Is Europe in Decline?
It is time to re-evaluate the strength and influence of the power bloc
By Lin Minwang  ·  2016-05-20  ·   Source: | NO. 21 MAY 26, 2016


Members of the European Council and Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte (eighth left, front row) pose for a group photo in Amsterdam on January 7. The Netherlands took the rotating presidency of the EU on January 1 with a half-year term (XINHUA)

On May 12, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution refusing to grant China market economy status. It came as little surprise for many long-term observers of Europe, who have argued that the EU is trying to externalize its internal problems. The resolution can be interpreted as an EU protectionist strategy, seeking to limit the entry of Chinese products.

The EU has been China's largest trading partner for 11 years straight, while China has been the EU's second largest partner for 12 consecutive years. Their interests have never been so intertwined, thus it would be illogical for the EU to deliberately jeopardize bilateral trade prospects. A reasonable explanation can be the EU's inability to pull off an economic resurgence and its fading competitiveness in the global market.

The above incident further triggered a debate over whether the traditional power bloc is in a decline. Though the 2008 global financial crisis started from the United States, it is the EU which was hit hardest. The chance of a swift European recovery is still remote eight years on. There are a multitude of toxic indicators: a sluggish economy, more frequent terrorist attacks, internal fractures (most notably the risk of a British exit from the EU), intensified Islamophobia and rising populism. Simultaneously, the EU's regional influence on geopolitical issues is weakening. It was unable and/or unwilling to prevent the Crimean crisis in March 2014, while the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis has widened continental divergence.

In light of its current woes, how should the EU be assessed? Economically, it remains the world's largest single market and Germany, France, the UK and Italy still rank inside the globe's 10 largest economies. Though the EU is still an important player in international politics, it can no longer dominate the world political agenda, and its influence has been weakened further due to the rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the birth of G20. Militarily, it is dwarfed by the United States and takes a back seat in the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The glory

Europe's accession to global dominance has often been overstated historically. European powers have been considered leaders in economy, science, navigation, trade and exploration since the 16th century, according to mainstream narratives. However, Alan Donald James Macfarlane, a British anthropologist and historian, noted in his book, Making of the Modern World that many scholars now acknowledge that in the 16th century, European powers were actually behind some other civilizations of the world. This narrative asserts the rise of Europe took place around the beginning of the 19th century. Thus, European prevalence happened only 200, rather than 500, years ago.

When Portugal and Spain began to explore uncharted waters, the Iberian Peninsula had just been freed from Islamic rule. In this period, the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English civilizations could be considered as inferior to the Ottoman, Mughal and Chinese empires in matters including economy, science and military development. The majority of European conquests before the 19th century usually involved less explored territories and less advanced societies, e.g. the accidental discovery of North America by the Spaniard, Christopher Columbus, in 1492. Yet, this laid the groundwork for the future.

By the mid-19th century, some European powers were undertaking significant industrialization and modernization, enabling them to overpower more traditional empires in the East. European countries acquired rapid development through innovation and scientific advances. Feudalism also gave way to industrial capitalism, helping to elevate Europe to global pre-eminence via expansion and hegemonic wars.

Through industrialization, Britain conquered one quarter of the world. It pioneered many traits of modernization, which inspired similar developments in nations such as France, Germany, Italy, the United States and Japan. This global system, dominated by imperial powers from Europe, was shaken up by the two world wars in the first half of the 20th century. After the end of World War II (WWII), the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) emerged as leaders of the Western Bloc (The United States and NATO allies) and the Eastern Bloc (USSR and Warsaw Pact allies), respectively.

Britain's pervasive influence relied to a great extent on its colonies spread across the world. After WWII, having been severely damaged by years of fighting, Britain ceded many of its territories to independent rule, thus weakening its global clout. The United States and USSR owed much of their rise to their vast territories and large populations, though other factors should also be taken into account. To an extent, their rise can be considered inevitable.

The jostling for a suitable position in the world political order is evolving into a competition between large economies. As Karl Marx observed, capitalism pursues constant market expansion. Market size and share have become increasingly critical factors in the modern economy. In a modernizing, rational and market-orientated world that is projected to further conform economically, the sizes of a country's population and territory are pivotal in determining global influence.

Europe has a relatively small population, which is projected to shrink further as a proportion of the world's total. Germany, the most populous EU nation, has approximately 82 million people, less than several midsized Asian countries, such as Pakistan, Viet Nam and Bangladesh. Territorially, France is the largest country in the EU, yet ranks only 49th in the world. It is a testament to Europe's development that it has been able to punch above its weight for so long.


U.S. international relations scholar Robert Gilpin referred to the rise and fall of civilizations through the law of diminishing returns. In his 1981 book, War and Change in World Politics, he said, "Every society in every age is governed by the law of diminishing returns. The society can grow and evolve in wealth and power within the existing social and political framework only to the point at which it begins to encounter diminishing returns...these fetters must be removed through political-institutional change and especially, although not necessarily, through territorial or economic expansion."

He argued that as a society grew richer, individual and public spending would increase, the service industry would grow more rapidly, and the manufacturing industry would decline. In the meantime, the wealthier people become, the less enterprising they would gradually be. This is reasonably consistent with the reality of contemporary Europe. Long-term generous welfare has arguably contributed to the decline of social enterprise, while the electoral systems in those countries, coupled with established interests, has caused political inertia that makes social reforms in Europe difficult to achieve. Additionally, the overemphasis of universalism in Europe may have facilitated the tolerance of extremism.

Europe introduced valuable principles, such as democracy, liberty and the protection of human rights to the world. However these come at a cost: A country must be economically developed to afford such rights. In nation states governed by particularism, the perspective of universalism, which honors the protection of human rights in every aspect is difficult to attain. The high degree of human rights protection dear to the hearts of some European countries is largely limited to that continent and other economies on a par with it. For many in the developing world, a European-style society, though desirable and attractive in some aspects, is still inaccessible for the time being.

Europe's contribution to global prosperity, progress and enlightenment is undeniable. However, it faces inevitable decline. Though some of this can be attributed to internal problems within Europe, much of it is relative to the significant development in other regions of the world. If more people around the world have the opportunity to achieve the living standards enjoyed across much of Europe, it should be celebrated as a success for humanity.

The author is an associate professor with China Foreign Affairs University

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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