Europe and Eurasia: the EU beyond its boundaries

There’s an ambiguity at the core of the European project which calls to be solved or at least addressed, but from which the project gets much of its vitality. Is the European project supposed to apply only to Europeans or does it entertain universal ambitions? These days policymakers in Brussels will praise European values while renouncing every practical intent to extend them beyond the boundaries of the European Union as it stands. But then one is forced to ask: why praise them so much, why even call them universal values if they have such a limited scope?

In principle one could envision a different Europe, one much more interested in shaping the forces of globalization. The European Union could be much more active in spreading a certain European way of doing politics beyond its borders and the most obvious geographical sphere for such ambitions would be those regions standing between Europe and Asia, sometimes indistinguishable from Europe itself. Slowly expanding its influence eastwards and having within its sights a more deeply integrated Eurasia is an immediate task.

Everything changes if you start thinking along these lines. The European Union suddenly becomes a political agent rather than a territory. European because it is a political will based and organized in Europe, but global in the scope of its action and ambitions. To the extent that forming a strong political will, being a political agent, is more inspiring that being part of a territory, being an object of power, this would be a better and more perfect Union.

When Russia and China developed their new, mammoth integration projects – the Eurasian Economic Union and the Belt and Road Initiative – they had one underlying goal: to show Europeans that their decades-old integration project was one among others, benefiting from no special aspirations to universality. But if this underlying goal succeeded beyond the most optimistic expectations, that was because the European Union was already, and very much on its own, retreating within its borders. I cannot pinpoint precisely when this retreat happened. Today it is indisputable,

Both Russia and China are therefore ready for the next stage in their plans. The goal now is not to remove the universal pretensions from under the European edifice but to build such pretensions for their own projects. Take the case of Russia: if you talk to policymakers in Moscow they will tell you that Russia, not Europe, knows how international politics works. Europeans live in an imaginary world just of their own, Russians live in the real world. Europeans are parochial, Russians abide by the more or less universal rules of power politics.

In Beijing – where I recently had a number of very fruitful discussions – the claims to universality are no less striking. I was told by policymakers that China wants to give back to the world what it received over the last three decades and heard from academics that China is actively developing values that can appeal to every human being: some version of development and well-being can be readily understood and assimilated by every nation on the planet in a way that democracy and human rights cannot.

In the future historians will no doubt marvel at the speed with which the European Union transformed itself from a universal project into a geographically limited (perhaps increasingly limited as every European periphery starts to look more and more at odds with the ideological core) territorial unit, uninterested in influencing what happens outside and soon enough struggling to avoid being influenced and shaped by other – more healthily constituted – political agents. The current European malaise – in almost all its forms – has its root in this phenomenon.

“Let me make a prediction: within twenty years Europe will to a considerable extent be a part of Eurasia.”

Let me make a prediction: within twenty years Europe will to a considerable extent be a part of Eurasia. What I cannot predict – because it is still open to political decision and action – is what this Eurasian supercontinent will look like. Will it be, at least in some fundamental respects, a larger version of the European Union or will the European Union be dramatically changed by the need to adapt to the rise of new political abstractions, new universal values, which both Russia and China are actively developing and propagating? And yes, in this latter case, we shall still be dealing with universal, abstract values. Much of the European complacency has to do with the conviction that Russia and China cannot speak in a universal voice, but as I argued above this is historically and politically wrong.

Evidently if as a European you are convinced that other superpowers have only one of two alternatives – remain mired in parochial and nationalist myths or embrace abstract European ideas – then there is no need to rethink the European Union as a political agent. We can just sit back and watch the superiority of the abstract and universal play itself out on the world stage. But let me repeat: Russia and China have their own political abstractions. The clash – if it happens – will happen at the level of powerful political abstractions.

A clash is not inevitable, of course, but think about it: what better chances do we have to avoid conflict in the great Eurasian landmass than to spread European political concepts of cooperation and human rights outside our own European boundaries? The moment is a critical one. The tectonic plates have started moving – we need all our resources to balance this movement and make these pieces fit together as smoothly as possible. 

There is one final reason why Europe should become more actively interested in the project of Eurasian integration: to combat the forces of disintegration within Europe itself. The European Union is in desperate need to strengthen its political capacity, its ability to act collectively. So far this has been defended through a vague appeal to history and feeling, but ultimately political capacity can only be strengthened if there is a goal for the sake of which it will be exercised. The European Union needs to become a stronger political agent not in order to fulfill a moral or historical commandment, but in order to perform the tasks which the future will call for: extend its influence outside its boundaries, manage the flows across the borderlands and work for a peaceful future in greater Eurasia.