According to chaos theory, the butterfly effect refers to those tiny events leading to major, long-term variations in a system. The metaphor provides a moderately optimistic outlook for Europe’s influence in the 21st century world: any lasting advance in Europe’s global reach is unlikely to be executed through a grand plan; it will at best happen through some key, imperceptible, developments that may produce broader, though not entirely planned, consequences.
Strategists, always fascinated by the big picture, have rarely looked at the matter this way. During the first half of the noughties, many an observer exuded unbound confidence in Europe’s global ambitions. The introduction of the Euro and the accession of ten new member states from Europe’s east were to crown the EU as an unstoppable force in global affairs. A thinly-veiled shadenfreude for the quagmire that America was making for itself in Iraq did not hurt the cause.
The sources of Europe’s might were apparent. As multinational corporations contravening the Union’s competition rules well know, the EU is arguably the world's leading regulator. In order to sell their products in the European market, producers worldwide comply with the precautionary principle on environmental or health-related risks. Europhiles were also keen to point out that the world was being modeled on the image of Europe through the emergence of regional groupings such as the African Union and ASEAN in Southeast Asia.
Over the past couple of years, on the contrary, not a week has gone by without an irrevocable post-mortem being pronounced on Europe’s aspirations. According to the Lisbon Treaty, the new key posts of EU president and foreign policy supremo are meant to strengthen the EU’s image on the world stage. Yet, leaders of the EU member states were accused of choosing compromise figures that could not overshadow them. At the Copenhagen Climate summit in December last year, the EU performed miserably and was marginalized in the negotiations by China and the United States. The slow response to the Greek tragedy has shown that political integration lags dangerously behind the economic one.
For all the present gloom, the truth is as always somewhere in the middle. The EU was never meant to take the world by a storm; but it is not a delusional conclave of old countries either. From sub-Saharan Africa to the Palestinian authority, the EU remains the largest donor in many parts of the globe. For all the troubles of Turkey's EU bid, the prospective accession of the Balkan countries within the next decade will constitute an accomplishment of historic proportions, especially in light of the European blunders of the 1990s.
Above all, and typically for the European integration project, the EU global power will have to be found in the myriad technical measures that nobody really notices, and that will spill over into other fields, gradually and almost accidentally amounting to a strategic vision.
An example makes the point. A couple of months ago, a group of wise persons headed by former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzales, and on which these pages have commented extensively, released a set of recommendations on the future of Europe for the next 20 years. One foreign policy priority focused on the introduction of a common visa policy and a consular service within the EU’s nascent diplomatic service.
Why such an emphasis on something so technical which most western citizens will most probably never even hear about? Because at the moment, EU visa application for third country nationals can be a cumbersome, arbitrary and often humiliating process. Many of the younger and better educated migrants craved by Europe give up and continue to opt for the US’s east coast or Silicon Valley instead. The release of visas concerns what kind of immigrants Europe receives and how it welcomes them. So what is at stake is the future of Europe’s aging populations and of its anemic labor markets. A more integrated bureaucracy is only a minor piece in the intricate puzzle of Europe’s troubled immigration policy. Immigration itself is not the most obvious foreign policy priority. But as in much of the history of the EU, the domestic and foreign realms often coalesce and bureaucracy might just be the only place available to start making change.
The ongoing global disorder has determined an increasingly competitive environment. The fault lines between conflict and cooperation among a plethora of different world actors are going to get fuzzier. Europe is not equipped to react swiftly and boldly. It will stand a chance if it identifies small niches where it tries to perform better. To be sure, even the smallest of measures needs serious political backing in order to fly. The hope is that the European butterfly flapping its wings in some remote corner of the world will eventually produce major, tangible effects elsewhere; starting from the non-smoking rooms of many European capitals.