The European Council on Foreign Relations organised today its first briefing, presenting the results of a world-wide survey (PDF) conducted by Gallup International on the balance between hard and soft power. The survey covered a range of questions on the global influence of several international actors, including the EU, the US, China and India. Mark Leonard, Executive Director of the ECFR, chaired a somewhat drowsy panel that included Lord Desai, Robert Kagan and Ivan Krastev. The conclusions? Since the EU is the least hated of all the major powers, this should be interpreted as a sign that it should be given greater clout internationally. Alas, the newly-born think-tank gave away a strangely familiar smell of old habits.
A proper debate with the audience, packed with policy wonks and senior civil servants, never really kicked off. The elephants in the corner were carefully left dormant. If the EU has more power, what does this mean for the Member States? Can we realistically expect them to step aside and let go the reigns, especially those that have never really lost the appetite for world domination? And if it develops a stronger role internationally, will this come at the expense of its real (or perceived) soft power? And does all this matter at all, since the Commission has been promoting a stronger global role for the EU long before anyone was asked whether they supported it or not? How does this fit with the idea of a democratic Europe? Or is foreign policy – as Kagan was suggesting – something that should be still dealt with by the old boys in the corridors of power? None of these provocative questions was really raised during the debate.
Instead, discussion turned quickly to the US – why everyone hates it, why it doesn’t matter, why it should, etc. – while the topic of the EU was pushed aside. Clearly, even for the panelists there were more interesting subjects to discuss. To be fair, the ECFR made an effort to engage the broader public in the debate, for example by posting some interesting throughts on the survey (but receiving only 1 response at the time of writing). However, the briefing was strangely reminiscent of those dull Brusselite luncheons where everyone is too polite to start a proper discussion. The only one who did, Lord Desai, ranted on about a chart in the handouts, only to be gently told that he was reading it upside down, and then made some completely unfounded statements about how the Enlargement and the Single Market have failed (sic!). Everyone else sat silently in their dark suits (even the very few present women appeared dressed for a funeral). This was hardly stuff that gets people excited about the EU in the world.
Now, I know I am being a little harsh, but this is because I really think the ECFR has huge potential, and I want it to succeed. However, if it truly wants to rock the debate on Europe – especially in the UK – it’ll have to be a little more daring and provocative than today. So here are my 3 little suggestions to make the next event more captivating and perhaps memorable:
1. A more diverse panel: less pompous academics (notoriously allergic to criticism) and younger, more unconventional thinkers with strong and sustained views on the subject could have generated a much livelier debate, and perhaps generated 2-3 more challenging ideas about the role of Europe in the world. For example him. Or her.
2. A richer audience: I am not sure who everyone in the audience was, but if my understanding of English fashion doesn’t fail me, most were civil servants, press officers (not journalists) and the odd think-tank refugee. People from more diverse backgrounds (business, media, NGOs, even students) could have thrown in some hard questions at the survey and at the panel. In line with the ECFR’s stated objective of being truly 2.0, why not – for example – invite next time also a sample of some of the most provocative and interesting British Euro-bloggers (them, or him, to begin with)?
3. A cooler venue: the Foreign Press Association felt like one of those old boys’ clubs, where men used to go smoke cigars and discuss politics away from the madding crowds. The ECFR debates should happen instead in exciting new venues, where businessmen, artists, creators, or architects hang out, and where think-tanks rarely set foot. London is awash with exciting places where to hold events. One example for all, the Bloomberg Space:
There, I said it all. Now let’s hope I haven’t just secured my banning from all future ECFR events…!