EU – a project for losers? was the title of the Global bar held on February 11th; panellists were Pierre Schellenkens, chief of the EU Commission in Sweden, Andres Rivarola, researcher at the Latin American Institute and Erika Bjerström, author of the book The New Africa (Det nya Afrika) and former SVT correspondent.
The discussion was moderated by Global Reporting’s David Isaksson who provided the general framework for the discussion:
“While the European economy is moving backwards or at best standing still, the world south of our little community bubble is at full speed. In the new world economic order Rwanda will soon pass Greece. And Brazil looks towards Nigeria – and not Portugal – for doing business.
At the same time the level of poverty is increasing within the EU and extremist groups are gaining ground. Along the street that leads to the Swedish parliament there are more and more beggars. And they all come from a EU country.
Bahamas, Chile and Uruguay are less corrupt than France (place 22 according to TI), Botswana beats Hungary by a mile and the European jumbo Greece (80th) is overtaken by South Africa, Tunisia and Senegal.
So, what happened to our dreams about the fantastic Europe? Do they laugh behind our backs in Brasilia, Beijing and Abuja?
Is it embarrassing to hang with a global loser?”
Based on what was said during the discussion it wouldn’t be possible to conclude that the European Union is a club for losers. However, there are plenty of interesting trends that the European countries should be aware of if they want to preserve one of the leading positions in the world of today, and of the world tomorrow.
Andres Rivarola emphasized the strong historical and cultural connections between Europe and Latin America. Even the term “Latin America” shows how those countries are rooted in Western civilization. “The concept of Latin America is relatively new, it gained popularity during sixties and seventies.”
Rivarola noted that there is a strong movement for the creation of a united Latin American identity based on ethnical diversity. “It is the first time that these movements have such strength in the government – in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador. Even Brazil has started to talk in terms of Latin America, which was not the case before. That’s a turning point.
According to him, the European Union has given priority to Latin America in very different way than the United States – primarily in sense that EU recognized Latin American regional organizations and conducts high level meetings with them.
Noting that EU is still the biggest donor of aid to Africa, Erika Bjerström told an illustrative anecdote from one of her recent journeys. She met a Masai woman in a place that on first sight fitted completely into the poverty stereotype – a village without electricity, where people had to walk long distances in order to get water, and where women were making handcrafted jewellery. “I asked her: ‘How is it going for you?’ She looked at me and said: Very well since we attended that fashion fair in Paris.” Then I realized that there are parallel realities. Although it might seem as they live in 16th century, they are global citizens. That woman sitting in her traditional clothes, in a house without electricity, is a successful businesswoman. Something happened that didn’t fit into my preconception of what Africa is. For 40 years SVT had been reporting about Africa as a continent of crisis, conflicts, problems,” Erika Bjerström said. She emphasise that the “new Africa” that she is now focusing on is not the only Africa that exists; however, she feels proud that public service now provides several images of Africa that people can relate to.
“Seven out of the ten fastest growing markets in the world are now in Africa, the so-called lion economies. They have stable economic growth and, democratization, and 22 countries south of Sahara are now middle income countries”, she said, noting how Swedes are not very well informed at all about those trends. “People in Sweden think that 20 percent of people in Tanzania can read. The real number is 80 percent.” According to her, the image of the victim is still dominant when portraying Africa, which is primarily the guilt of the media and the development sector. Due to this misinformation, Swedes and other Europeans have an outdated view of African countries, which then determines the way in which the EU relates to the African continent.
“There was recently a conference titled “How can Africa help the failing European economies?” African countries are of course aware of the European crisis and how it has affected Europe to become anaemic. Still, Africa is the closest continent to Europe and Europe stands there as a moral compass, which is not always the case with the Chinese. Many Chinese companies, for instance, don’t care about environmental issues.”
Erika Bjerström particularly emphasized the increased political, diplomatic and business presence of Turkey and Brazil in Africa. While the European Union, which is present in 48 countries, “is not really looked on as a political factor, but rather as a Santa Clause.” “In Africa people ask ‘What does the EU really want from us?’ EU is trying to form a joint foreign policy, but wasn’t succeeding. Many lost chances are the consequence of that.”
Although calling Erika Bjerstöm’s remarks “interesting”, Pierre Schellenkens said that it is not possible for the EU to act as swiftly as many others – “because the EU is following certain principles”. “It’s a pity that we cannot fully play the political role; however, it would be very good to have a strong EU that is able to support certain values.” He argued that the idea of the EU project is for everyone to be a winner and noted how the project is based on market economy, democracy and respect of human rights, and how the EU has to be strict towards members that don’t respect the rules.
“Europe needs the African market for our business; we need natural resources for our high tech mobile phones etc. Therefore, it is a problem if we remain one step behind”, Erika Bjerström replied. “Africans think that Europeans just talk – about LGBT rights etc. – and that they are not efficient. There was a case recently where a French company won the bid for building a big sports arena; however, they wouldn’t be able to reach the deadline. So instead the Chinese built the arena in one year. Maybe the French company didn’t want to pay the bribe, maybe their arena would last longer; but it was the Chinese who delivered it. When dealing with the Chinese, work begins two weeks after the handshake and the African leaders say ‘That’s what we need!’”
Andres Rivarola emphasized the relativity of the issue of principles. ”Many Latin American countries were democracies before Germany. They became independent around 1850. On the other hand, all the coups in Latin America from the 1940’s and onwards have been directly or indirectly supported by the United States and the EU countries. That’s why it would be false to describe Latin America as ’morally undeveloped’. There are many Latin Americans asserting with pride their democratic traditions that are older than those of Germany or Spain. Now China is the biggest trading partner of many Latin American countries; and EU’s leading economic position is taken over by the Chinese.
”When African countries are looking for how to improve their pension or social system, they don’t go to Sweden, but to Brazil or Mexico”, Erika Bjerström noted. “They import those social models from Latin America.”
Replying in a way to the criticism towards the EU, Pierre Schellenkens emphasized another “relativity” of the current economic trends and statistics: “The crisis in the European Union is related to the fact that we have high levels of development, while growing economies start from a low level. However, the dynamics in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia are important. The EU is participating in transatlantic trade agreements with the idea to open up trade and while the negotiations are slow, there is progress.” According to Pierre Schellenkens, the EU countries have accomplished more reforms in the last few years than in the previous three decades.
Rivarola noted that today, the countries that don’t integrate with others are the losers, because in comparison to China everyone else, even the United States, is small. “In the research community we know very little about China. In my opinion, China has started to apply political power as well as economic power. They are not making plans from one election to the next, but in terms of generations. We don’t have that kind of power nor that many people. The pressure is obvious – there is a country of one billion people and if you don’t integrate you will disappear.”
According to Rivarola the greatest challenge for democracies is how to integrate on an equal footing. “The United States was created through civil war; and many other countries created their borders through wars and bloodshed. But the EU and Latin America are integrating through a democratic process.”
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