DA Director, Ambassador Emil Brix, introduced Baron Green of Hurstpierpoint: a graduate of Oxford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Civil Servant, Conservative Politician, former Trade and Investment Minister, Banker and former Group Chairman of HSBC Holdings PLC, Company Director, Anglican Priest, and author of several books, including Reluctant Meister: How Germany’s Past is Shaping its European Future, and, Brexit and the British: Who are we Now?
Stephen Green had voted Remain in the Referendum. So, our ABS Vice President, Ambassador Alexander Christiani, focussed on Brexit in his introduction. The economic consequences could be dire. If the current negotiations should end in “no deal”, the UK’s economy could contract by 8%.
Lord Green began with the historical background to the strategic, cultural and geopolitical challenges for European identity that flowed from the rise of Asian countries such as China, with which Europe shared the Eurasian landmass, where 70% of the world’s population lived. The British question was but one of these challenges.
The Persians had been the first to attempt to civilise, rather than merely conquer other peoples. Rome and China, the world’s oldest continuously existing polity – had been aware of each other. But, after the death of Admiral Zheng He (whose voyages of exploration may have reached America) in 1435, China abandoned the “emperor’s mandate, to rule all under heaven.” By that time, Islamic civilisation had eclipsed peripheral, and relatively backward Christian Europe.
Until the beginning of the 19th century, the country with the largest population – China – also had the world’s largest economy. (In 1793 Emperor Qianlong told a British envoy that China “did not need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians”.) The rise of European seaborne empires and the industrial revolution changed everything. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (born in 1520) had reigned over territory from Vienna to Manila. After the Thirty Years’ War (Treaty of Westphalia 1648) European states abided by the principle that each ruler had exclusive sovereignty, including religious sovereignty, within his state’s boundaries. This system depended on a balance of power which was blown up by the French revolution (1789) and by Napoleon. The balance, partially restored by the Congress of Vienna (1815), lasted until the unification of Germany in 1871. During this period, the UK was the sole imperial and industrial superpower. At their peak, Europe, the US and Japan had accounted for 75% of world GDP. In the 20th century, dominant Europeans had been brought down in wars initiated by a “rogue state.”
Lord Green used a Stock Exchange analogy for his assessment of future prospects and challenges. When bulls attack, they turn their horns upwards. Bears swipe their paws downwards. The Bull case for Asia included economic growth, not only in China but also in countries such as India. Singapore was the model Confucian state. The economic gap with Europe and the US was closing fast. Asian countries would “continue to scale new heights.” But the US would continue to reinvent itself. Never short America because of Trump! However, the US’ brief reign as sole superpower was over.
Although Europe was in comparative decline, it retained comparative advantages. Its Bull Case included creativity, elegant design, education, and liberal thinking. It was a treasure trove of culture, beauty and the core values of civilisation, including compassion for others and taking care of the planet. It was the home of great thinkers, such as Luther, Hegel, Kant, Hume, and Darwin. Moreover, Europe was at peace. Not only had Germany been unified peacefully, Eastern and Central European states had been integrated in the EU and NATO peacefully: two “tremendous achievements”. Asia should learn from this.
There was also a Bear Case for Asia. In China, corporate debt and savings were too high, while consumption was too low. The economy was dangerously unbalanced. India faced massive problems in finding jobs for a poorly educated labour force. And there was a hygiene problem. There was an unstable neo Westphalian system, featuring dangerous cultural nationalism, a rogue state – North Korea now was reminiscent of Serbia in 1914 – flashpoints such as the South China Sea, conflict and rivalry in the Middle East. India felt encircled, in part by China’s Belt and Road.
In setting out the Bear Case for Europe, Lord Green likened it to mediaeval cathedrals. Some still stood. Others were never completed. Some fell down. Some of the builders went bankrupt. The EU had been a triangle with three key powers – the UK, France and Germany. It was becoming an axis of two powers, but all roads led to Berlin. It was not focussing on economic challenges, and lacked visionary leadership to realise its potential. Cumbersome structures, the migration challenge, and arguments about relations with Russia, inhibited progress. Brexit was an acute identity crisis. The UK had already opted out of “ever closer union”. Could European identity gain the loyalty of EU citizens? For the individual identity involved first, working out what one was not.
After Ambassador Brix had thanked Lord Green for his “geopolitical masterclass”, there was a lively Q&A session. The main additional points made by Lord Green:
- Don’t take NATO for granted. The US had a point. Europeans should pay more for defence.
- The US viewed China in terms of long-term strategic confrontation – deeply problematic. The EU could, and should do better.
- EU enlargement should include the Balkans, but not, for the foreseeable future, Ukraine or Turkey. Russia might well see Ukraine in NATO as a casus belli.
- Immigration was also an opportunity. Europe, including the UK, had a demographic crisis, that manifested itself in labour shortages.
- African issues, including migration from countries such as Nigeria, would rise up the EU’s agenda. The Arab spring had been suppressed in Egypt.
- There were already dangerous quarrels over water resources in South East Asia.
- The EU was “mad” to subsidise exports of food to Africa under the Common Agricultural Policy.
Last but not least Brexit: there would be a messy deal. Thereafter, the UK would spend ten years implementing it, rebuilding broken bridges, and constructing new ones. It was not a question of choosing between the EU and the Commonwealth. The British would do well to learn about their colonial history, the most deplorable chapter of which had been written in Ireland. It was no surprise that the Irish question was proving to be the most difficult one in the present negotiations.