Over the past three months, Strategic Europe has asked authors from major non-European countries to give their candid assessments of how they view the EU. In particular, each contributor was asked to rank five areas in order of importance in their country’s relations with the EU. The areas were trade, security and defense, climate and energy, democracy and governance, and development aid. The findings, although by no means scientific, are nevertheless revealing. They debunk several traits that EU leaders believe make the bloc special.

For one, EU leaders never cease to remind audiences and interlocutors that the bloc is a staunch defender of values. Indeed, it is values—anchored on democracy and good governance, free and independent media, and the rule of law—that most EU leaders believe give the union a special identity. As such, the EU was and continues to be a beacon for those fighting for human rights around the world, whatever the records of some EU members.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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The second characteristic EU leaders boast about is that the union is the largest international donor when it comes to development aid. The EU is disbursing a whopping €82 billion ($94 billion) for the period 2014–2020. The EU institutions and member states together provide more than half of all official global aid.

The third dimension is climate change and energy, another big EU dossier on which Europe is considered the global leader in trying to lower emissions.

But guess what? All thirteen non-European countries that contributed to the series—Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, and the United States—put trade as the number one priority in relations with the EU.

Six countries—Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Japan, and Russia—relegated development aid to fifth place. Democracy and governance got a look-in, of sorts. Australia and Japan ranked it second, China third. The remaining ten countries gave it fourth or last place. As for climate change and energy, it hovered between the ranks of two and five.

Many non-European countries are reassessing their views of the EU against a background of Trumpism, populism, and globalization.

So trade is clearly the winner. And no wonder. The EU is the world’s biggest and richest trading bloc. Also, the European Commission, the EU’s executive, has done a very good job over the years in forging ahead with trade accords. This is its remit. It has used it to the full.

However, the more complex trade becomes, particularly concerning issues of data, healthcare, and transportation as well as consumer protection and digitization, the more the EU member states have a say over the content of these accords. The big member states have always fought tooth and nail to hold up EU trade accords. Germany, for one, was far from keen to speed up a trade agreement with Japan. Both countries are serious car manufacturers and auto components suppliers. After many years of negotiations, a deal was wrapped up earlier in July, just in time for the G20 summit in Hamburg.

The catalysts for that deal were the United States and China. U.S. President Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has added to China’s already huge ambitions in Southeast Asia. Beijing wants to exploit the demise of TPP, while the rest of the region wants to salvage it and, at the same time, move closer to the EU. That is not only for economic and trade reasons. These countries want to be under an umbrella of fair and transparent international trade practices and norms—something the EU fights for. These considerations cannot be overestimated as China seeks to set its own trading and investment rules.

In short, a fear that the West, led by the United States, is going down the road of protectionism, combined with the irrepressible rise of China, is a galvanizing factor for countries to take a new look at the EU. They need the union to succeed. As Michiko Yoshida wrote in her letter from Tokyo, “cooperation between Japan and the EU, which share common values, is increasingly important” given the inescapable presence of China.

Another interesting point raised or implied by the authors was the way in which changes in the United States were making countries look more closely at Europe, and not just in terms of trade. Writing from Mexico City, Ana Luisa Garcés made the point that given “the politics of intimidation from the U.S. president,” it is time for Mexico to “redraw its commercial and political relations with the rest of the world.”

Up in Ottawa, Costanza Musu and Patrick Leblond argued that the “shared values and interests [between Canada and the EU] should constitute the basis for stronger partnership and enhanced cooperation across the Atlantic.”

On the other side of the world, Carnegie’s C. Raja Mohan in New Delhi wrote that “India . . . sees the EU’s new emphasis on balancing interests and values as a long-overdue shift in Brussels” and welcomes “the EU’s aspiration for greater strategic autonomy.” Welcome the day when Europe will act strategically.

The view from New Delhi is always interesting. Just as it looks with awe and apprehension at the way China is modernizing at an extraordinary pace, India seems paralyzed when it comes to renewing even basic infrastructure such as housing, clean water, roads, railroads, and airports. All are crucial for investment opportunities. Indeed, European companies are increasingly trying to enter the Indian market.

There is, finally, another view from outside Europe. There is a real fear that populism and the backlash against globalization in several European countries could erode Europe’s attractiveness for trade and commerce. Writing from Brasília, Joe Leahy made the point that “relative stability at home . . . has not stopped Brazilians from worrying about the decline of globalization in advanced economies,” particularly in Europe.

Down in Canberra, Geoff Kitney wrote that “the future of the EU will be vital to Australia’s national interests . . . even though some Australians will continue to see Britain first when looking at Europe.” But Britain is going out the EU door. In doing so, it will throw down the gauntlet to an EU that is grappling with its ambitions to be a genuine global player—which, as this series has shown, is something many countries want it to become.