Geopolitical landscape: BREXIT, Trump, European elections, populism, and terrorism:

how much is too much?


Baroness Catherine ASHTON – Former EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Vice President of the European Commission

Sir Simon FRASER – Former Permanent Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Enrico LETTA – Former Prime Minister, Italy

Moderated by Adrian DEARNEL – Founding Partner, EuroBusiness Media


Unexpected events marked 2016 and the beginning of 2017. They have affected the political, economic, and financial landscape, putting globalization and international trade in question, and allowing populism to flourish. Geopolitical risks have grown and migratory flows and terrorism are becoming more challenging. However, the increasingly multi-polar world is not just a threat for Europe, but also an opportunity, if handled correctly.


Turning first to the unpredictability of US policy with the election of Donald Trump, the panellists agreed with Professor Feldstein that what counts is the reality not the rhetoric. However, Simon Fraser cautioned that in diplomacy rhetoric matters, since finding solutions takes a long time and can be sidetracked by rhetoric. But even Mr. Trump is learning that he cannot dictate terms to all countries, and Europe is no exception. Enrico Letta, stating that “we have to be adults alone in Europe” cautioned that Europe cannot do without the existing international framework, and that countries must stand together. This, fortunately, is a key point in the agendas of Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.
Climate change is an example. The panellists bemoaned the loss of American leadership, but proved confident that the reality is unavoidable and will lead others to act, including the private sector. While Europe has a head start, Mr. Letta sees climate change as another area for Sino-European rapprochement and leadership.


Turning to Brexit, Mr. Letta lightheartedly stated that Europe needs external threats, such as Trump and Brexit, to function, and “thanked” Trump for pushing European integration. He sees a unique window of opportunity for Europe over the next 18 months, starting after the German election, and ending after the first year of the Macron presidency and Mario Draghi’s term at the ECB. This, he believes, is the best time for action since Maastricht 25 years ago. Mr. Fraser agreed, and added that it is ironic that threats to Europe come from its former stabilizers, the US and the UK. Catherine Ashton, echoing a frequent refrain throughout the day, hailed the reestablishment of a strong “European couple” with Macron’s election and the likely reelection of Angela Merkel.

“When every person facing a problem turns into a journalist who is able to tweet or send you a video message, diplomacy is not given the time and space to do its job.”

Catherine ASHTON


Concerning migration, the panelists felt that the longterm challenge for Europe comes from sub-Saharan Africa, not the Middle East, since African populations are booming and becoming better educated and more mobile. The Middle East and North Africa, are “our neighbors, but don’t represent an existential problem”, stated Mr. Fraser. Migration, as well as terrorism, added Mr. Letta, are tests for European solidarity, replacing the debt agenda. Europe needs a long term strategic approach to address these problems, and not a short term fix as has been the practice, specified Ms. Ashton.


On another major theme of the day, populism, all were pleased with the recent election defeats of populists, but warned that populism’s underlying causes must be addressed. People will continue to “seek simplistic answers to complicated problems,” said Mr. Fraser, and politicians need to find solutions that demonstrate to the disaffected that they have a fair stake in the economy. The cosmopolitan elites in Europe are so content that they have forgotten that others are not, added Mr. Letta. Europe needs better storytelling to reach the people at the grassroots. “We must sell the value of European cooperation and the EU.”

“As usual, Europe needs external threats, and we have two fantastic external threats in 2016: Trump and Brexit. We have a very short but very important window of opportunity for Europe.”

Enrico LETTA


Concerning European leadership, Mr. Letta asserted that Germany, in particular, has a bad image, stemming from its default leadership during the financial crisis. Now, for the first time since the era of Kohl and Mitterrand, there is more balanced leadership in Europe, and at a time when it is needed for more than just economics and finance. Most problems cannot be solved by single countries, added Ms. Ashton, so diplomacy must be given a chance. However, with social media and the internet everyone has become a journalist and commentator, not allowing the experts to take measured decisions.
Concerning final recommendations for Europe, the panellists called for political determination to make Europe work, while not losing site of the rest of the world. Adding, that this should include specific measures such as a banking union and strengthened European Support Mechanism. Mr. Letta stated that, “the new normal is crisis, and we must tackle this together”.

“The issue about populism is that it always manifests itself in terms of people seeking simplistic answers to complicated problems.”