A Bright Future for Europe is Possible

As a Polish-Canadian who grew up in Montreal, I clearly see benefits for Quebec to be part of the Canadian Confederation and for Poland within a reconciled and vibrant Europe. Today, when America and China compete for influence, it is only through Europe that individual member states can still play a constructive global role.

IMG_1085Speaking in Geneva to an eclectic audience ranging from international diplomats to political affairs students at the Graduate Institute, outgoing European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, took advantage of his newly found freedom to fire back at his critics (and those of Europe). Europe faced its share of crises over the past decade: constitutional (2005), financial, social and political, and geopolitical with the situation in Ukraine. But in opposition to his naysayers and to the “prophets of pessimism” who continue to announce the downfall of the European project, Barroso predicts that Europe will not only survive, it will grow stronger and play a growing role in global affairs.

Financial Crisis

In July 2012, at the height of the financial crunch, chief economists of European and American banks expected the exit of Greece and were split 50/50 on the survival of the Eurozone. But at the 11th hour, a political solution was found between the richest and most vulnerable members, balancing responsibility and solidarity. The Eurozone stayed united and stable. As French political economist Jean Monnet predicted, Europe will be built by meddling through crises.

lehman-colapse2-630x200To critics that claim Europe is too complacent, self-satisfied and only wants to protect its situation as the world’s premiere “retirement home” Barroso reminds that the Eurozone crisis did not originate in Europe, it was a spillover from the Lehman Brothers collapse: a “made in the USA” crisis. Something many tend to forget… But still no excuse the fragility of European Banks!

Surely, Europe confronts the same challenges as the rest of the world in terms of protectionism, unemployment, anemic growth and inequality. As elsewhere, this is fueling populist extremism and inflaming xenophobic fears. But despite the emergence of inward looking “tea-party” rhetoric in member states, Europe is in good shape. The last 10 years have tested its resilience and it has come out larger (moving from 14 to 28 member states), with better governance, while the Commission has never had so much say in European affairs. Europe also continues to be a major global player. Already much larger economically and population-wise then the United States, it remains an attractive objective for Ukraine and Turkey.

Resilient and Ambitious

By overcoming the various “stress tests” and defying conventional wisdom, Europe has shown a formidable capacity for renewal and strengthening. The Euro is stable and remains one of the two leading global currencies. This extraordinary resilience comes from Europe’s capacity for integration that is stronger then attempts for isolation and fragmentation precisely because, in a globalized world dominated by the American and Chinese heavyweights, not a single European state has the scale to matter. But a united Europe has the power to protect its interests and project its values in the world. Some member states (i.e., Germany) have realized that through Europe they can get obtain global relevance.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Unfortunately, not all members understand that on their own they are too small. Americans used to call London, their partner for historical, cultural and language reasons, to find out what is happening in Europe. Now they call Berlin. The real challenge is therefore for states to commit themselves to the European project and protect their own future. Thereby lies the challenge that will decide on the future of Europe.

Continued global relevance

As questions of human survival start to take precedence over business as usual politics, a new approach capable of providing a globally cooperative response is needed. The European adventure, enlightened by two self-destructive attempts at world domination (WWI & II) provides an innovative approach for cooperation across nations and an appealing alternative to the greed of unregulated imperial liberalism.

Connie Hedegaard.And for those inclined to discount Europe as decadent and inward looking, it is worth reminding that it was Europe that convinced George Bush to organize the first G20 meeting, that launched the most ambitious trade liberalization program in history, including the investment agreement with China that is being discussed and that remains the source of 60% of the support for development in the world. In 2007 already, Europe adopted the first international climate package with 20% reductions in greenhouse gases by 2020. Now the target is a 40% reduction by 2030, which puts Europe in the pole position on climate action.

Looking Forward

In contrast to Barroso, his successor, experienced and colorful former Prime-Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Junker did not wait to speak his mind. Prior to the secret-ballot that elected him, he asked French tea-party leader Marie Le Pen not to vote for him as he does not want the support of those who reject, hate and exclude. Among his first tasks he must deal with a new eurozone crisis in Greece, mounting anti-EU sentiment in member states, create jobs across Europe and resolve the lingering confrontation with Russia (with its influence in Syria, Iran and Libya). An exciting job description indeed…

2004 Tsunami, 10 Years Later

tsunamiOn Sunday December 26, 2004, at 0h58, the worst earthquake in 40 years reached 9.3 on the Richter scale and caused the 10 meter wave of the “Boxing Day Tsunami”. The waters devastated the Indonesian province of Aceh, killing 170,000 there. Within 90 minutes they  reached the southern beaches of Thailand, killing another 5,000+. In all, some 230,000 people died.

Early Warning Signals 

systeme_dartIn 2004, there was no global monitoring and warning system that could identify the threat and alert populations of the tsunami trajectory and time of impact. Today, a global network of 60 nigh-tech buoys helps measure the size, direction and speed of tsunami waves. The time of impact and the size of the floods are predicted based on mathematical models and past experience.

Timely information is critical. In 2004, the Indian town of Madras was hit 2 hours after the quake but the authorities had not been informed because information was only shared every 4 to 5 hours. Today, 140 seismometers are present along the Indian Ocean coasts and three regional alert centers (in Indonesia, Australia and in India) are tasked with informing all relevant countries within 15 minutes. It took 12 minutes for news of the 2012 tsunami to be relayed.

There is a cost however. It is estimated that the maintenance of the system alone costs up to $100 million a year.

Education is Key

Despite the improvements in technology and communication, risks remain and human factors may be to blame. While the 2012 tsunami alert arrived in time, most of the population of Aceh (Indonesia) tried to flee by car which blocked the entire town. The town was saved and the population survived because the announced disaster did not materialize.

The population is also tired of hearing about tsunamis and often resists prevention measures – even criticizing education programs in schools and preparedness measures implemented by the authorities. Such attitudes were also present in some of the Japanese areas affected by the Fukushima tsunami – the protection walls proved insufficient. In New Orleans, people have also rebuilt their homes in zones considered at risk.

A new Era of Global Vulnerability

Tsunami_1Until 2004, we experienced half a century with no major tsunami disasters. As a result, coastal areas have seen major developments in infrastructure and population growth – particularly in Asia. In the last decade, the two important tsunamis have caused major disasters (Boxing say in 2004 and Fukushima in 2011) in the region. This is no coincidence, most earthquake activity occurs along subduction zones. Particularly along the “Pacific Ring of Fire”.

Human activity, often related to development and associated progress is partly to blame. The destruction of “mangroves” increases the vulnerability of coastal areas to tsunami waves by removing an important buffer zone.

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Picture credit: MTA

Rising sea-levels are another aggravating factor. Water levels are now 30 centimeters higher then a century ago along the New York coast. The unfortunate timing of Hurricane Sandy coinciding with a high-tide resulted in massive floods in New York and New Jersey.

Technology can certainly help but will never be sufficient to overcome the shortcomings of human nature. The 2004 Tsunami in Aceh that killed 170,000 also allowed for the reconciliation of the authorities and rebel forces in order to rebuild their community. This is the kind of cooperation necessary to overcome the global challenges that are upon humanity – climate change, poverty, inequality… Let us hope that we will not need a global disaster to start moving in that direction.

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Why older people suffer more in environmental disasters

Climate change: A new Era of Global Vulnerability 

Town moves out of harms way