The Changing International Relations Dynamics

Published on 13th December 2022

If you think back 25 years, I was still a young man, just elected to Parliament, starting in politics. And  it's like a blink of an eye and now we're here. I'm sure this is the same for the EPC. But if you look at how the world has changed, it's quite remarkable.

25 years ago, of course, the climate crisis was something people spoke about knew about, but it didn't dominate our politics in any way or form.

25 years ago, I don't think anyone would have thought that we would be in a war in Europe right now. Still, 25 years ago, although the disillusion with what was happening in Russia was already great. Most people thought that this would not get completely out of hand, 25 years ago.

Also, I believe the relations on the planet were quite different. The Pax Americana was all-embracing, I would say almost. Now we're in a completely different situation.

I want to start to talk about that because my experience just recently at the COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt, has taught me once again that the world is changing very quickly.

Even though the two biggest powers on this planet engage in what they believe in exchange in a bipolar world, we no longer live in a bipolar world. Even though they might still think that, Sharm el Sheikh proved to me once again that we live in a multipolar environment, which also comes with a lot of challenges. It's more complicated than a bipolar world.

Europe, strongly attached to our transatlantic ally, and Putin's war has made this tie even stronger, still has to find its own way, in many, many aspects. I Is doing that also in many, many aspects. I'll come back to that in a moment.

Our relationship with the United States is strong because fundamentally we share a lot of values and we share the idea that freedoms, liberty and the rule of law, democracy, are essential in the way we organize our society. That puts us on a different path, than for instance autocracies: China, Russia.  We've seen in China with the last Congress of the Communist Party, a re-ideological foundation of this communist system in China, which looked very pragmatic in the last decades but has gone back to being more ideological under the leadership of Xi Jinping. This comes with a number of challenges that we will all have to face.

We've also seen that other players are coming to the fore, that perhaps we didn't see before. India is today the most populous country on the planet, and it will start playing a geopolitical role step by step.

This will also come with a number of very interesting challenges for the European Union, but huge opportunities for us as well, since India wants to rapidly expand  its capacity for renewable energy. 600 gigawatts in eight years is an incredible and incredible ambition. For that they will need solar panels, wind turbines, smart grids, and they will need the knowledge, the technology, and the investments to make that happen. They're also looking to Europe to make that happen: a huge opportunity for us and for other parts of the world.

Other emerging powers such as Indonesia, have been very silent for a long period of time, but now coming to the fore as well in Southeast Asia, and many more countries. The rise of Africa is unstoppable even though it will not be linear. Latin America is coming back too: I had a meeting with President-elect Lula in Egypt. He has a clear intention to forge stronger ties with Europe, to look for solutions on some of the issues that we've been having, like the deforestation of the Amazon. There's a clear willingness and understanding of the importance of the relationship with the European Union.

On Africa: I think it should be quite clear to everyone that if Africa fails, we will certainly fail. If Africa succeeds, we have an opportunity to succeed as well. Our destinies are intimately linked, and African leaders are step by step coming closer to us, because they understand that what they had expected from others, especially the Chinese and the Russians, is not delivering what they hoped for, at least not fully delivering what they hoped for. So they will diversify and they will also look at Europe.

There's hardly anyone in Africa who doesn't understand how deeply our destinies are linked, even though of course, for historic and other reasons, it is sometimes a relationship that is also complicated. But what would diplomacy be like if we didn't try and solve complicated issues? It wouldn't be fun if it weren't complicated.

So, international relations are going to be dynamic, slightly unpredictable. It will mean that we will have to be light on our feet.

We will have to have strategies that we can adapt according to the circumstances, we'll have to make good and deep analyses of our partnerships and what they can bring to us and what we should bring to them.

I think the good news is, I want to insist on that, the good news is that after such a long time of the rise of autocracies, we now are seeing the weaknesses and sometimes even the failing of the autocracies. I think this is what we see happening in Russia. I think that China will soon discover the limits of autocracy, and that some of the elements you see happening, such as the struggle against the pandemic, seem to indicate that.

I think that autocratic tendencies in the European Union are also being dismantled, are being proven not very effective, to say the least. And I also believe that the success of societies that organize themselves in a democratic being, indeed because they can support themselves by, they feel supported by civic society, they can put civil society in a position to decide where we're going. That is something that should give us cause to for optimism.

I mention optimism, because I see in our societies over the last twenty years that increasingly, the belief in progress is changing into the fear of loss. The fear of loss is arguably in the middle classes of our democracies increasingly a dominating feeling. This is something we need to address. How do we turn that back into a belief in progress?

I take inspiration from a number of things. I take inspiration, for instance, from the midterm elections in the United States, where you saw a whole new generation of people turning up to cast their vote in an election. Because they didn't want things that they hold dear, such as personal freedoms, to be curtailed in what is clearly an attempt to create a cultural wall.

I believe that if we can mobilize young people in Europe, to also be more participative in a democracy, we can turn things around, from pessimism into optimism.

I also believe that one of the reasons for the fear of loss is the fact that there has been increasing inequality in our societies. It has become so much easier to make a lot of money with capital, where it's become more and more difficult to make the same living happen with labour. So also here, the eternal political issue of redistribution, will have to come back to the table and have to be discussed.

Now, whenever I mentioned redistribution, there will be somebody who says, ‘that's our lefty friend, again coming with redistribution.'  But redistribution is not left or right. Granting tax relief to businesses is also redistribution. Allowing businesses not to be taxed is an extreme form of redistribution. This extreme form of redistribution, I think, is one of the drivers of discontent in our society and of loss of faith in society as an instrument to cater to the collective interest rather than to the interest of individuals.

If you have a situation where, in a company, people are forced, have their arms twisted, so they don't they don't unionize. Where they have to work hours that are incredible, don't get to have a bathroom breaks, etc. And where at the same time, the person who owns that company thinks it's a great idea to go have tourism into outer space. Well, I think there's something really, really wrong in how this relationship has developed. This will need correcting, at a global level and at a regional level.

Individual Member States can no longer act alone, but collectively we can. I think the first step forward would be to agree on a minimum level of corporate tax, and then work from there.

I don't understand how we can accept that global corporations, who can be footloose, who can move around as quickly as they want, are not taxed. Whereas the grocer here on the street or the baker are taxed and have to be taxed. That's unacceptable.

It's an element of injustice that creates this feeling of pessimism in our society.

The agenda for Europe is quite clear. We need to create the scale that will allow us to shape our futures. I think the European Green Deal is one of those efforts at scale to show the way forward, to deal with the other issue of redistribution, which is: how do we organize ourselves in such a way that we can live within planetary means and still grow?

That's arguably one of the biggest challenges humanity has ever faced. We are now confronted with a situation that our means are finite. We're also confronted with a situation with already a 1.2 degrees Celsius increase of temperature as compared to pre-industrial levels. We are confronted with the terrible flooding in Pakistan, with droughts, with locust infestations in eastern Africa, with completely unpredictable weather patterns, with a hurricane season stretching over nine to ten months, etcetera.

This is with just 1.2 degrees. If we let things continue such as they are, and we would reach 3 or 4 degrees temperature increase, large parts of the planet will become completely inhabitable. We would have food shortages as never seen before. Our children would literally wage war over water and food. We cannot allow that to happen.

It's going to be terribly hard to prevent this, but it's not impossible, it can be done. The European Green Deal is showing the way forward how we can do that. We need to change the way we move around, change the way we live, change the way we produce, change the way we work. And it can be done.

That's what the Green Deal shows. I have to say that after this war began, some of our plans had to be changed. After this war began, we could no longer depend on Russian fossil fuels, especially natural gas, where we had to reduce our dependency very quickly. In just months we went from 40% of pipeline gas in Europe to under 10% coming from Russia.

But of course, you can't then immediately wean yourself with that without creating huge shortages.

So, we had to look for alternatives – and some of the alternatives were  dirtier than gas, such as coal – but then still maintain our targets.

We came up with a plan, which means that we have to save energy. The only way. and I can't stress this enough, to really bring down prices is to substantially save energy, for one.

Second, we have to speed up our transition to renewable energy. The only energy sovereignty Europe can create for itself is in renewables. Because we don't have fossil fuels.

And thirdly, we will need to diversify our energy sourcing in a way that would allow natural gas to keep this role of a transitional energy carrier, while moving into other gases with other densities that could be green – such as hydrogen and ammonia.

During the preparation of the COP, and at the beginning of the COP the narrative  from the outside world was ‘Europe has given up on the Green Deal. Now there's the war, so Europe is dashing for gas, is digging up coal. And the Green Deal is dead.' But I could demonstrate quite clearly that we maintain our goals through the legislation we had agreed with the European Parliament and the Council; we even overshot our goals with a couple of percentage points. This is the way forward as we see it, and it had a positive effect on the dialogue.

The second element we could do in Sharm el Sheikh was to provide the solution for the eternal ask of the Global South to do something about loss and damage. The proposal we made is to say ‘we will create a fund which targets the most vulnerable and which doesn't let the major emitters off the hook to contribute to that'. I think this will also contribute to improving the relationship between Europe and the Global South.

Now, at the end of the day, it will all depend on whether we will get public support for all that we're doing. For now, we're okay, but if we continue to neglect or if we would neglect (which we don't)… If we continue not to act fast enough on the simple fact that for too many people in Europe, the fear not to make the end of the month is bigger than the fear to see the end of humanity, if we don't address that issue, we will no longer have the support of the majority to do what we need to do.

If we want this tradition, transition to work, it has to be a just transition. We have to prove to Europeans that yes, it's going to ask a lot of all of us, but we will leave no one behind. And the burden will be distributed in a way that everybody can carry it, that we can manifestly see that those who are able to carry more burden, will carry more a burden and those who aren't able to carry the burden will be helped to avoid that burden.

This of course an eternal question in politics: the sense to create a society where people see that solidarity is the basis. Of course solidarity means different things to different people on the basis of where they are politically. But at the end of the day, wherever you are, politically, nobody wants to leave people behind in a society, because then you no longer have a society.

So, I wanted to end on this. For me the most important question Europe needs to answer in this very complicated multi-dimensional, a multipolar global environment, is: how do we organize a transition to where we need to be that can be supported by the vast majority of the population? Can we demonstrate that in the short term, the steps we take are consistent with our long term goals, but at the same time, don't leave anybody behind.

For that, the social market economy needs to be partly and sometimes quite fundamentally redesigned. It can be done. We have the tools, we have the technologies –  one thing I'm really excited about is how fast technologies are developing these days, and I get examples of that almost on a daily basis.

So we have the tools. We have the technology. I would argue we also have the means financially, and if we don't find them now, we should organize ourselves so that we can collectively organize them.

The only thing we need is the political will to do it.

Then, I'm sure, we will get Europeans to follow this lead. To see the advantages for themselves. Because, at the end of the day, do we live for ourselves? Or do we live for others as well, like our children and grandchildren?

What is life if not lived also for others?

By Frans Timmermans

European Commission Executive Vice President


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