EU advice for nations with big visions

A leader of the European Union reflects on the need for values as other parts of the world try to link up Asia into EU-style unions.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker addresses the European Parliament during a debate on The State of the European Union in Strasbourg, France, Sept.13.

A good reason to watch the struggles of the European Union is that much of the world is trying to imitate its successes. How has the EU been able to link half a billion people across more than two dozen countries for so long? In a Sept. 13 speech, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, gave the simplest answer yet: “Our values are our compass.”

By values, he meant only a few: freedom, rule of law, and equality, as opposed to oppression, personal rule, and what he called second-class citizenship. The EU was set up in postwar Europe to prevent a recurrence of such practices. Now its purpose is less defensive and more demonstrative.

“For me, Europe is more than just a single market. More than money, more than the euro. It was always about values.” Mr. Juncker said in a State of the Union speech.

Over the past decade, the EU has had to keep falling back on its ideals to survive economic and political storms, such as Greece’s ruinous debt, a refugee influx, and Poland’s attack on its independent judiciary. The latest is Britain’s planned exit by 2019. The loss of the continent’s second-largest economy may actually help the EU. More than 80 percent of a shrunken EU will be using the euro as a common currency, allowing for easier integration and trust-building. “Europe was not made to stand still. It must never do so,” Juncker said.

The EU, he might have said, is a giant geopolitical experiment in creating linkages across diverse countries. At first, the EU may have bonded in trade and hard infrastructure. But it has really endured difficult times by practicing the “soft power” of unifying principles. This lesson is now more relevant than ever as a number of powerful nations are competing with visions to connect the Eurasian landmass.

The most ambitious plan is China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which aims to build a “silk road” for the 21st century, both on land and sea. Russia has launched its own infrastructure vision through the Eurasian Economic Union. Turkey has its Vision 2023 plan to link its economy with railroads across Central Asia. Japan is using its technological expertise to create land and maritime corridors across Asia. Iran, South Korea, and the 10 nations of Southeast Asia have similar visions of being the centers of interconnecting transport and other economic activity.

What may be missing in these transborder plans are the binding values that go beyond material interests and institutional power. The EU has learned by hard experience that its “soft” ideals provide the links that endure the occasional frictions between nations. That is why a speech by a well-seasoned EU leader like Juncker comes with lessons for much of the world.

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