European/Western values

On October 10, Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy gave a speech at a meeting of the delegates representing the EU to countries around the world. I find this speech remarkable both for what he said and what he omitted.

In today’s blog entry, I use selected statements from the written transcript of this speech (of which there is also a video available) to reflect on the values that the European Union presents to the rest of the world – that is, what are commonly referred to as “European values.” These are more or less the same as what are often referred to as “Western values”.

Near the beginning of the talk, Borrell stated:

Our prosperity has been based on cheap energy coming from Russia. Russian gas – cheap and supposedly affordable, secure, and stable. It has been proved not [to be] the case. And the access to the big China market, for exports and imports, for technological transfers, for investments, for having cheap goods. I think that the Chinese workers with their low salaries have done much better and much more to contain inflation than all the Central Banks together.

It would be more accurate to broaden the statement about China to say that European (and North American) prosperity is to a very large extent based on cheap labor across most of Asia, Africa and Latin America, allowing Europe to cheaply import raw materials as well as relatively low-tech manufactured goods from these countries. China is remarkable in that even high-tech exports from there continue to have a market advantage due to low wages. European prosperity also continues to rely heavily on imports of fossil fuels, from Russia as well as autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia. With respect to all of these countries, the focus of “the markets” (that is, the market participants) is on the price of the goods, not the conditions under which they are produced. This may keep inflation in check, but even more so wages – in the rich countries as well.

Borrell went on to raise questions about Europe’s reliance on the United States for military security. Perhaps I will discuss these questions in a future blog entry, but here I will skip over this part in order to remain on the topic of Europe’s and the West’s relationship with the rest of the world. In this context, Borrell discussed the divide between “democracies vs. authoritarians”, while recognizing that “on our side, there are a lot of authoritarian regimes” (was he thinking about Orban’s government in Hungary for example?). On a self critical note, he said:

We think too much internally and then we try to export our model, but we do not think enough about how the others will perceive this exportation of models. Yes, we have the “Brussels effect” and we continue setting standards, but I believe that, more and more, the rest of the world is not ready to follow our exportation of model. “This is one model, it is the best one, so you have to follow it”. For cultural, historical and economic reasons, this is no longer accepted.

We have to listen more. We have to be much more on “listening mode” to the other side – the other side is the rest of the world. We need to have more empathy. We tend to overestimate the rational arguments. “We are the land of reason”. We think that we know better what is in other people’s interests. We underestimate the role of emotions and the persisting appeal of identity politics.

But what exactly is the “European model”? For centuries, European countries colonized the rest of the world. They gradually, in fits and starts and with plenty of reversals, introduced representative democracy at home. They extended the franchise to working class men and to women only when strong political movements hardly left another choice. But similar rights were only allowed extremely sparingly in the colonized countries. Many colonized countries had to fight bloody wars in order to gain independence. And today, the insistence on low prices of goods in markets with cutthroat competition means that being “competitive” means to push down wages to a level at which a dignified life is impossible. Keeping wages this low depends on drastically limiting union organizing, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and other related freedoms. Political repression all too often is a prerequisite for successfully entering global markets that are still dominated by Europe and North America. Is that what the “European model” signifies?

Toward the end of his speech, Borrell said:

We have to explain what are the links between political freedom and a better life. We, Europeans, we have this extraordinary chance. We live in the world in this part of the world where political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion are the best, the best combination of all of that. But the rest of the world is not like this. Our fight is to try to explain that democracy, freedom, political freedom is not something that can be exchanged by economic prosperity or social cohesion.

Borrell made a questionable comparison of Europe with the rest of the world here, which he reinforced in another speech a few days later, likening Europe to a garden and the rest of the world to a jungle. This led to diplomatic protests, for example by the United Arab Emirates. He has since offered an apology and a clarification of his remarks (see links below).

But has Europe not been a powerful driver converting the “rest” into a “jungle” and to keep it that way? What have the countries of Europe – and of the “West” as a whole – done the last several decades? They have effectively communicated to the rest of the world that political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion are “nice to have” for the “West”, but that these are not important among the “rest”. What is important is that the “rest” provides the “West” with goods at the right (low) prices (at whatever cost) and provides lip service to ideas such as democracy and freedom of speech. And so for example, Chinese leaders have to endure sermons about the Uighurs or about Tibet or about Ai Weiwei, but after or even before the sermons, trade deals are signed based on the really “important” matters, such as the prices of goods.

What the European Union needs to do in order to communicate “European values” to the rest of the world is to make clear that it values democracy and human rights in the rest of the world (not just at home) more than it values low prices of the goods it imports. In addition, it should stop talking about “European” or “Western” values, and instead simply talk about the values of “liberal democracy” or of “human rights.” Quit the pretense that these values are shared by all Europeans or all people of the West, as well as the implication that people in the rest of the world have to become European or Western before they can share these values!

In my next blog entry I plan to discuss how European or more broadly countries of the “West” might do that.



On Borrell’s “garden and jungle” metaphor

Tim Stickings, Oct. 16, 2022, EU’s Josep Borrell under fire for calling outside world a “jungle”, The National (United Arab Emirates).

Josep Borrell, Oct. 18, 2022, On metaphors and geopolitics, HR/VP Blog.

Jorge Liboreiro, Oct. 20, 2022, Josep Borrell apologizes for controversial ‘garden’ vs. ‘jungle’ metaphor but defends speech, Euronews, Lyon.

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