Romanian Prime Minister, Sorin Grindeanu (L) and European Union Commission First Vice-President, Frans Timmermans, give a joint press conference following a meeting on February 16, 2017 at the European Union's Commission headquarters in Brussels. / AFP / THIERRY CHARLIER Image Credit: AFP

The world needs the European Union (EU) now more than ever. Despite recent crises and the hard blow dealt by the Brexit vote, the EU may well be the world’s best line of defence against today’s most serious threats: isolationism, protectionism, nationalism, and extremism in all forms, all of which are once again growing in Europe and beyond. The key to enabling the EU to meet this potential — to save itself and the world from catastrophe — is for member states urgently to adopt a ‘European Union first’ mantra.

Unlike the ‘America first’ credo embraced by US President Donald Trump, such a mantra would not be an exercise in damaging unilateralism. On the contrary, it would compel member states’ governments to look beyond narrow national interest, defend openness and multilateralism, and confront head-on the exclusionary political forces that have lately been gaining ground. It would drive member states to consolidate the EU, thereby enabling it to overcome the challenges it faces and help preserve the international order.

That order is neither an inessential accessory nor a post-war relic. It has supported global prosperity and stability for 70 years. We need it — together with the multilateralism on which it is built — to confront many of the economic, environmental, and strategic challenges we now face, challenges that cannot be addressed at the national level.

A cornerstone of the existing international order is the recognition that maintaining peace and human welfare requires an understanding of and respect for the needs and interests of others — needs and interests that are no less legitimate than our own. Multilateralism is not a product of unsustainable solidarity, as some like to claim; it is the result of an enlightened interpretation of one’s own interests. With a constructive attitude, even a large number of disparate actors can reach agreements in which everyone wins by yielding a little; without it, prospects for sustained peace and widely shared prosperity become far bleaker.

If all countries put their own interests first, paying no heed to others, competition will quickly overwhelm common interests. If nobody is ever willing to yield, we will all lose. If we depend solely on bilateral deals, the shared spaces and synergies that facilitate agreement on difficult but vital topics — from climate change to security — will narrow until they disappear.

This is why Trump’s embrace of an American first mantra is so worrying. As the world’s leading power, the US sets the tone of cooperation and often provides the incentives for other countries to participate. If the US maintains a unilateral and isolationist stance, other countries are almost certain to follow suit, endangering everyone — including the US.

Recently, the Trump administration has begun to moderate some of its foreign-policy positions. In particular, Trump has finally agreed to honour the ‘One China’ policy. He also seems to have rectified his approach to Japan, after having raised doubts about his willingness to follow through on America’s security commitments. These developments imply that the administration is beginning to recognise the need for a more constructive approach.

That recognition may arise partly out of an understanding of history. Experience has shown that the most effective way to prevent conflicts is through inclusion and cooperation. Exclusionary rhetoric plays into the hands of those who reduce identity to nativist definitions. When such figures — nationalists and populists — have been left to guide policy in the past, the result has been large-scale conflict.

At a time when global power dynamics are in flux, as is true today, the risk of such an outcome is even greater. Today, an effort is being made to incorporate emerging powers — particularly China — more deeply into the existing structures of global governance. Casting doubt on these structures, which have sustained stability over the last seven decades, would merely fuel more nationalism and competition, opening the way for volatility and conflict.

If the US cannot be counted on to support global stability, the EU’s model and experience will become even more important. The EU is the embodiment of inclusion, cooperation, and democratic values. Despite its flaws, the EU has proved time and again how differences can be resolved peacefully and constructively. Its member states are uniquely committed to multilateralism; indeed, we practice it daily.

The results speak for themselves. No one can doubt that the EU has been a guarantor of peace, democracy, modernity, and progress for all of its members. Its community model — which requires cooperation, negotiation, and compromise to reach any consequential decision — amounts to a check on extremism, because no member country can push radical policies forward without other members pushing back.

This is not to say that EU countries face no risk of falling victim to simplistic populist rhetoric. On the contrary, the point is to highlight why EU member states must dedicate themselves to the continued construction of a stronger and deeper union. For the sake of Europe and the world, it is time to put the EU first.

No one knows better than Europe the consequences of extremism and nationalism — or how to overcome them. With an enlightened and supranational spirit, the EU has achieved a sustained peace that would have seemed impossible a century ago. It must not lose sight of that achievement. Instead, it must continue to advance the union, and show the world what multilateralism can do.

— Project Syndicate, 2017

Javier Solana was EU high representative for foreign and security policy, secretary-general of Natom, and foreign minister of Spain. He is currently president of the ESADE Centre for Global Economy and Geopolitics and distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution.