Despite its long list of crises in recent years – including the most recent vaccine snafu – the European Union has become a global pacesetter. Its laws and regulations have established global norms. This has made the bloc a 21st century model.

Fans of the European Union gather in front of the Opéra Garnier theater in Paris in 2020: 


In the cosmos of political cartoons, Europe has been depicted as a snail and as a hydra, as a snake pit or a pigsty. The European Union can be a sick man, an old woman in a wheelchair, a neglected child o a sad woman. Europe found itself mocked as a deflating balloon, as a race car without an engine, as a derailed train, as a sinking ship or as a jumbo jet too big for any runway. The Continent has been portrayed as a barren mountain range of EU summits, as a garbage dump of files, as a befouled land of plenty with lakes of milk and wine. Europe in caricature is a house of cards, a ramshackle home, a burning hut, a crumbling temple. It is always in ruins.


The idea that, despite everything, the European Union is in fact a world power, never seems to occur to the cartoonists.

After all, the news speaks a different language. In the mirror of current affairs, in the Twitter thunderstorms of our time, the EU often looks as broken as its worst enemies describe it. Cyprus single-handedly blocking European sanctions against the Belarusian dictatorship. The governments of Hungary and Poland ruthlessly undermining the rule of law. Agonizing negotiations on a common refugee policy for the Continent repeatedly concluding in shabby nothingness. A common agricultural policy – one that has been wrong for decades – cemented once again. The procurement of coronavirus vaccines descending into acrimonious, backbiting chaos, fueled by the national interests of 27 member states. In our imaginations, that is truly not what a global power looks like.


There have been several times in the past 10 or 12 years that the EU has been so close to the abyss that the fall seemed inevitable. The great financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 became the Greek crisis and a European sovereign debt crisis. Significant doubts were raised about the basic structures of the federation of nations – and they weren’t just coming from the right-wing populists emerging across the Continent. Financial crises became identity crises and refugee crises spiraled into existential crises. In 2016, the decision by the British to leave the EU seemed like the final nail in the coffin of a historic experiment that the peoples of Europe never learned to love.

That the situation has since become less fraught is not least due to the fact that Brexit, by not destroying it, has actually saved the EU for the time being. The London circus and the back and forth of the Brussels negotiations also had the effect of making many Europeans realize, perhaps for the first time, how tightly entwined their countries are with the EU. An otherwise abstract entity became concrete, and as amusing as all the parliamentary bleating in London may have been at times, it was just as crazy that the British really believed they could get by in the world better on their own than as part of the European alliance.

The realization that backing out of the EU is not a simple undertaking will actually help defuse future disputes. The various debates on leaving the EU that populist parties enthusiastically launched – especially in France – have essentially fallen silent thanks to Brexit. Those who continue insisting on leaving the EU risk ending up on the sidelines. And that is a significant step forward for the climate in Europe.

Before Brexit, many Europeans may have lacked a sense of how the Brussels power structures worked, but there has since been a surge in political education. The division of roles between the EU institutions has become clearer, the roles of the European Commission, it’s executive branch, and the European Council, the powerful body representing leaders of the 27 member states, are now better understood.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that a European public now follows the political scene in Brussels more closely, but there are at least a few figures that every European now knows. The EU is no longer as faceless as it once was.

Still, there is no widespread understanding of the European Union’s weight in the world – at all. The pendulum has swung from the overconfidence following the introduction of the euro and eastern enlargement to the pronounced inferiority complex of today.

Stuck in the narrative of Europe’s decline, many Europeans now worry about the future – and misperceive the real balance of power in the world today.

The EU, though, isn’t puny and insignificant. It’s quite the opposite – a giant that plays a decisive role in shaping life on this planet.


There are numerous metrics that are used to describe economic strength and they are all controversial. But given the lack of alternatives, they are still in use. We talk about total economic output (gross domestic product or GDP) and about GDP per capita. You can also calculate current account balances from imports and exports of goods and services to determine a country’s success or attractiveness. In terms of the EU and its 27 members, it doesn’t really matter which metric you apply: It always ranks among the top three in the world by all criteria. It is even ahead of the United States in many fields and will be able to outperform China in many respects for decades to come.

The EU is the most important export market for the U.S., India, South Africa and Russia. It is the second-largest market for China and Brazil and the third largest for Japan and South Korea. Three-quarters of South African exports of fruits and nuts go to the EU, 87 percent of U.S. pharmaceutical exports, 51 percent of Brazilian coffee traded on the global market, 45 percent of Indian textile exports and 40 percent of toys made in China for the world market. These figures speak of a European market and purchasing power that is mind-bogglingly big.

Europe – not China – is the largest partner of the emerging African continent. By far. A third of all African exports go to the EU, and 40 percent of the foreign investment in Africa comes from the EU. Investors from the 27 EU member states were active in Africa with 222 billion euros in 2017, while the Americans had only 42 billion invested and the Chinese 38 billion.

The idea – promoted by all manner of florid media features – that China is the biggest player in Africa is simply wrong. Moreover, the EU and its member states provide more than half of all development aid funding worldwide. EU member states are also the largest donors to the organizations of the United Nations.

If it weren’t for the European market, the American, Korean and Japanese giants in the entertainment and digital industries could also pack it in. The data shows, for example, that Apple generated fully $16.9 billion in revenues in Europe during the third quarter of last year despite COVID-19. With its 90 percent market share in search services, Google generates billions in advertising revenues in Europe. Facebook, meanwhile, has 277 million daily users in Europe, more than in the U.S.

Europe’s market power also stems from the comparatively high standard of living of its inhabitants. One indicator is GDP per capita, while taking purchasing power into account. The higher it is, the greater a society’s level of prosperity is considered to be – and here it is clear that China still has a long way to go before it catches up with Europe or the U.S.

GDP per capita in the U.S. is around $65,000; in Germany, it is about $54,000, and an average of $47,000 across the EU. China’s GDP per capita is calculated at $16,700. In India, that figure is $7,000.

People tend to read such calculations like Olympic Games medal counts, but it would be helpful to everyone if we would stop looking at the world economy as a race of nations or as a war fought by other means. The logic of rise and fall, of winners and losers, leads to fear and aggression. And it fails to recognize the historical roots of great economic processes.

Around the year 1800, when industrialization was just starting to take off in Europe, half of the world’s population lived in Asia. And, consequently, half of the world’s economic output was generated there. But by 1900, Asia’s share of the world economy had fallen to just one-fifth, precisely because of Europe’s new technological lead. Harvard researcher Joseph Nye, to whom we will return later, thus suggests that we cease talking about the rise of Asia and China, preferring the term “return” instead.

From that point of view, we’re not witnessing an upheaval, but rather a protracted normalization. “Unnatural” economic and social imbalances are disappearing again – imbalances that were globally extreme and extremely unhealthy. China’s rise is by no means all downside, either. Given that Asia’s recovery is also promoting the growth of the global economy as a whole, the overall pie to be shared is growing – for Europeans, as well.

Europeans should also humbly recall that they themselves once had to face a difficult return from the ruins of a world war. As such, should China not be seeking domination in the long run and is instead striving to find its place in the world economy and the global community through fair competition, then Europe should welcome and help shape this process. The agreement in principle reached over the Christmas holidays on a trade deal between the EU and China points in this direction and will open up new avenues for discussing labor market protections and human rights issues.

Either way, China is already having to defer to Europe’s ideas and regulations in many areas. For not only is the EU an economic superpower, it is now also the No. 1 global regulator.


Every day, miraculous things are happening around the globe of which most Europeans take no notice. Technology companies in California build their devices according to EU regulations. Cocoa producers in Ghana and Ecuador are transforming their operations to meet European standards. In Argentina, Israel and Russia, plaintiffs are suing internet companies and invoking the “right to be forgotten” that was formulated in the EU. Regional blocs of countries in South America are organizing themselves along the lines of the EU. Laws drafted in Europe are adopted almost verbatim into national law in countries around the world.

Fast food chains like McDonald’s, Subway and Wendy’s are taking chemical additives out of their products because the EU doesn’t allow them. The Brazilian company Citrosuco, the world’s largest producer of orange juice, strictly adheres to European regulations, even in countries where they do not apply. Adidas, Nike, and Zara are changing the composition of the plastic in sneakers around the world to make less toxic, EU-compliant goods. It’s a tremendous list, and it is very long.

When Microsoft, Google, Apple, Intel or other big companies sue each other for competition offenses, they don’t just take their case to San Francisco or New York – they call on the European Commission to arbitrate and then fight it out in Europe’s high courts. Mergers of large American corporations are approved or prohibited by European authorities.

Europe’s view of data protection, as laid out in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), has quickly become a global standard that no company and no country can ignore. Google alone claims it was forced to spend “hundreds of years of human time” to comply with the Brussels regulations, but it did so nonetheless. America’s 500 largest companies are continually spending billions of dollars to implement EU rules, and the situation is no different for the largest Asian, African and South American companies. The smartest among them are already working to reduce their carbon emissions, with an eye on the “carbon tax,” that the EU has been working on for years.

These examples lead to the equally unbelievable and correct conclusion that globalization today is actually a “Europeanization” – and this was not written in EU advertising brochures, but in Britain’s Economist, the must-read newspaper of laissez-faire capitalists.


A global player like today’s Europe has never existed in this form in the history of the world. By regulating the affairs of its internal market step by step, the EU is formulating globally effective standards along the way. Whether it’s chemicals, hazardous waste, hormone-treated meat, electronic waste, emissions standards, animal testing, antitrust, privacy, crop protection, competition or air pollution control – the EU is always somehow already there.

It sets standards and criteria worldwide based on scientific findings and equipped with recognized scientific, legal and also moral competence – even in areas where, by law, it would actually have no say. It’s not a stretch to say that the European Union makes the world a little bit better every day, a little bit cleaner, a little bit healthier, safer and more sustainable.

“EU laws determine how timber is harvested in Indonesia, how honey is produced in Brazil, what pesticides cocoa farmers use in Cameroon, what equipment is installed in dairy factories in China,” writes Anu Bradford, a law professor from Finland at New York’s Columbia University. She and her staff did a great deal of work bringing together many of the facts and figures cited in this essay. The book she wrote following that research, “The Brussels Effect,” published in early 2020, is subtitled: “How the European Union Rules the World.” When asked by DER SPIEGEL if that thesis was perhaps a tad overwrought, she replied: “I don’t think so! It’s just that, contrary to traditional ideas, Europe is a quiet world power, and this is precisely the basis of its success.”

Her book paints a picture of an EU that sometimes has a direct and, at times, indirect effect around the globe. It’s an effect based on the simple fact that Europe – as an economic power, as a market and as a trading trading partner – is so important that non-European countries and companies do not want to be cut off from it under any circumstances. In addition, contrary to widespread perception, companies are actually very much interested in regulated markets, especially those operating internationally. Clear criteria for everyone provides planning security and fair competition – and because the EU usually sets the strictest rules, many companies adopt them for the sake of simplicity.

In the course of modern history, there have always been leading powers whose competence and guiding principles were followed by others. The British and French shaped the 18th and 19th centuries, while the United States, after the world wars, shaped the 20th. The Americans set the “gold standards” for the world until the 1980s. After that, though, they became so enamored of deregulation that they virtually abandoned the role of regulating those gold standards, eventually losing it almost entirely. The EU has stepped into that void. In terms of the rules of production, economic activity, consumption and living together, it will be the formative power of the 21st century – a rational hegemon.

It also profits from the fact that many issues currently making their way to the forefront are ones the EU has been working on for many years, and this strengthens the “Brussels Effect” immensely. Data protection, in particular, was already old hat in Europe long before the internet scandals and hacker attacks of our time. Now, many are looking to Europe to learn from its experiences with data and privacy protection. But Europe has also built up expertise on issues of social and environmental sustainability, which have long been out of vogue in other regions of the world and cannot be quickly replicated elsewhere. Instead, entire countries are adopting the European model as they head down the path toward becoming prosperous societies.

The EU, says Anu Bradford, does the difficult work of lawmaking with great expertise in many fields and is recognized as an authority on many issues. It doesn’t hurt that the texts of its legislation are almost always immediately available in several of the major world languages. As such, the EU sets an example globally, as a role model, a pacesetter, a problem-solver and a mediator.

The accusation, most recently formulated by Donald Trump, that all this is done only out of Europe’s interest in protecting itself from competition may seem plausible, but it is hardly substantiated. Bradford devotes an entire chapter of her book to the subject and concludes that the EU is not pursuing protectionist goals. After all, it doesn’t set rules for others, it only does so for its own market. One could be forgiven for thinking that Europe has become the smartest world power there has ever been.


The distinction between a “soft” and “hard” power originates from Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor mentioned earlier in this piece. Nye was born in 1937 and has been a professor emeritus for quite some time now, but he still continues to research and publish. Just a few weeks ago, another article of his appeared in a trade journal, outlining his thinking. Nye is convinced that hard power is an absolute necessity, but adds that military power is a blunt instrument. For today’s powers, he wrote, the point is to combine soft and hard power to create “smart” power.

Nye argues that missiles and warships don’t help fight global warming, protect privacy or regulate banking. But they remain, Nye wrote in an email response to questions sent by DER SPIEGEL, “necessary though not sufficient for national defense of liberal democracies.” The EU has shortcomings in this area, not so much in terms of capacity as in terms of coordination among its members and their willingness to decouple security policy from the nation-state.

If 2019 military spending is used as a basis and the UK, which has since left the bloc, is ignored in the analysis, the countries of the EU together account for around 12 percent of global defense spending. This puts them far behind the U.S., whose share is around 39 percent, but ahead of China, with 10 percent, and well ahead of Russia’s 3.5 percent. China’s share may well grow, but these figures show that Europe, often accused of impotence in foreign and security policy, would actually be on par with the major powers in military terms if it succeeded in uniting its nationally fragmented “hard” power into a European one.

Why this is necessary is easy enough to explain. If you want to have a say in questions of war and peace or human rights, you need more than just values and arguments. Military heft is also necessary. The same applies to your own security. Munich-based historian Andreas Wirsching argues that Europe potentially has a tangible security problem. “The question,” Wirsching says, “is what would happen if something were to go wrong?” The EU, he argues, is certainly “a power of global importance and attraction,” but it often fails to fulfill the hopes placed in it. “In Ukraine, for example, there’s not much more you can achieve with soft power,” Wirsching says.

Or, in the drastic words of Joseph Nyes: Anyone who believes that hard power is illegitimate or irrelevant today “should tell that to Ukrainians or Georgians fighting Putin, or to the Yazidis who suffered the genocidal attacks of the Islamic State.”

Danger is lurking everywhere. The German government is currently particularly concerned about China’s attempts to shake the edifice of European norms and standards and to weaken the union. There have already been several occasions in which individual EU countries have deviated from the common line when it came to criticizing China or attacking it for human rights violations. Hungary, Greece, Croatia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic maintain what is at times alarming closeness to the power in Beijing. Dangerous new fault lines could open up here. And such fractures weaken the European Union.

But it remains an open question how hard a power the EU has to become or can ever become. And that simple fact is alarming. At the moment, no one wants to imagine what might happen, as Wirsching points out, if a war were to break out at one of the EU’s external borders – on the Black Sea, the Baltic or in the Mediterranean. And that lack of clarity is, for a world power, unacceptable in the long run.


The current EU high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell of Spain, has compared today’s EU foreign policy with the introduction of the euro, when – for a time – the old national currencies existed side-by-side with the new European currency. For the moment, Borrell told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper shortly before taking office a little over a year ago, EU foreign policy must coexist with national foreign policies. The point, though, is that the intersections will grow over time.

Time plays a vital role in complex alliances like the EU. Those who complain about the inability of the 27 member states to formulate a coherent foreign and security policy often forget that the EU is a very young entity historically. Sixteen of today’s 27 member states have only joined since 1995, with 13 first becoming members in 2004. The upshot is that the interests of the island of Malta must now be reconciled with those of the nuclear power France, the concerns of the Baltic states with those of Cyprus, and Sweden has to take an interest in Bulgaria’s security concerns and vice versa.

After at least two centuries of deeply rooted nationalist thinking, that isn’t an easy exercise.

But can it succeed anyway? This is where the greatest work is needed in the further development of the EU. At the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, officials are cautiously optimistic. They say the deal among EU member states last summer for a corona aid program that entailed issuing shared debt and provided money as grants rather than loans was a breakthrough, an “historic leap forward.”

But as happens in the circles of power in Europe, that beautiful leap quickly became an ugly stranglehold. When Hungary and Poland moved to block the corona bailout package and the next EU budget over a rule of law provision it contained shortly before Christmas, they sparked a major crisis. Once again, the fractures became visible in an EU establishment that always seems particularly helpless when individual member-state governments seek to emulate Trumpism. Yet it is in precisely those instances that the EU’s resilience shines through. It frequently fluctuates, but it doesn’t sink.

The bloc’s path in recent history has been a “roller coaster,” which also happens to be the title of historian Ian Kershaw’s book on the subject. And that’s how it will continue – as a major construction site where muddling through is sometimes the best path rather than a weakness.

Former U.S. Ambassador Richard Morningstar, who was America’s chief diplomat in Brussels around the turn of the century, has a rather amusing description for it: “The European Union likes to take two steps forward and then one and a half steps back,” Morningstar says, “but that’s progress, too.”


Around 20 years ago, professors from Germany and elsewhere issued incessant of the euro and the appalling consequences it would have for the prosperity of everyone in Europe. Now that the euro has established itself as the world’s second-most reliable hard currency, it is a position that has been essentially abandoned today.

Nor has the eternal fear of a Brussels kraken sucking all the democracy out of the member states borne out. And despite myriad predictions of the EU’s demise, that hasn’t happened either. This only shows how wrong it is to use a momentary snapshot to develop an overall impression. And, yes, the media shares some of the blame. But it is also rooted in deeper structures of human thought.

Hans Rosling, a committed European from Sweden, worked during his lifetime to help people in his role as a physician. As a researcher, he sought to cure the general blindness we have to that which grows slowly and progresses unobtrusively. The subtitle of his remarkable book “Factfulness” is: “Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.” It is, according to Rosling, much healthier, much wealthier, much more advanced and much better than most people think.

Rosling wasn’t trying to whitewash the real challenges facing us. Having worked in poverty stricken areas of Asia and Africa, after all, he knew better. He wanted to send the positive message that although progress may take place at a snail’s pace, it is still taking place – and that striving for progress is not a useless endeavor. You could sum up his stance in one line: If you’re always wringing your hands, you don’t have a hand free to roll up your sleeves. Rosling seeks to encourage people.

His way of thinking would also benefit the EU. As Europeans, we might then realize from time to time that this federation of European nations was and still is a vehicle for peace and prosperity, a vehicle for opportunity for hundreds of millions of people. One could be proud for a moment of what has been achieved, of an amazing success story. Of the fact that, thanks to European initiatives, many things have truly improved for many people over the decades.

But the European Union – and in this sense it is a lot like the United Nations – is often only scrutinized for its shortcomings. The EU is frequently judged solely on its ability to act quickly and too rarely on its ability to pursue a goal step by step, with calm and perseverance. And people also often forget that the EU is a federation of 27 countries. When they are united, Europe is strong. When they disagree, even the best EU is of little help.

In the long term – meaning years and decades – the EU will be judged by whether it achieves its objectives, and it only ever sets grand goals for itself. Preserving peace, saving the world’s climate, ending the destruction of nature, protecting people, increasing prosperity, improving lives, seeking happiness.

Most Europeans believe these goals are so self-evident that they barely even hear them any longer and dismiss them as florid rhetoric. As such, they are in danger of failing to see what the rest of the world has already realized: that we have been successful in transforming an entire Continent – a place where people tore each other apart for centuries – into a model for the 21st century.

It’s not possible to be much more of a world power than that.


Source: Der Spiegel 23-1-2021