The necessary hypocrisy of a geopolitical Europe

Ask a cheerleader for the EU why its trade and regulatory policy is better than America’s and back comes a familiar answer. The US, it seems, cares only for power, leverage and mercantilist market access, whereas Europe is about values.

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this claim was open to well-founded charges of hypocrisy. But as Brussels expands its ambitions at a time when trade remains one of its strongest policy tools, it’s going to find the tension between principles and power growing ever bigger.

The commitment to values means trade access to the EU’s huge and lucrative market has increasingly been loaded up with conditions on human rights, labour standards and the environment. Sometimes these concerns are evidently genuine, whether they will achieve their aims or not. The EU spent a long time in 2020, for example, agonising about exactly which trade preferences to withdraw from Cambodia because of human rights abuses by the state, weighing its uncertain political influence on the government against certain job losses in the garment export industry.

Sometimes they look more like disguised protectionism. French beef farmers, not known for their principled environmental activism, took a strong interest in Amazonian deforestation when the EU’s draft trade deal with Mercosur threatened their domestic market share by admitting cheaper imports from Brazil.

And increasingly, trade conditions are vulnerable to even darker motives. The EU, while cynically putting its restrictive migration policy under the rubric of “protecting our European way of life” (an outcry rightly forced it to change the label) has shown repeated disregard for international law and human rights, with illegal pushbacks of asylum seekers and other migrants across the EU’s external borders.

It agreed a pretty sordid fix during the migration crisis of 2015-16 by paying Turkey to take refugees heading for Europe, and an even more morally reprehensible deal with Libya — this has involved thousands of migrants disappearing into “black prisons” where rape, torture and murder are common.

Now trade policy has also been pressed into service to enforce immigration rules. As the FT revealed last week, the European Commission has proposed removing trade preferences from countries that do not accept asylum-seekers whose applications to remain in the EU have failed. The rationale is that their origin countries (Mali, Senegal and Guinea chief among them) need the best and the brightest to stay at home and boost growth there.

This rationale is transparently self-serving and based on the outmoded concept of a “brain drain”: the smarter development economists are attempting to retire it as a pejorative and counterproductive idea. (The argument was also traditionally used by Brexiters opposing central and eastern European emigration to the UK — odd company for the Commission to be keeping.) Remittances, knowledge transfer and other benefits from emigrants help their origin countries far more than trapping productive workers in a dysfunctional economy.

Some members of the European Parliament are trying to strip out those asylum seeker conditions. They deserve to succeed. This is not joined-up trade and migration policy. It’s the misuse of trade to pander to domestic anti-immigration sentiment. You can justify trying to get countries to take back failed asylum seekers: after all, it is the law. But you cannot dress up the coercive threat of withdrawing market access as an international development strategy and expect to be taken seriously.

As and when the EU starts to fill out the geopolitical mantle it has ambitiously draped around its scrawny frame, it will encounter more such tensions. The most obvious is the Commission’s quixotic plan (joined by several member states) rapidly to admit a post-conflict Ukraine to the EU.

The strategic logic is undeniable, establishing Ukraine within the EU’s orbital pull without the full military implications of joining Nato. But under normal circumstances, there’s no way Ukraine would get into the EU without years, perhaps decades, of painful reform. Despite already having very good trade access, Ukraine remains poor and deeply corrupt. Before the Russian invasion provided a strategic motive, you can just imagine the frothing in a rightwing tabloid like Germany’s Bild about admitting another subsidy-hungry eastern European country with shaky adherence to the rule of law.

True, various member states are resisting Ukraine’s application. It’s not clear how things will turn out. But either way the EU will have to choose between strategic influence and consistency of values.

Hypocrisy often accompanies power. The US spent the cold war proclaiming its adherence to democracy while installing and propping up governments headed by a global rogues’ gallery of thieves and mass murderers. Maybe the EU will continue to proclaim one thing and do another, to relabel cynical self-interest as “European values” as it has over migration and to prioritise security against Russia over democracy and good governance. Maybe, at least in the case of the latter, that’s the best thing to do. But it might help the clarity of debate if European leaders admitted the contradiction. And even if it does not, there’s no reason any of us should stop pointing out such two-facedness for what it is.

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