The European Union must be doing something right. Its oft-repeated slogan about a “common destiny” for its 500 million people has become the catchphrase for China in a campaign to bind its neighbors into a community.
Just what kind of community China envisions is still not clear. Chinese President Xi Jinping calls for building a “Eurasian” economy, which would likely place China, as the world’s second largest economy, at the center. Mr. Xi has launched a special bank to build infrastructure throughout the region. He plans to spend a large portion of China’s wealth on projects dubbed “Silk Road,” or the construction of new routes by land and sea to transport people and goods.
As China may soon learn, words like “common” and “destiny” are difficult for even the EU to define today.
The EU’s origins in the 1950s were at first also based on shared economic interests, with the hope of reducing the extreme nationalism that drove two world wars and to eventually form a political union based on democratic values.
But after more than a half century of progress, the EU is struggling over its identity. It faces the potential exit of Britain, which promises to hold a referendum in 2017 about its EU membership. Greece’s financial woes may force it out of the eurozone. Hungary speaks of “parting ways with western European dogma” and admires Russia’s authoritarian ways. Migration woes and high unemployment have led to political splits and a rise in right-way parties. And Russia’s aggression against Ukraine over its drive to join the EU has revealed serious cracks in Europe’s common security policies.
The EU’s many achievements in interdependence and stability have reached a critical point. It must find new ways to define a “common destiny,” or what German Chancellor Angela Merkel calls “the preservation of the European idea.”
In dealing with specific issues, such as anti-EU nationalism in England or the distorting dominance of German exports, the people of Europe must maintain the high tone of phrases such as “common destiny.” But they must put new meaning into them. Shared interests, such as free trade, are not enough, as material interests can be temporary. Shared values, such as common policies on human rights or free speech, are more long-lasting.
The EU has learned this the hard way. It formed a monetary union among 17 of its 28 members without making the difficult decision to unify political decisionmaking on government spending. This easing of credit led Greece and other nations to rack up serious debts. The lure of money overran the value of prudent spending and investment in the future.
Destiny is not fate nor is it a matter of taking what one wants. It is determined by what each person or nation brings to the table for the common good.