The European Union: Turning Crisis into Opportunity

10 May 2017
The European Union: Turning Crisis into Opportunity
EU Ambassador Roland Kobia. Photo: Hong Sar/Mizzima

Every year on the 9th of May, the EU celebrates what is now the longest period of peace in European history, i.e. seven decades of security, stability, solidarity and prosperity for its people.
On this occasion, and besides too widespread micro-analyses, we should remind ourselves of the fundamentals, and what has been achieved through the ambitious and unique endeavour of European integration: putting the ghosts of our violent past firmly away and remain a force for prosperity and solidarity for the people in Europe and a force for good and stability in the world. 
Some people dismiss this achievement as yesterday's news and argue that the EU is in crisis as the UK has decided to leave the EU. What is less often recalled is that no less than five countries are willing to join the EU and currently negotiating their accession to the European Union. Others are queuing up to start negotiations, thereby confirming the continued strong attractiveness of the European project. 
Europe has had to face several challenges over the last years, most of them originating outside Europe. This is the case of the 2008-2009 global financial crisis that struck the entire world, and Europe as part of it, particularly hard. As the EU has one of the most open economies in the world, the social costs have been especially high for Europeans. At the same time, global challenges such as climate change, terrorism, aggressive behaviour in the European neighbourhood and the terrible war in Syria are feeding the biggest flux of migrants and refugees since World War II, thus creating anxiety in many parts of the world, including Europe. This creates a fertile ground for the rise of populist and nationalist voices, in Europe and elsewhere. In the face of uncertainty, the illusion of the hand of the "strong man" has regained popularity. This is the challenging, and frankly slightly worrying, world we live in today with many crises rooted in other regions. Europe is not a net contributor to world crisis, it rather contributes to overcome them with its partners.
So, let's face it, these are times when no region of the world today is “crisis-free”. But the doomsayers predicting the end of the EU often forget some fundamental truths.
First, the term "crisis" derives from the ancient Greek word "Krisis", which originally did not have the negative connotation it carries today. Rather, it referred to a moment when a decision needs to be made, a moment of judgement. Since World War II, Europeans have consistently made the choice to address difficult situations together, incrementally building solidarity not only to avoid another war, but to "make it unthinkable" as Robert Schuman, one of the EU's founding fathers, famously said. He and his contemporaries even took the view that Europe would be built on the back of periods of crisis. And it worked. Never in our history have European countries and people enjoyed the privilege of such a long period of peace and overall prosperity.
Second, the European Union was and continues to be first and foremost a project of peace, security, solidarity and cooperation among the nations and people of Europe. With its own history of successfully building peace after centuries of conflict, the European Union also became both an important source of inspiration and an adviser in peace-building initiatives across the globe. The EU currently deploys 17 military and civilian peacekeeping missions across the globe. In Myanmar, the European Union promotes peace through political dialogue and by supporting peace initiatives from grass-roots to the highest political levels with a budget of currently more than 85 million EUR (MMK 120 billion). For its continuous engagement for peace at home and abroad, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. 
Third, Europe is one of the most open and liberal economies in the world. While the EU makes up 7% of the world’s population, it represents about 23% of global GDP. European businesses have become world leaders in high-technology and know-how, in machinery and equipment, in heavy industries and agriculture, in innovation and in green energy. European brands and products are world-leaders in their respective fields. But some of the most ambitious projects were only possible through joint efforts by several European countries and companies working together: products like Airbus planes, Galileo (the recent European equivalent to GPS) or Ariane (the European space rocket) are the product of cooperation between several European countries and companies.
Fourth, besides the economy, and perhaps thanks to it, Europe is a "lifestyle and cultural superpower". It is home to the most equal societies in the world, offering both high living standards and effective social protection to its citizens. Europe’s nations are close to the top of the global list where people enjoy the highest life expectancy at birth, the best conditions of access to education and the highest GDP per capita. European cities lead the statistics as most livable cities in the world. Europe's space of cooperation and freedom stimulates research and academic excellence across borders, contributing to finding answers to world pandemics.
Fifthly, the world has come to know the European Union as a key political actor in defense of core international values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law as well as the fight against racism, xenophobia and all forms of discrimination. Many countries just sign the UN Charter, we endeavour to abide by it. Together, we are one of the strongest voices for action against climate change and have been leading the negotiations leading to the historic Paris Agreement of October 2016.
Finally, European solidarity, a key feature between our Member States, actually does not stop at our borders: with a budget of EUR 75 billion (over MMK 100 trillion) the European Union is the largest donor of development assistance and humanitarian aid in the world, helping to foster socio-economic development and fight poverty. While others cut their contributions to peacekeeping and development programs of the United Nations, the European Union renewed its commitment to joint action with the family of nations through its new Global Strategy, stressing the key importance of multilateralism and the United Nations for the promotion of a rules-based world order to safeguard peace and security at home and abroad.
The European Union's solidarity also has a very tangible impact on the lives of people in Myanmar. With about EUR 2 billion (MMK 3 Trillion) of grants, the development assistance of the EU and its member states invest in a better future for the people of Myanmar, focusing on high-impact areas such as education, climate-smart agriculture, efficient governance and sustainable peace. Myanmar was granted full and free access to the European Union market without any quantitative restrictions or tariff barriers. We work with Myanmar companies in the garment sector and timber industry to implement the high European standards in fair production and become competitive participants on the European market of more than 500 million people.
In the Chinese language, the term "crisis" is written as a combination of two ideograms: "danger" and "opportunity", indicating that facing and overcoming adversity can make you stronger and better. Europeans rightly expect their Union to confront the dangers we are facing and make the most of the opportunities. Sometimes we need others to help us realise how fortunate we are: “Your accomplishment – more than 500 million people speaking 24 languages in 28 countries, 19 with a common currency, in one European Union – remains one of the greatest political and economic achievements of modern times,” former US President Obama pointed out.
So where do we go from here? In times when mankind seems to forget the darkness of the past, when political utopias and ideologies have been largely replaced by the quest for material satisfaction and daily comfort, it is important to remember that rights, freedoms, social progress and prosperity are not vested rights, nor are they irreversible. In times when the world is facing regional and global challenges, Europe at times seems like one of the last bastions of courage to stand up for rights, values and a free and open vision of the world.
So, let bold and concrete visions prevail over short term easy solutions, let memory ensure we will not repeat the mistakes of the past, let's build bridges instead of walls, let's rediscover our pride in Europe's achievements. Because together, we have been at our best. Together we walked, alone we fell. And together, we can turn crisis into opportunity, in Europe and beyond. So, all that's left for us to do is roll up our sleeves and decisively shape our common future.
Roland Kobia is the EU Ambassador to Myanmar