Book project: Next Europe

Rem Korteweg: ‘The EU needs to engage much more with Asia’

The last interview for my book project Next Europe was on exactly the same spot where I had my first: the Press Club in Brussels. Several months on the road, mostly in The Hague, Brussels and Paris, I now have a fine collection of insights into the challenges and opportunities of the EU in the 21st century. The writing process has already begun, which is of course the most difficult part.

So this time I give the floor to Rem Korteweg, who is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform (CER) in London. He has, in his own words ‘a different perspective to offer than when you speak to people here in Brussels.’ The researcher worked on strategic issues for most of his career life and obtained a PhD at the University of Leiden. Since the beginning of 2013, he works in London.

Korteweg1 kopieGreat Britain sidelined
Funny enough, Korteweg almost defends the British perspective on Europe, stating that the continuing and accelerating integration of the eurozone leaves the non-euro member states increasingly ‘by the side.’ This is of course a direct result of the eurozone crisis, which sparked the further integration. ‘What we see is that the 18 eurozone countries have taken a lot of steps to build new institutions and new frameworks that basically transfer sovereignty from the national to the European level. That leaves the non-euro countries by the side. From their perspective, from the UK’s perspective, integration might actually mean fragmentation. It looks like their national interests are not protected enough.’

It is no surprise that the British stance comes up immediately in the interview. Last year prime minister Cameron announced a referendum on the UK’s EU membership in 2017, if his party stays in power and if there hasn’t been a substantial renegotiation of powers between the EU and the member states by that time. Should the British people really decide to leave the European Union, expect vast consequences on the integration project. ‘There is a lot of uncertainty about a UK outside the EU,’ says Korteweg. ‘What position in the world does the country have? How will trade relations with the EU and other parts of the world be affected by an exit? I doubt the UK will be able to negotiate the same trade deals they currently have.’

So why did Cameron take this drastic step? Korteweg: ‘His government is very critical of the concept that the EU should continuously move forward, towards an ever closer union. Also there are very strong concerns about immigration flows into the UK, on the rising costs [to being a member], and greater regulation out of Brussels.’ On economic policy, the UK is concerned that ‘southern European member states’ want a stronger role for the state, whereas the British prefer a very liberal laissez-faire policy, to use a proper English term. ‘They won’t accept a European Union like that.’

A compromise on the direction, course and structure of the EU is necessary, thinks the Dutch researcher. ‘We need to find a model that both collects the perspective of those countries that want to foster greater cooperation in particular fields, but also of those countries that are more happy with the way things are and integration doesn’t need to move forward so strongly.’ But just as in France, where I spoke to the federalist Francois Heisbourg, the EU debate in the UK is totally polarized, discovered Korteweg. ‘It is very difficult to find people that are able and willing to discuss the EU in a moderate or balanced fashion. Either you are pro or anti EU. There is nothing in between.’

Korteweg3 kopieA resource-poor continent
From internal struggles to the outside world. Previous interviewees pointed to the volatility of the 21st century world, especially in Asia. Think about the risk of military conflicts, insecure access to energy and other resources, and disruption of worldwide trade patterns. Rem Korteweg focuses on foreign and security policy and is in fact optimistic that Europe will survive the rough ride that is ahead of us. ‘Things are happening’, he says, ‘also directly in response to the Ukraine crisis. The EU is starting to think much more creatively and urgently about the need for a coherent energy strategy, which has a very clear foreign policy dimension as well.’ He expects that the EU will engage much more with countries in North Africa and the Middle East and that transatlantic relation with the US will be revived, all because of Russia’s recent aggression towards Ukraine.

Time is running out to become (partly) energy independent, for instance because of the nearing depletion of Europe’s gas fields. Korteweg: ‘We need to be very clear that Europe is a resource-poor continent. We are inherently looking abroad to gain access to sufficient materials and energy resources to meet the demands of our economy and citizens. The next ten to fifteen years will see a lot of challenges when it comes to the supply of these resources.’

Within the EU shale gas may become more popular, as well as renewables such as solar and wind power. Also the import of (shale) gas from the US and Qatar will become a serious option, made possible by huge LNG tankers that can ship the stuff in a liquid form. But this will not be enough. The CER fellow expects that new energy corridors will come up. ‘Europe will start to get more access from countries like Azerbaijan, Kurdish Iraq, if we have a nuclear deal with Iran they can send some of their gas towards European markets. The relation with Algeria will become much more important.’

Korteweg2 kopieAsia: moving beyond trade
The Ukraine crisis forces Europe to focus its attention on its immediate neighbourhood. But for Korteweg, more is at stake. ‘Europe cannot ignore the big strategic shift that is taking place in Asia. It is here where changes to the international balance of power are taking place, and it will affect European interests. Not only in the field of East Asian security. The rise of Asia will have consequences for politics around the Indian Ocean, Central Asia, the High North and the Middle East.’ Europe no longer has the liberty to choose the issues it focuses on, because they are closer to home. ‘To protect its interests, Europe must have the capability to walk and chew gum at the same time.‎’

Common wisdom is that the EU has been talking to Asia for decades, leading to many bilateral deals. ‘The strategic partnerships that we have with Asian countries are in essence not really strategic, but cover mostly trade issues. We need to start moving beyond that and touch upon real foreign policy and security issues.’

Reason for that deepening of the relation is the likelihood of ‘serious security issues’ in Asia, which could spill over into interstate war, having disastrous consequences on the region but also on trade routes. Korteweg: ‘There is a lot of discomfort and uncertainty about the way in which China’s rise is influencing the regional dynamic, and the role that the US plays. You see that in the arms race that’s taking place in the South China Sea, you see it in the conflictual relationship between Japan and China.’

We can no longer hide behind the umbrella of the Americans or think that Asia is their backyard, not ours. ‘The United States, in spite of all its strengths, faces a tough period ahead. Inevitably, the rise of China and others, and the reduction in US defense spending means that its relative power is smaller. Yet the demand for its security role, whether in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, or the Asia-Pacific remains large. We are now in the early stages of a messy multipolar world where the US must redefine its role. It is a period where the demand for US foreign policy action will only increase, while its domestic appetite for international involvement seems to be shrinking. This will raise questions in the US about its purpose and its priorities and could trigger growing frustration among its allies abroad. The US remains the world’s most important power, but it will be a superpower under stress.’

Rem Korteweg suggests that there is an increasing risk of a hot conflict between Japan and China, as the two countries both seem to be ready for a short war. Implications will be massive and also hit the West hard. ‘If we realize that fifty percent of merchant shipping passes through this area, any trade disruptions will affect Europe’s economy immediately. So I think the time is well past to make the argument that Europe has no role to play or does not have an interest at stake in the development of Asian security.’

But why would the Asians listen to the old continent? What’s in it for them? ‘Their perspective has been that the EU is a trade bloc and nothing more. This is starting to change. This month we had the Chinese president visiting the EU’s headquarters here in Brussels and discussions were much broader than simply about trade. They can benefit from diplomatic support. Further on, Europe still matters in the international arena. There are EU member states who have a veto on the Security Council. European markets are very important to Asian suppliers. So the EU is less and less able to get away with the neutral stance in some of the tensions that are emerging in Asia as it has over the past year.’

Watch the full interview with Rem Korteweg here (20 minutes):