Sea and sun for Europe

A new project for the next generation

Democratic upsurge in North Africa can combine with the renewable energy revolution to inject new life into the European project. Two-way developmental traffic across the Mediterranean would leave new generations in both North and South with fair chances of a good life, Claus Leggewie suggests.

Both the European Union and the “idea of Europe” are facing their sternest test since 1945: this is the pessimistic tenor of many of the comments on the euro crisis and the unpopular cuts being made in national budgets. Members of the wartime generation refer warningly to Europe’s self-destruction and division in the twentieth century. Europe, they say, is the sole insurance against war and poverty, the guarantor of economic prosperity. They call on the younger generation, who take Europe entirely for granted, to show more commitment to the European future. Otherwise, they threaten, freedom of movement, study and work will soon be a thing of the past.

The achievements of European unification are indeed under serious threat. No one demonstrates in support of the European Union, which has come under heavy fire from “the markets”, in other words financial capital. Instead we hear more and more carping at the “monster of Brussels”, while rightwing populist Eurosceptics and opponents of the Union are gaining ground, particularly among young men. The EU continues to be very attractive beyond its borders – for the long-suffering civil opposition in Ukraine and Belarus as well as for the democratic movements in North Africa. But where outrage is expressed within Europe, from Syntagma Square in Athens to Puerta del Sol in Madrid, the EU is regarded as the merciless executor of an unjust austerity policy that is clouding the future of young people in particular.

Reminiscing about history is of as little use here as moral appeals. What we need is a fresh project that, once again or for the first time, motivates and mobilizes young Europeans for a “United States of Europe”. In opinion polls, people under 30 declare themselves overwhelmingly to be cosmopolitans and advocates of global justice, as champions of ecological sustainability and local civil engagement. This initially leaves little room for Europe as project for the future. It may be that what I’d like to suggest below is nothing more than the pipedream of an ageing pro-European. But why not bring together the three things that most interest young adults in Europe today: a basic sympathy with the emergence of democracy in the Middle East, a strong willingness for more environmental and climate protection, and the opportunities brought by an energy changeover? Could a project that both in a literal and a metaphorical sense brings new energy to Europe north and south of the Mediterranean not fill the vacuum?

Certainly not if energy cooperation is seen merely as a gigantic engineering project principally serving the interests of the big energy and insurance companies, as with the billion-euro Desertec project for feeding solar-generated electricity from the desert into the European grid. Economic and technological plans can unleash political energy if, like the European Coal and Steel Community and Euratom in the 1950s, they become part of the same project for peace and development that the older generation still recall fondly today: an economic community that fundamentally served to prevent war, to reconcile former enemies and to bring social advancement for many.

Of course the European Coal and Steel Community cannot be brought back to life, Euratom even less so, particularly since that both would be disastrous for environmental and climate politics. Nevertheless, it is possible to conceive of a European industrial and social policy on the basis of renewable energies, one which mobilizes the imagination of entrepreneurs both within Europe and on its periphery, offering the contractual basis for a truly modern and self-chosen project for the current generation. That would be a true, vibrant Mediterranean union. If new industrial centres are created in North Africa, this will in turn create development opportunities for the sub-Saharan countries. The one way energy traffic heading north would become a developmental transfer heading south that benefited both sides.

This project would be the fitting answer to climate change, peak oil and the nuclear catastrophe in Japan. Fukushima showed that the peaceful use of nuclear energy is inappropriate both as an alternative and as a transitional technology. We need a consistent shift to renewable energies and worldwide cooperation.

A different energy policy towards the countries of the Middle East and North Africa that linked these to the European energy grid would also be the best way of supporting the democratization of the region and the development of an entrepreneurial class not solely interested in income from exports of raw materials.

The close relationship between the export of oil and oriental despotism was fatal. Now, thanks to the Arab Spring, the petrodollar regimes are on their last legs, both materially and politically. Moreover, this is a young revolution: in North Africa and the Middle East, roughly two-thirds of the population is under 30. From the October Riots in Algeria in 1988 to the Iranian democratic movement of 2009, we have seen that the younger generation, and young women in particular, want democracy with no ifs or buts. The Internet and social media have provided them with a means with which to circumvent the gatekeepers of state-censored and state-controlled TV channels and newspapers. Old ideologies of freedom such as nationalism, pan-Arabism and socialism have been thoroughly discredited among the young; nor is it a politicized Islam that they want, but the rule of law and good governmental practice.

Certainly, the Arab Spring, which has spread from the Tunisian hinterland to the centres of the Arab world, is drawing to a close, and the prospects of the democratic movement are clouded. There could be a worsening of religious tensions between Shiites or Alawites and Sunnis, or between Muslims and Christians, and fundamental tribal differences might also intensify. The Arab revolution was secular at its root, and Islamic groups have thus far, if anything, moderately endorsed it. Even so, radical Islamic as well as terrorist minorities can exploit the post-revolutionary uncertainty and sow the seeds of instability. Equally, Tunisia and Egypt might prove the forerunners of an autonomous democratization, Morocco and Jordan could provide examples for an orderly transition and even Syria, following Libya, could be liberated through external military intervention. Many observers are comparing the irreversible popular movement with the wave of revolutions in 1848 in Europe; although it will retain some specifically Arab characteristics, including a less consistent process of secularization. Interesting is whether democratization will also improve the situation of women and homosexuals and of religious minorities and agnostics, and whether there will be sufficient incentive for and pressure on the Islamists to play by the rules of democracy.

The people who took to the streets wanted one thing above all: a better and more dignified life. However, the first things that they have faced have been instability and mass unemployment. That is why these societies in transition need economic success – i.e. investment, research cooperation and assistance in their development. Europe needs to finally acknowledge that the development of democracy on its periphery is its own business too, and to offer more active support to the pioneers of change in these regions. German foreign policy made an incomprehensible error first in abstaining in the UN Security Council vote for military intervention in Libya and then continuing its constitutionally and ethically dubious export of arms to Saudi Arabia. To which we might add that we are also wasting opportunities in the Balkans, where all the constituent republics of the former Yugoslavia wish to join the EU, with Europe thus providing the political level on which these ethnically and religiously antagonistic states can once again find economic and cultural common ground.

With Gaddafi gone, have we not become dependent on unpredictable elected regimes where sooner or later extortionate Islamists will turn off the solar energy? But Putin and Gazprom demonstrate this instrument of torture every winter and that fails to impress us. Genuine energy cooperation on an equal footing will convince Arab governments of the merits and responsibilities that result from reciprocal dependency. Democracies are always more reliable and predictable than dictatorships.

Climate protection and the energy changeover are far more than technical upgrades: they provide nation-states with new economic and social models and open up areas for global cooperation. In this broad sense, climate protection can be the new peace policy of the post-ideological age: an imminent threat to nature can push mankind into new relationships of mutual benefit and global solidarity.

Only at first glance does this seem utopian. In matters of climate change – insofar as it is taken seriously at all – it is conflicts, more than anything else, that have been evident. The melting of the polar ice caps has awoken the hunger of countries in the region for the mineral resources of the Arctic, and squabbles over the division of the cake, the control of ice-free sea routes and the protection of nature reserves and the indigenous population have already become apparent. If there are at least economic benefits at the North Pole tempting those willing to exploit it, the dramatic shortage of water and fertile soil to be expected elsewhere as a consequence of climate change will aggravate conflicts between and within countries and, through migration, have an impact on less directly affected regions. The scenario of future “climate wars” causes concern in international security policy circles, and is rightly a concern for the German foreign office and armed forces.

Blocking a climate “peace” agreement is the incompatibility between natural spaces and the way the boundaries of old nation-states have been drawn. Rivers and mountain ranges have often been misused as “natural” boundary lines and lakes and bays politically divided – at great cost to environmental measures in border regions. Industrial plants and power stations responsible for substantial emissions are shifted to such areas so that prevailing wind directions can be exploited to export damage. But ecosystems do not know the concept of “abroad”; the threats they face have made the world a village and, just like financial markets, transnational enterprises and long-haul tourists, have turned the notion of one global society into a reality.

Faced with this geological and topological revolution, countries go on the defensive, serving only to intensify the “tragedy of the commons”: the overexploitation of our collective global resources. Everybody loses out as sea levels rise and if too much carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere; there are no winners if the last rainforests are felled. Global environmental law, still in a rudimentary state of development, must stop putting the interests of countries first and negotiating these between national governments. Instead, it must finally put the conservational and developmental interests of humanity on the agenda and increase the possibilities for checks and sanctions.

The paradox of cooperation is that during the Cold War, nations that were sworn political, ideological and military enemies were prepared to cooperate as long as the Damoclean sword of mutual destruction hung over them. Yet now, faced with a danger that is universally recognized, they still haven’t established a means of genuine cooperation. This is extraordinarily short-sighted. Considering the enormous time pressure imposed on us by climate change, global cooperation is not only a moral imperative, it also offers a whole range of advantages, starting with the financial returns enabled by a green economy. And it is above all young people in countries both rich and poor that have this entrepreneurial attitude.

The more democratic the world becomes, so the conclusion, the sooner a new era of global cooperation will become possible, one which finally tackles the planet’s most pressing problems and gives future generations in both the south and the north a fair chance of a good life. The European Union must not waste the opportunity for a new Mediterranean union a second time. The “mare nostrum”, as the Romans called their Mediterranean empire, is a thing of the past. Today we must offer young people on both coasts of the Mediterranean concrete alternatives for the future and provide a lasting political, economic and cultural foundation for relations between Europe and the Arab world. This new project could be called “Our Sea”, and it will involve the Europeanization of our democratic institutions and practices beyond our national borders. Notions of “going it alone” and the “core Europe” are now obsolete: the current crisis compels a “United States of Europe” out of sheer necessity. What Europe still lacks is democratic legitimacy and support.

Published 2 November 2011
Original in German
Translated by Saul Lipetz
First published by Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 10/2011 (German version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik © Claus Leggewie / Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik / Eurozine



Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.

Related Articles

Cover for: Whither democracy?

Whither democracy?

New Eastern Europe 1–2/2021

In ‘New Eastern Europe’: why the 2021 Duma elections will be a stress-test for Putin’s centralized regime; the revelations of a former Belarusian policeman; and whether Biden will be better for eastern Europe than Obama.

Cover for: Unmasking naked delusion

Ever been had? Led to believe a lie, an untruth? Realized the con too late? It can happen to anyone. Deception is rife. But so too is delusion. ‘Tangents’, a new Eurozine editorial feature, takes a critical look at the duplicitous pair.