It was a small occasion, but it could not have been more revealing.
Yesterday, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso opened the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS) conference in Brussels. Hosted by the Bureau of European Policy Advisors, the Commission’s in-house think tank, the ESPAS project is a worthy undertaking. Through the scenarios it builds, it attempts to provide the EU with a strategic foresight tool similar to those employed by various intelligence and defense agencies in the United States. Its flagship product, the Global Trends 2030 report, outlines the long-term developments that will likely shape international politics over the next two decades or so. The project’s explicit goal is to “develop strategic thinking” in the EU, a place usually better known for its short-breathed management of “events, dear boy, events.” The project is unusual in that it makes all EU institutions stakeholders in the process, which certainly doesn’t make the internal workings any easier. Apparently, the internal bureaucratic politics of ESPAS are pretty fierce.
So Barroso came, opened the day’s deliberations with a speech, and even stayed for a brief Q&A session with the audience. Unfortunately, the Commission president was not in the mood for strategy. In his speech he offered two main objectives for EU policy over the next few years: balancing budgets and implementing economic reforms to increase competitiveness in Europe. Both are, no doubt, important goals—and very difficult to achieve. But they are hardly the stuff that an audience from around the globe expects to hear from the head of the Commission at a conference dedicated to global strategy. Both goals, while having acquired additional relevance through the EU’s protracted economic crisis, come from the Lisbon Strategy of 2000. On this occasion, they just sounded stale, as if to prove that no new thoughts are to be had in Brussels these days. A fellow think tanker sitting next to me leaned over and said: “That’s incredibly domestic, isn’t it?” I nodded, but it got even worse.
In the Q&A session, a senior Chinese analyst asked Barroso to single out the most important challenge for the EU in the coming years. Barroso, to his credit, did not dodge the question. But his answer says everything about the level of ambition and the mode of thinking in leading EU policy circles today. Barroso’s answer was: “We have to work hard so that Europe can keep its basic model—what is called the European social model—in the age of globalization.”
My think tank friend and I sighed simultaneously. I leaned over to him and said: “It’s not only domestic; it’s all about preserving the old, about not creating anything new.” Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, who was also in the room, immediately tweeted: “Barroso top priority is to ensure Europe ‘can retain its model of a social market economy in this era of gloablisation’—defensive role?” Yes, defensive role. But worse than that, not even the language of the future. Just the stale old stuff that energizes no one. The Chinese scholar will certainly have taken note.
To be sure, this is not about slamming the Commission president. Far from it. In a marked contrast to Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief and head of the European External Action Service, Barroso at least showed up, spoke and even took some questions. Between consultations at the European Parliament and a meeting with the prime minister of Mali, he cared enough about the issues to find 30 minutes in his agenda. That not only scored him points with the strategy community, but also made for smart bureaucratic politics in the internal haggling over project ownership.
The key point here is that Barroso very likely gave an accurate description of current European strategic thinking: survival mode, clinging on to what we have, inward-looking perspective, fearful of the future, perceiving globalization as a threat, and oblivious to the political signals it is sending out to international audiences. And all of this showed at a conference deliberately designed to open the horizons to a more proactive embrace of the strange new world we are all heading for.
The conclusion is clear: forget strategy for a moment. The crisis has clearly worked itself too deeply into our heads—much deeper than we are aware of. It has evolved from a political problem into a psychological predisposition. It sucks the air out of all big thinking and has turned political leaders into timid administrators of malaise. Traditionally, EU folks have little appetite for strategy, even under normal circumstances. Now, it’s worse. Before we can even get to strategy and embrace a project like ESPAS, we must first get rid of the mental blockade that prevents us from looking forward. It’s therapy before strategy for the EU. All we can hope for is that it does not take too long.