In 2012, McKinsey analysts, using data from the University of Groningen, released a striking map showing how the global economic centre of gravity has shifted since AD1. Yes, you read that correctly: since Jesus was a year old. Looking at the map now brings a fresh reminder of how Europe’s global position is fast being challenged. Awakening to that reality is why it makes sense to stick together and make the European project thrive, not wither away.
Here’s a glimpse of what the map says. It took one century, from 1820 to 1913, for the centre of gravity (as measured by “weighing” locations’ GDP) to move from Asia to Europe.
After the second world war, that point moved across the Atlantic to the United States. In the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, it remained in the western part of the northern hemisphere. Then a dizzying acceleration occurred. In just one decade, from 2000 to 2010, the centre swept back to Asia, reversing almost all the trends of the previous 2,000 years. We’ve been mentally adjusting to this shift for some time. Books have been written about how this will be the “Asian century”.
These days, news headlines about North Korea and China, not to mention Myanmar, serve as a constant reminder of how much of the world’s security — its governance as well as the liberal democratic values that will (or won’t) be upheld — depends on what happens in a part of the world that seems distant to most Europeans.
I remember an Obama administration official telling me in 2012 how ‘tedious’ Europe felt, whereas Asia was “exciting” So much is going on in our own region. Debates over equality, social justice, diversity, migration, the German elections, French President Emmanuel Macron’s reform plans, the Brexit mess, not to mention concerns over Poland and Hungary’s democratic backsliding, and Russia flexing its military muscle in the east. We can be forgiven for forgetting what our place in the world has become.
Europe matters, but it often seems to matter less than we would like. We didn’t even need US President Donald Trump for us to realise that the old continent had become less of an American focus than for previous generations. I remember an Obama administration official telling me in 2012 about how “tedious” Europe felt (this was in the middle of the euro crisis), whereas Asia was “exciting”.
It all has a psychological impact. Studies show that people in Asia’s emerging economies tend to be far more optimistic (58 per cent) than Europeans (24 per cent). The new middle classes in Asia are confident their children will be better off financially: for them, the future shines brightly. Europeans, on the other hand, have a hard time feeling upbeat.
With this in mind, changing public perceptions has to be a key part of rebooting the European project. Fixing migration quota issues or calling for a Eurozone budget won’t do the trick by themselves. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, it’s true, has perhaps little trouble promoting the EU to her voters when she declares: “Germany can do well in the long term only if Europe does well.”
Macron had a go at boosting morale last week when he delivered a forceful speech on Europe and democracy in Athens. Europe’s past failures, he said, had “corroded the confidence” of its peoples. He called for a rediscovery of the continent’s rich culture as a way of drawing nations closer, and he plans to launch a grassroots consultative process in 2018, so citizens can have a better say on the continent’s future. Europe is still licking the wounds of its many crises, and more may yet be on the horizon. But Macron is right to try cast his efforts as an ambitious project of renewal requiring the same kind of energy that Europe’s “founding fathers” demonstrated in the 1950s. Macron’s most convincing argument may not be altogether original but it bears repeating: none of today’s challenges can be meaningfully addressed by nations acting separately. Europe can be strong only together — a fact Britain’s travails now constantly demonstrate. If the EU doesn’t built itself up as a true “power”, it will end up subjected to the rules and pressures of external actors.
Which brings us back to the global picture. What distinguishes Europe from other regions of the world is, in the end, rather simple. It is found in its unique combination of liberal democracy, individual freedoms and socially minded market economy, with an emphasis on solidarity and pooling sovereignty. You don’t find that anywhere else. Whatever Europe’s doubts about itself, it remains a highly privileged area compared even with societies whose GDP growth rates far outweigh its own.
The rest of the world can often be more aware of this than we care to be. I’m referring here not only to the migrants and refugees whose movements have made that reality abundantly clear. Rather, look at the results of the recently published, first ever Eurobarometer opinion poll on how other regions, namely Asia, view Europe. Over three-quarters of the Chinese and Indian people polled describe Europe as “a place of stability in a troubled world”. Over 80 per cent of Chinese and Indians have a “positive image of the EU”— a much higher figure than for Europeans (69 per cent).
According to this survey, Asians identity three key “assets” for Europe: its “economic, industrial and trading power”, its “standard of living”, and “respect for democracy, human rights and rule of law”. This century may be “Asian”, but Europe has cards to play. Rather good ones, too.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Natalie Nougayrede is a Guardian columnist.