects in the world, even in world history, certainly given its scale with more than 500 million citizens. It’s not peanuts to organize ourselves in democratic structures that are functional at the same time.’
No, the real problem is in politics. ‘The crisis is more a consequence of a lack of ideas. And that’s what Mill already said: a democracy is a marketplace of ideas. It only functions if there are enough ideas that appeal to the people, and that explain how the political structure benefits to them.’ Therefore Holslag – a researcher, but also one who supports federalist thinking – pleads for a ‘progressive vision’ for Europe. ‘Conservatism and economic orthodox policies for me are not enough. The progressive vision provides in the maitenance of standards of living of Europe’s youngsters, provides in their security, and especially comes up with a project that is more dynamic, that is more competitive, but is still also solidary enough and more pleasant than what we have to do today.’
With the upcoming European elections and the instalment of the new Commission (November), the EU has a big window of opportunity to take this path. Holslag hopes that the change will be primarily in communication. ‘It is all about form. The new Commission has to play politics more vigorously and more actively, we have to have a face of the Commission that is recognizable, and a voice that is convincing, expresses empathy, and an understanding of what is happening in the 28 countries.’
On a policy level, the way forward is to get standards that allow companies to create growth and jobs, ‘without having the fear to be washed away from credit-supported imports from China, and polluted shale gas imported from the US.’
‘The ideas and visions are quite obvious. But we have to learn to play politics with the European institutions and be not afraid to go instantly to the people that we serve. These are not governments in capitals, these are the people on the streets, the 500 million European citizens.’
Watch the interview with Jonathan Holslag here (25 minutes):