The European Union's Global Mission

The European Union's Global Mission

Joseph Stiglitz talks of Europe's achievements and future challenges as we celebrate the 50th bithday of the European Union.
Photo Credit: Stock.xchng.com
Recent months have brought many celebrations marking the European Union's 50th birthday. Photo Credit: Stock.xchng.com
In some quarters, pessimism, sad to say, dominated the recent celebrations marking the European Union's 50th birthday. Unease about the EU's future is, of course, understandable, especially given the uncertainty surrounding efforts to revive the Constitutional Treaty. But the European project has been an enormous success, not only for Europe, but also for the world.

Europeans should not be dismayed by comparisons of GDP growth in Europe and, say, the United States. Of course, Europe faces great challenges in perfecting its economic union, including the need to reduce unemployment and boost the economy's dynamism. But, while GDP per capita has been rising in the US, most Americans are worse off today than they were five years ago. An economy that, year after year, leaves most of its citizens worse off is not a success.
The EU's success should not be measured only by particular pieces of legislation and regulation, or even in the prosperity that economic integration has brought. After all, the driving motivation of the EU's founders was long-lasting peace.


More importantly, the EU's success should not be measured only by particular pieces of legislation and regulation, or even in the prosperity that economic integration has brought. After all, the driving motivation of the EU's founders was long-lasting peace. Economic integration, it was hoped, would lead to greater understanding, underpinned by the myriad interactions that inevitably flow from commerce. Increased interdependence would make conflict unthinkable.

The EU has realized that dream. Nowhere in the world do neighbors live together more peacefully, and people move more freely and with greater security, than in Europe, owing in part to a new European identity that is not bound to national citizenship. This stands as an example that the world should emulate - one of shared rights and responsibilities, including the obligation to help the less fortunate. Here, too, Europe has led the way, providing more assistance to developing countries than anyone else (and at a markedly higher fraction of its GDP than the US).

The world has faced a difficult period during the past six years. The commitment to democratic multilateralism has been challenged, and rights guaranteed under international conventions, such as the Convention Against Torture, have been abrogated. Many lessons have emerged, including the dangers of hubris and the limits of military power, and the need for a multi-polar world.
Nowhere in the world do neighbors live together more peacefully, and people move more freely and with greater security, than in Europe, owing in part to a new European identity that is not bound to national citizenship.


Europe, with more people than any nation except China and India, and the largest GDP in the world, must become one of the central pillars of such a world by projecting what has come to be called "soft power" - the power and influence of ideas and example. Indeed, Europe's success is due in part to its promotion of a set of values that, while quintessentially European, are at the same time global.

The most fundamental of these values is democracy, understood to entail not merely periodic elections, but also active and meaningful participation in decision making, which requires an engaged civil society, strong freedom of information norms, and a vibrant and diversified media that are not controlled by the state or a few oligarchs.

The second value is social justice. An economic and political system is to be judged by the extent to which individuals are able to flourish and realize their potential. As individuals, we are part of an ever-widening circle of communities, and we can realize our potential only if we live in harmony with each other. This, in turn, requires a sense of responsibility and solidarity.

The EU demonstrated that sense powerfully by its assistance to Europe's post-Communist countries. The transition from Communism to the market has not been easy, but Europe's unprecedented generosity has paid off: the countries that have joined the EU have outperformed all the others, and not just because of access to Europe's markets. Even more important was the institutional infrastructure, including the binding commitment to democracy and the vast array of laws and regulations that we too often take for granted.

Europe's success is due in part to its promotion of a set of values that, while quintessentially European, are at the same time global.


Europe has succeeded in part because it recognizes that the rights of individuals are inalienable and universal, and because it created institutions to protect those rights. America, by contrast, has witnessed a massive assault on those rights, including that of habeas corpus - the right to challenge one's detention before an independent judge. Fine distinctions are made, for example, between the rights of citizens and non-citizens.

Today, only Europe can speak with credibility on the subject of universal human rights. For the sake of all of us, Europe must continue to speak out - even more forcibly than it has in the past.

Likewise, while the European project sought to bring about the "harmony" of people living together in peace, we also must live in harmony with our environment - the scarcest of all of our resources. In this area, too, Europe has taken the lead, especially concerning global warming, showing that petty selfishness can be put aside to achieve a common good.

In today's world, too, there is much that is not working well. While economic integration helped achieve a broader set of goals in Europe, elsewhere, economic globalization has contributed to widening the divide between rich and poor within countries and between rich and poor countries.

Another world is possible. But it is up to Europe to take the lead in achieving it.




Contributed by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics. His latest book is Making Globalization Work. Reprinted with permission from Project Syndicate.

To read another Global Envision article about the European Union, see Can Europe Age Gracefully? - Part I.



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