Letter from South Africa
Dear EU leaders,
You must feel the world has turned topsy-turvy in the last couple of years. Fallen from your position as the major global actor with your soft power and metrosexual approach to international relations, harassed by the shenanigans of your erstwhile close partner across the pond, beset by a grumpy and insolent bear to the east, and a new superpower further east that is wrapping the whole world in its beautiful silk of connectivity. To your south, you feel overwhelmed by waves of migrants (some of them are actually refugees) fleeing their own leaders’ poor governance or the consequences of precipitous actions by your members, which created power vacuums and the chaos that follows.
Europe has long been a pillar of the western liberal international order, but the rise of China and other Southern powers and the re-emergence of Russia are rattling many of your principles. You, the new leadership of Europe, will have to come to terms with this. You will also have to come to terms with the fact that your political and economic woes over the last decade have dented your image as an example of successful regional integration. How many African regional economic communities did not model themselves on the EU?
So, what does all this mean for your future as a global player? Well, first, you need to decide what the European project can deliver in the wake of Brexit, and with an expanding complement of ultra-nationalists in your ranks. These tensions within the Union deflect from the broader economic challenges you face regarding innovation and competition. They undermine the values the EU was built upon and make common external positions difficult, thus eroding your influence.
By dint of your economic muscle you will of course remain important in the medium term, provided the economic edifice does not unravel after Brexit and if US brinkmanship with China doesn’t lead to retaliatory protectionism from all quarters!
Diplomatically, however, your challenges are greater in the absence of a united approach to foreign policy. Different members have different interests, often competing, thus undermining the voice of the EU in foreign policy. This is unlikely to become any easier in a climate of growing polarisation. If the EU wants to remain an influential global player it needs to develop an engagement strategy with other regions, not least Africa, by learning from past mistakes. This is an important principle to remain committed to, and on which many African countries can agree – as long as it is based on working together rather than Europe believing it knows best.
A new global order is still to be born, but values of human rights, democracy, equity and social justice should form part of the normative framework. Europe’s soft power and normative projection can be significant in this uncharted phase of the evolution of the international system. In addition, this normative dimension has an important role to play domestically in Africa, where the EU’s support has been significant in building robust civil societies that can hold governments to account. It has also been critical in helping societal resilience.
Europe’s engagement strategy with the continent must recognise that Africa has grown in its agency. It can play a constructive role in international platforms and processes. An example is Kenya’s careful steering of the SDG process. Africa also has a significant stake in a rules-based, functioning global system, as has Europe. But Europe needs to become bolder in pushing for the reforms to the multilateral system that many developing countries are rooting for. If Europe retreats into a fortress trying to protect its privileges, its influence will gradually decline as other countries and regions grow in economic and diplomatic prowess, and become less dependent on Europe.
Europe’s ability to remain an influential player thus depends on recognising the limits of unilateral impact on changes in the global system. Your influence will be linked to the countries and regions you can build common cause with. Such common cause may be with certain countries in the Global South, and not your traditional geopolitical partners.
South Africa sees the value of a deep partnership with Europe. While there won’t always be agreement, both of us are committed to a rules-based order. It’s just that Europe will have to accept that the rules must change. The more it (and other upholders of the liberal order) resist or hesitate, the less likely it becomes that the rest will be willing to work within the system.
South Africa has just held its sixth democratic election. Its new leadership is well aware that it needs to reclaim its place as a constructive, normative actor on the global stage and in Africa. With the election of the new European leadership, it is thus a good time to re-energise the partnership, to advance a reformed system for pursuit of global good through the exercise of soft power rather than the hard might of the Great Powers.
About the author
Elizabeth Sidiropoulos is the Chief Executive of SAIIA.