State of the Union Conference 2021: Daily Report 1
29 Sep 2021 - 09:19

Report State of the Union Conference: Day 1 - 28 Sept 2021

Opening State of the Union Conference 2021 (09:50-10:00)

Opening statement by Monika Sie Dhian Ho, General Director of the Clingendael Institute

Political narratives give us an idea where we are coming from, and a vision of where we want to go to. They give a sense of purpose, a common future to a community, they can mobilize solidarity, define rights and obligations, and channel expectations. What story does Europe need to tell? There is a renewed urgency to discuss European narratives because of the Great Power context; the challenge of diversity within the EU; the polycrises that challenge Europe as a social and cultural community; the need to have democratic debates about our common European future; and because of the paradigm shifts that are necessary and are taking place (regarding the role of the state; the turn to a geopolitical role for Europe; and the necessity for new alliance in Europe).

Read the full opening statement of Monika Sie Dhian Ho.

Keynote speeches (10:00-10:45)

Keynote speech by Clément Beaune, Minister of State for European Affairs of France

As Minister Clément Beaune put forward in his speech, one of the key weaknesses of the European Union as a political project today is the lack of a narrative – a story that a lot of powers surrounding us are much more able than us to convey. The EU has so far been an inward looking project, which has been a success. But all the main challenges the EU is facing today, are mainly external: migration, climate change, trade competition, security and defence. If we want Europe to be able to promote or defend its values and interests in the world, we need to start combining cooperation with power. And with power also comes a narrative; there is no power with the absence of a story. “This is wat we should bring into the European DNA, to the European software.”

Keynote speech by Tom de Bruijn, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation

“Open strategic autonomy: it is the title of a narrative, but we do not always know the content of the story.” In his speech, Minister Tom de Bruijn referred to open strategic autonomy as the EU’s ability to safeguard its values and interests, in a balance between an open economy on the one hand and strategic autonomy on the other. This does not mean a ‘free for all’ economy; we have an interest in a predictable and rules-based system. But the times are changing. International trade has changed. Trade agreements are becoming instruments to enhance sustainable development. They are a support not an impediment to broader public goals. And that has nothing to do with protectionism, but with creating a better world. “To conclude more broadly: EU industries and value chains should become more resilient both economically as geopolitically. An open trading system should go hand in hand with open strategic autonomy.”

Read the full speech of Minister De Bruijn.

European narratives of the Member States: unity in diversity? (11:30-12:45)

Online conversation with Adriaan Schout, Barbara Lippert, Antonio Villafranca and Anita van den Ende. Moderated by Hussein Kassim and Wouter Zweers

In this session several experts investigated national narratives about Europe as a way of trying to understand the different meaning Europe has in different member states. What do we accept and what do we not accept from the EU as a particular form of European cooperation? The experts also talked about the evolution of national narratives. Were they stable or did they change? And what drives them? Furthermore, it was discussed to what extent the various narratives from member states cohere with each other. Does the French narrative look like the German, Dutch or Italian narratives? And, does that even matter? Finally, do any of those narratives match with the tropes of the foundational EU narrative, based on peace and prosperity?

Conversation with Zhang Weiwei, Director of the China Institute of Fudan University (13:30-14:15)

Moderated session by Monika Sie Dhian Ho and Frans-Paul van der Putten

Because the Chinese narrative is the challenging narrative at the moment, and China is a strong narrator, Clingendael invited Professor Zhang Weiwei to inform us more about the key elements of the Chinese narrative and its vision of Europe’s role in the world. According to Professor Zhang, there is a huge demand for a better understanding of China; of its successes, its challenges, its future and its global impact. However, in many parts of the world, China is predominantly defined not by Chinese but Western narratives, which are deeply flawed, according to Zhang. “It is necessary to listen to the Chinese voice and Chinese political narratives”, he said, portraying the narrative of China as a civilizational state with the capacities of a modern state.

Zhang also contrasted the Chinese-European relationship with the Chinese-American relationship. “I think Europe and China have many common interests. Not only China is now the EU’s largest trading partner, but also both continents have a history, culture and sophistication that – to be honest – many Americans don’t have.” In order for Europe to have a constructive relationship with China, we need to agree to disagree on many issues, rather than imposing Western values on others. And the role for Europe in the future global order? “It is in the European interest to really make integration stronger”, Zhang concluded. “From a Chinese perspective, if Europe cannot become a unified whole, cannot become more integrated than it is now, it cannot be really a major important player in the international arena.”

Great power narratives: a battle of narratives or making the world safe for diversity (14:45-16:00)

Online conversation with Frans-Paul van der Putten, Paul van Hooft, Mark Elchardus, Karin Mössenlechner and Ties Dams. Moderated by Monika Sie Dhian Ho and Xiaoxue Martin

Besides reflecting on the conversation with Zhang Weiwei and the existential questions it had brought up, this session was about the thesis that increasing great power assertiveness is adding urgency to the assignment of Europe to reflect on what it stands for and how it sees the future global order. As regards that ‘strategic finality’, important questions were discussed, like whether China will reverse it’s ‘one world, many systems’ narrative and strategy when it becomes more powerful and will strive for dominance of the Chinese system. Is Hong Kong an early warning in that respect or a special case? Are the EU and the Netherlands willing to put human rights within China less centre stage in their relations with China, as China demands? And is the US ready to accept a shared number one position in the world with China, or does it insist to continue it’s ‘America must lead’ narrative?

As Karin Mössenlechner concluded: “In our relationship with China, we have to cooperate where we can but protect our own interests and values where we must. Even though it has become more difficult to find areas to cooperate, we have to find a new approach in the region, despite all the challenges and differences in approach, world views and values. We have to look at China as a multifaceted country. It is our partner, competitor and systemic rival at the same time. The big challenge now is finding a modus dealing with this new reality”.

Read the column of Ties Dams.