A Plenary Speech on International Configuration and World Order at the 8th World Peace Forum

By Herman Van Rompuy

Speaking of the technological revolution, it is often said that never so much has changed in such a short time. But that also applies to the economy, poverty, the climate, the balance of power on a global scale. Sometimes it is an evolution for the better, sometimes it is more worrying.

First I look at the big changes of the last decades:

- The fall of the Berlin Wall and the historic breakthrough towards the unity of the European continent.

- The unprecedented rise in China's prosperity and the conquering of the first place in the world economy, expressed in purchasing power parities.

- The digital revolution that profoundly changes all aspects of economic, social and personal life. The digital human being is born.

- The spectacular reduction of extreme poverty in line with the Sustainable Development Goals on a global scale.

- The rapid climate change with sometimes devastating effects in the form of tsunamis and other disasters, knowing that this is only the beginning. 
We live in a different world. Fortunately, this goes hand in hand with reducing the sources of conflict and war except in the Middle East, which remains the most dangerous place on earth. 

These changes bring with them a number of paradoxes.

Against the growing interdependence there is also the increase in national selfishness in all its forms. Opposite the expansion of 'space' – globalisation
– there is a rediscovery of the 'place'  – the nation state – , often for fear of the big and rapid evolutions. This international dependence is also too often seen as a limitation of one's own independence. 

On the one hand, there is the awareness that the major problems of our time, from migration to climate and employment, cannot be tackled by one country, however important it may be. On the other hand, there is the resistance to draw all the consequences from this interdependence, however inconsistent this may seem. This contradiction can already be seen today in the slower growth of world trade in relation to GDP – too soon to call it deglobalisation –, in the diminishing influence of a number of multilateral institutions and in violations of international law. 

Globalisation is being seen less and less as a win-win situation. If we are to counter this trend, we must ensure that the fruits of economic growth are better distributed also in each of our countries so that the feeling of a win-win can be regained. 

In each of our countries we see a growing gap between cities and rural areas; between people with a high level of education, especially in the digital age, and those with low qualifications. This gap leads to a loss of social cohesion and polarisation. It also translates into an increasing regression to oneself and a critical attitude, sometimes even a rejection of globalisation.

If we want to maintain the global interdependence and prosperity that can result from this, each country must accept the international order with its rights and obligations, and we must not want to benefit from the free movement of trade and capital without accepting the disadvantages and reciprocity, otherwise we will cut off the branch on which we are sitting. 

Globalisation is not the victory of the pure market. Politics and economics are closely linked. Sometimes for good, sometimes for evil. Political courage is needed to go against easy solutions such as protectionism or protectionist measures in all its variants. Moreover, they are not even solutions. Political courage is needed to implement internal reforms to achieve the long-term goals for the economy, for financial stability, for social cohesion and the SDG. Political courage is needed in order to comply with international trade and investment agreements and to put every country and company on an equal footing. It takes courage to be an honest internationalist. Political courage is needed to ensure that global private and public debt does not get out of hand as was the case before 2008, because it can be a threat to global financial stability. 

The important Paris agreement on climate change that was concluded in December 2015, is one of the few successes of international politics in recent years. The vast majority of the signatories want still to implement the agreement. Here too, there is a domestic problem in many countries. Many people support the objectives of the climate policy, but become less enthusiastic when it becomes concrete, when it turns out that a bold climate policy imposes burdens on citizens, businesses and government. It is not an optional exercise. In any case, the strongest should bear the main burden of a vigorous climate policy, both at international and national level. This restraint is disproportionate to the scale of the problem. However, one must be aware that the implementation of the Paris Agreement means that global warming will be between 2.7 and 3.0 degrees in 2100, much higher than the objective of 2 degrees. Here, too, there is the simple truth: if you want the goal, you have to want the means. But I repeat: without international cooperation, we will not succeed. Here too, there can be no room for a kind of free-riding attitude in which it is expected that others will make the necessary efforts while they themselves fail. 

For several decades now, we have been living in a new world in which the old bipolar geopolitical model no longer exists. Today, no one governs the world any more. Personally, I don't believe in the theory of geopolitical rivalry, which, like a natural law, should lead to war. History has almost no laws. Why should large nations and actors not be able to live together peacefully and even cooperate? By the way, I think that, after some hesitation, everyone will see that he benefits from it and threatens to lose a lot in adventures. My feeling is that interdependence is irreversible and will eventually make it through. Governments have no choice but to put the citizens' standard of living first. This socio-economic objective cannot be achieved without international trade and therefore without interdependence. Leaders who cannot ensure a good life for their people risk an uprising as happened in the last decade. Perhaps this strife for a higher standard of living is the best way to serve peace. In my opinion, radical nationalism is not strong enough to make wars acceptable in the material prosperity-oriented civilisations in East and West. My vision is not that of an idealist but of a realist. The individual desire for a good life is a fact of life all over the globe. In this sense, there is much more similarity and convergence between continents and between political systems.

Because each individual stands so strongly on his acquired prosperity, migration has become one of the greatest challenges of our time. Irregular migration is perceived as a threat to the welfare state of today’s residents, especially in the so-called advanced economies. Here, too, there is a paradox because in many countries in the West and East there is a demographic implosion, while on other continents, such as Africa, there is a demographic explosion. At the end of the century, Africa would have almost as many inhabitants as Asia! Many countries will need legal migration even if it is not a popular theme right now. A populist avoids unpopular policies. Because he wants to remain popular. But we will only convince our citizens of legal migration if irregular migration is under control. And that requires a comprehensive approach ranging from supporting socio-economic development in migratory countries to protecting our own external borders.

What is the EU's position on all these developments?
In the midst of growing so-called euro skepticism, a surprising, paradoxical phenomenon occurs. Support for EU membership has never been greater for 27 years, especially among youngsters. A continuously increasing majority (62%) of Europeans think that being a member of the EU is a good thing for their country; only 11% thinks it is a bad thing. 75% of euro area citizens are in favour of the euro, the highest level since the introduction of the euro. 

This has a negative argument: an exit such as Brexit has created such an aversion for additional instability in the EU-27 that the EU is now seen as an anchor of stability. People do not want to add instability to a world they already experience as sufficiently unstable.
The EU does not give in to the temptation of closeness. In the midst of rising global protectionism the EU has concluded and started implementing new, balanced trade agreements, among them the FTA’s with South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, with new ones in preparation with Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand. The EU-28 has concluded recently a political agreement with Mercosur (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay), which would be the largest trade deal the EU has ever concluded, comprising a market of 780 million people. The EU and China commit in April to achieve in the course of 2019 the decisive progress required, for the conclusion of an ambitious EU-China Comprehensive Investment Agreement in 2020.

As the world's largest consumer market, the EU is an influential normative power through free trade agreements with almost 70 countries, making EU norms and standards commonplace. We are deeply convinced that protectionism doesn’t protect the economy and the people. We all lose.

The EU wants to remain a defender of a rule-based multilateral system, though we shouldn't be too few. The EU wants to solve differences with nations - and there are differences - by dialogue according to the rules themselves of the WTO. Not by a trade war. Firmness and dialogue is our method, the two sides of the scissors.

Protecting our interests without falling into protectionism, is our goal. 

The only positive thing about Brexit is that the EU-27 are more united. They do not want to give up the acquis, the achievements that have been worked on for so long. 

In any case, the European caravan will continue to travel without the UK. We are further strengthening the single market, the eurozone and the passport and visa-free Schengen area. It may be too slow, but nobody wants the way back.

The EU played a central role in negotiating the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. To meet its climate ambitions, the global clean energy transition needs to be dramatically sped up in Europe and elsewhere. The European climate policy produced results: the EU will decrease its GHG-emissions with 23% by 2020 whilst the economy will be 53% bigger than in 1990. A clear decoupling of growth and pollution. As part of our commitments under the Paris Agreement, the EU will cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030. This commitment is legally binding for the member states. An ambitious zero-pollution strategy preferably by 2050 will spur innovation in cleaner alternatives and substitutes. 

The EU-27 is not nostalgic. ‘Make Europe great again’ is not our slogan! Yes, European nation states were once world powers. But those times are over. With just 7% of the world’s population, the EU accounts for almost one quarter of global trade, but we know our limits. But we are also fully aware of our untapped potential. We could play a bigger role if we were more united. 
But let us also look at the bright side of things! The structural handicaps of our Union haven’t prevented it from speaking with one voice on the world stage or delivering a unified message on free and fair, rule-based trade. These structural handicaps haven’t prevented the EU from having a common currency; the euro is the currency of 340 million people and the second one most used in the world with a share of 35.7 % of global payments. We were able to agree on an EU climate change policy and we spoke with one voice as we did in the Paris climate conference in 2015, and we agree on large parts of foreign policy. On all those issues we have a common approach and they are at the core of global policies.

The EU is a global player but not a world power. We can only be that if we cooperate much more on defence and in the military-industrial field. We've been doing it for two years, in order to increase our European sovereignty also in the field of defence. I would add that we are doing the same for energy.
European sovereignty is not a sign of a retreat into itself, but of a desire to take control of its own destiny. It is not motivated by fear or aversion, but by the will to cooperate more within Europe.

Let me conclude, I am not a supporter of global optimism, although there are many arguments in favour of it. Never before in human history have so many people been doing so well. We must turn fear into hope. Pessimism is a form of intellectual laziness. A pessimist is always right. Either his prophecy turns out badly and he says: happily so! Or he is right and his reaction is: I told you so! Better to remain what I always was: a man of hope. But hope isn't free. Hope is a verb. Let's work together so that hope gets the upper hand again. 

Herman Van Rompuy is former President of the European Council.