Political fiction: A brave new superpower

22 August 2011 – Le Figaro (Paris)

Le Figaro's fictional series "The world in 20 years" begins with the view from Europe. In 2031, the launch of a European flagship inaugurates an age of shared defence and marks the final move in a "great awakening" that began fifteen years before. The Union is a superpower at last.

In 2031, the christening of the European Navy flagship marked the launch of the long-awaited common defence force. It was the final step in the "Great Awakening" begun eight years earlier, which finally enabled the Union to take on its rightful role in the international arena.

Under the envious gaze of French, British and Polish admirals, the launch of the FGS Konrad-Adenauer went ahead without a hitch. At exactly 10 a.m, when the champagne struck against its 55,000 tonnes of profiled alloy, the battleship slid onto the waves just off Wilhelmshaven, and the sirens blared out over the silence of the drizzly morning to announce the launch of the new EU Navy, 15 years after the “Great Awakening”.

“Who would have believed that Europe would make such extensive and rapid progress in taking charge of its own defence? You might say that another generation had to touch the seafloor before rising to the surface again. But from then on, as you are well aware, the tide turned…”

The recently re-elected European premier Martin Grand was clearly delighted. Buoyed by a surge of support at the polls, all the members of his team had turned out for the North Sea launch. Even his Italian rival, who had been banished to Strasbourg to lead the opposition, was privileged to receive the legendary hearty presidential slap on the back.

By 2034 the Konrad-Adenauer would be fully operational, a marvel of hyperspeed technology bristling with strike forces, insertion vectors and an array of multipurpose drones. The christening of the EU Assault Group flagship also marked the end of Germany’s longstanding absence from the military arena. Its troops would face an uncertain mission. But the decline of NATO, the incurable instability of the Muslim arc and the presence of fresh threats from China and Russia had left the Federal Republic few options. There was no strategic alternative other than to join the common defence axis.

In the large harbour on the Jade Bight, along with Martin Grand, the German chancellor, the British prime minister and the French president added their two cents on the “shared destiny” and “common sovereignty” that now characterised the EU. Half a century of jealousy had been laid to rest, and Berlin, London and Paris were now equally committed to what was about to become a fully fledged federation. Even with Russia knocking at the door, the trio were enjoying a protracted honeymoon. For the 75th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the European Union would move to restore order. There would be no more petty squabbles over agriculture, questions of identity, or the seemingly endless debate on the re-drafting of treaties. In response to the debacle of the euro, the Old Continent had decided to put an end to navel-gazing and raise its sights to take in a wider horizon. There would be fewer institutions and more power: a single treasury to defend the single currency against the dollar and the yen, credible shared objectives in foreign policy, and a defence force adequate to deal with the challenges of the times.

What appeared to be the boldest measure – a European presidency – had in fact emerged quite naturally. It was simply a matter of merging the two senior posts in Brussels — the presidencies of the European Commission and the European Council — and there was nothing in the old treaties to halt such a move. Angela Merkel, the consensus choice among the 28 member states in 2013, even succeeded in winning a second term in office in the elections that followed three years later. The euro was safe, and Europe was to take on a new form. After decades of doldrums, the Great Awakening was about to become a reality. The second breakthrough came as a direct result of the decline of the British pound, which successive deficits had relegated to the rank of a fossil currency. After a 50-year wait, London finally made good on its promise. In the wake of the conversion of sterling, only the Swiss franc and the unshakable Czech crown continued to survive as independent currencies in the relatively obscure backwaters of the European economy. The merger of British and French navies was a formality — even if it meant that Nelson would turn in his grave.

In hindsight, the most difficult manoeuvre had been to guide Germany back into the fold, and to nail down once and for all what the Rhinelander Adenauer would have called the balance of power in Europe. The euro crisis and the model of fiscal probity imposed by Germany in the early teens had left a number of scars. Even now, collective memories in Italy, Spain, the former Belgium, Ireland, Portugal and Greece had still to come to terms with the purge orchestrated by Berlin, with help from Paris and the European Monetary Fund. Torn between the orthodoxy of the North and the weakness of the South, at one point, it even seemed as though the euro would not survive.

That said, the fear that Europe would be dominated by the German chancellery quickly proved to be illusory. Although its exports enabled it to recover more quickly from the crisis, the Federal Republic later suffered more than its partners in the subsequent trade war with the “Sinosphere.”

Germany was also aging rapidly. With few children, growing numbers of seniors and anaemic domestic demand, the country continued to drift towards a Japanese-style demographic impasse. By 2040, Germany’s population was expected to dwindled in size to resemble its neighbours in France and the United Kingdom. Hopes of European dominance, that had emerged two generations earlier with the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification, proved to be short-lived. And it also returned to the fold in terms of foreign policy. As it had previously demonstrated in its handling of the Libyan rebellion, the Pakistan crisis and Korean reunification, Berlin had long maintained a policy of sitting on the fence. Though it had succeeded in avoiding making enemies, it had remained a peripheral presence in the international arena to the point where it even failed to secure a seat on the UN Security Council.

For the EU as a whole, the real catalyst proved to be China’s sudden rise to become the world’s leading economic power, ahead of both Europe and the US. The business world had long expected a shift in favour of the Middle Kingdom. But governments and their advisers failed to understand all the consequences that this would imply. Whereas the dominance of an American superpower had appeared comforting and familiar, the new global powerhouse was to remain disturbingly different in both its culture, its tastes and its ideas.

In 2031, Europeans still learned English rather than Mandarin. Most did not listen to Cantopop, and the audiences for films produced by Red Lantern Studios still did not rival those for products made in Hollywood. But looking beyond the borders of the EU, the “Sinosphere” had engulfed Southern Asia, all of the Far East including Japan and Taiwan, and was now weaving its web in Africa and Latin America. In response, Europe and North America were seeking to embrace new social models that did not involve losing their souls. Both could count on a friendly ally on the other side of the Atlantic, but the dynamic of progress was no longer measured in dollars or euros. And the dominoes of geopolitics were increasingly being tipped by trillions of yuan.

The death of the European car industry, which followed hot on the heels of the demise of its counterpart in the US, the rise of luxury brands made in China, the takeover of Shell, Apple and even Club Med by Industrial giants linked to Beijing -- all these set alarm bells ringing in Europe. So did the tenant farming agreements and the boulemic energy contracts established between the superpower and autocratic southern regimes. Forced to make a choice, Russia opted to exchange its oil and gas for an accelerated entry into the European sphere.

Europe seemed to thrive on crises. The neo-protectionists who had dominated more than a decade of EU politics continued to advocate a bi-polar division, which they insisted was a true remedy to the problem of industrial decline. Martin Grand, the man who made “deglobalisation” a household name, had seized his opportunity. The demarcation between a Euro-American market of three billion consumers, which includes Brazil, India and Turkey, and the rest of the world continued to prevail. And the uneasy peace and trade barriers that maintain this division were unlikely to disappear until China tempered its desire for new territory.

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