A long, hard year closes — let's celebrate humanity's connections

By Shada Islam, first published by Euroobserver on 20 December 2022

BRUSSELS - Once their missing plane is finally back on earth, passengers on Flight 828 in the cult US television show Manifest quickly realise their lives are inextricably entangled.

What ties them together is not obvious at first.

Their histories, demographics, geographies, and ethnicities are different, their hopes and experiences, distinct and often conflicting.

And yet, as the bewildered passengers learn from the relentless "callings": "it is all connected." Most people haven't received the memo just yet but in science fiction as in real life, it is all connected.

Covid-19 and Russia's invasion of Ukraine have spotlighted our connectivity in myriad ways.

Tackling climate change, eliminating poverty and achieving the sustainable development goals included in Agenda 2030 also require joined up actions.

Other, more nuanced lessons on connections — between people, nations, policies and institutions — are hiding in plain sight.

As a long hard year draws to a close, an uplifting message on humanity's one-ness could go out from EU leaders.

Don't count on it, however.

Forget the talk of synergies, joining forces, repeated references to Team Europe and global solidarity, working — and squabbling — in silos remains the norm on Planet Europe.

So does blaming others.

Take 'Qatargate'. European Parliament president Roberta Metsola has artfully shifted the blame for the EU's epic bribery scandal on nasty "autocratic third countries" which (surprise, surprise) hate democracy.

Unscrupulous foreigners corrupting innocent European lawmakers is a reassuringly comforting Orientalist trope.

The more astute, however, may link the EU Parliament's oddly laid-back attitude towards accountability and transparency to the ease with which Europe's "enemies" and friends can get up close and personal with MEPs — at least some of the time.

If, as some fear, the contagion spreads to other EU bodies, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's hopes for another five-year term could be in trouble.

And unless new anti-graft rules are urgently implemented, for too many voters, the 2024 parliamentary élections will inevitably and indelibly be linked to allegations of EU-wide corruption

It is all connected.

Then there's geopolitics, with global power games offering endless opportunities for easy crisscrossing between sectors. No surprises of course that Qatar has warned that the European Parliament scandal will impact negatively on its security cooperation and global energy discussions with the EU.

But stay calm and carry on. Unidentified diplomats have reassured Western media that EU countries' plans to sign long-term LNG contracts with the Gulf nation will remain untouched because, you know, Doha does not mix business and politics.

Of course not. Nobody does — until they do.

The recent commemorative summit between the EU and members of the Association of South East Asian Nations offers some food for reflection.

The gathering managed the difficult feat of securing "most" countries' approval of a joint statement which strongly condemned Russia's war in Ukraine.

That is cause for celebration, of course and declarations of undying friendship followed quickly with EU Council president Charles Michel underlining the uniqueness of EU-ASEAN relations.

Indonesian president Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, however, had some words of caution for the EU on the disconnect between its stated goal of equal ties with his country and the bloc's restrictive environmental and trade policies.

The message, linked to the EU's strict rules on palm oil imports, deforestation policies and a WTO complaint (now upheld) against Jakarta's ban on nickel ore exports, may have something to do with Indonesian elections in 2024.

Yet it is also cautionary tale on how Indonesia and others in the Global South are no longer ready to turn a blind eye to the inconsistencies between the EU's internal policies, the damaging impact they can have on EU partners and the bloc's desperate search for global friends and allies.

As Jokowi pointed out: "If we want to build a good partnership…there should no longer be anyone dictating and assuming that their standard is better than others."

It is all connected.

By now it should be clear to even the most inward-focused EU leader/policymaker that Fortress Europe with its policies to keep migrants and refugees out of Europe is a major obstacle in the EU's search for international friends and allies, including through initiatives like the Global Gateway.

The world definitely needs smart, clean and secure links in digital, energy and transport and strong health, education and research systems.

Can the EU's Global Gateway do it better than other nations, China included? Possibly.

But the strategy has — so far- failed to capture the global imagination.

Fortress Europe, with its structural racism, colonial reflexes, ever-higher fences, sinking boats, over-crowded detention camps, pushbacks and repeated violations of human rights, is one major reason.

It is all connected.

Ultimately, Europe's global influence does not depend on fancy speeches and learning the "language of power."

As EU diplomats know only too well, Europe's image hinges on the reality of domestic EU policies, not a fictionalized external version.

Fans of Manifest will have to wait until next year to unravel the mystery of what connects all 828 passengers.

Here in real life, there's no suspense involved. For all the corrosive "us and them" games we play, it is our connections, networks and link-ups that make the world go round.

Happy 2023 everyone.


Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She is also the editor of the EUobserver magazine.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of CEMAS.