Article by Prof. Alina Bârgăoanu
I have recently attended a debate hosted by the European Institute of Romania on a complex subject: the transatlantic relationship and the Romania – US Strategic Partnership in the European context. Whether we claim, publicly or less publicly, that we are not dealing with a complex topic, but with a simple, straightforward and unequivocal one, a more analytical look urges us to have a more balanced and deeper approach.
The complexity of the subject has to do with the fact neither the transatlantic world, neither NATO nor the EU act as one, as much we would like to think to the opposite. Leaving wishful thinking aside, a balanced discussion about the “transatlantic deficit” – a term that was coined in the literature long before Donald Trump’s election as the US President – can hardly be avoided. Below I will elaborate on the main ideas that I have expressed during the debate hosted by the European Institute.
First, the 20-year celebration of Romania – US Strategic Partnership takes place in a specific context that confers our country a special status. Romania enjoys this special status due less to internal achievements and more to wider developments: the rediscovery of the geopolitical weight of Central and Eastern Europe, as a result of the deepening transatlantic deficit and of Russia’s new assertiveness right at the Eastern border of the European Union. Here are some telling instances of this newly found geopolitical weight: the US President’s visit to Poland, the President of Romania’s visit of to the White House; the statement made by the President of the European Commission’s during the 2017 State of the Union – “from East to West: Europe must breathe with both lungs”, or that made by the German Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble – “we must be clear: we will only have a good future, history shows this, if we hold Europe together, and that means all of Europe”.
This favourable, yet not entirely risk-free context, should be taken as an opportunity for our country to capitalize on its “border state” condition. In order to be in a position to capitalize on this in a calm and well-balanced manner, certain preconditions must be met: Romania needs to be geopolitically smart; avoid the temptation to play on multiple fronts; avoid the trap of “choosing” between UE and the US; correctly identify the historical periods with which similarities can be established; invest a lot of energy into transforming economic growth into economic development and prosperity; and pay attention to the consistency of its institutions and decision-making processes, both in internal and external affairs.
Second, let me stress that the hot temperature characterizing today’s world is reinforced by two phenomena that are strikingly similar on both sides of the Atlantic: the anti-globalization and anti-European movements, as massive reactions against the closely coupled phenomena of hyper globalization and hyper European integration. These two phenomena – anti-globalization and anti/European integration – create two blocs that are widely homogeneous in terms of aspirations, feelings, sometimes even vocabulary: “ins” and “outs” of globalization and / or of European integration, winners and losers of globalization and / or of European integration. These blocs greatly resemble cultural, ideological and perceptual enclaves. I share the point of view that, for Romania to be able to avoid the trap of “choosing” between the EU and the US, of positioning itself on one side or the other and to be able to consolidate its European standing, it needs to militate, both internally and at a European level, against the perception that globalization (especially in its understanding as “Americanization”) and European integration, respectively, create winners and losers – that is, citizens, groups and countries that are left behind. These homogeneous blocs – that are less geographically than socially or economically grounded – are as real as they could get. The acknowledgement of this new reality should lead to a wide-European debate on the real problems and challenges brought about by both hyper-globalization and hyper European integration, without obliterating them. This debate should avoid excessive demonizing, excessive labeling, as well as futile competitions around “who’s more pro-American/ pro-European/ national/ global/ local of them all”.
Third, another topic that is worth emphasizing relates to communication. A new mantra of the European official discourse has emerged in the aftermath of the crisis: “we should communicate more with the European citizens”, “European citizens’ perceptions are crucial to the process of European integration”, “changing people’s perceptions is key to rebooting the European project”. As a communication scholar, I can only agree with this approach that gives communication and people’s perceptions such a prominent role. With two caveats. Communication cannot be reduced to information (“let’s do better communication campaigns”, “let’s print more brochures”, “let’s set up more sites” – so that people will be better informed about the benefits of European integration). Communication means much more than information-sharing, that is, shared symbols, experiences and life worlds. “Our Babel is not one of tongues but one of signs and symbols without which shared experience is impossible”, the American philosopher John Dewey used to say. The recent statements made by the President of the European Commission and by the German Finance Minister regarding the East-West divide especially in the post-Brexit period matter much more than tons of brochures and leaflets in creating this feeling of belonging and shared experience without which community life – be it at a national or European level – cannot be conceived. The second caveat. Attempts at changing public perceptions in the absence of measures and achievements in “real life” are too close to propaganda. For the European project to be rebooted, the European Union needs to resume its standing as an engine of growth, development and prosperity and to be perceived as such. The survival and the liberal order, on which the transatlantic world is premised, is hard to imagine in the absence of economic development and prosperity.
In his State of the Union, Jean-Claude Juncker rightly said: “There is rarely love without disappointment”. In the same vein, one could say that there is rarely democratization without modernization, or freedom without prosperity.