In 1991, at the height of the first Gulf War, the EU demonstrated to the world its divisions and helplessness, as Belgium infamously blocked the export of munitions to the UK, then at war in the Gulf. They quickly came to regret it. The Belgian Foreign Minister subsequently remarked tellingly: ‘Europe is an economic giant, a political dwarf and a military worm’.
It seems these days that little has changed, save that even the EU’s claim to be an ‘economic giant’ is eroding with the loss of the world’s fifth largest economy, a dwindling share of world trade and a catatonic growth rate, even before the pandemic. Worse still, much of its relative economic decline is self-inflicted.
The pandemic has seen the EU tottering from one international humiliation to the next: PPE export bans within the bloc, a faltering vaccination roll-out and now a vaccine export ban, leading even the arch-federalist Guy Verhofstadt to deem the EU’s performance ‘a fiasco’. The perception and reality of the EU as a developed dynamic economic bloc that sets global standards is fast evaporating.
Even Emmanuel Macron, that great scion of EU-philia, confessed in an interview to Greek TV last week that the EU had performed poorly on vaccines, failing to take initiatives early, lacking the will ‘to shoot for the stars’, unlike the US (though he couldn’t quite bring himself to say the UK). Other than Macron’s criticism also being applicable to his own performance – like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme not realising he was speaking in prose – what he didn’t point to were the causes of the EU’s sloth and poor reactivity.
First is the EU’s totemic ‘precautionary principle’ that negates the vim and vigour of risk enterprise.