Opinion

Mark Leonard

In 2013, the great global unraveling

Mark Leonard
Dec 30, 2012 12:14 UTC

The disparate prospects of each continent have little in common. To the extent that they can be linked by a single theme in 2013, however, it is the idea of the unraveling of the global economy and the political integration that supported it. After two decades of globalization, this year will see each of the big political theaters re-erecting barriers and focusing more on domestic repairs than on global expansion. The unraveling has its roots in longer-term trends, but it is set to step up in the next year.

There has been a remarkable stabilization within the euro zone since European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s intervention in the summer of 2012. But even as the euro zone integrates, the politics and economics of the wider European Union are likely to diverge. In practice, the measures toward an integrated banking union, increased parliamentary accountability and more incentives for reform could go hand in hand with the de facto economic and political disintegration of the EU. Economically, as Sebastian Dullien argues in a paper, “Why the euro crisis threatens the EU single market,” there is a significant risk of a gradual unraveling of the EU’s single-market system. A full euro zone breakup would shatter the euro, while a great leap toward political union could see shrinkage of the single market, as countries such as the United Kingdom withdraw from the heart of Europe.

Even muddling through the crisis seems likely to diminish the depth of the single market. In recent months, banks in the euro zone have withdrawn from trans-border business. Even poorly-managed German companies are paying significantly less interest on capital than well-managed Spanish companies. These new barriers between euro zone members will lead to a renewed focus on domestic markets. For Europe, this means less competition, less growth and higher prices for consumers.

Europe’s economic unraveling will be matched by a new political geography. The continent is already seeing a reshuffling of its elite, as the traditional political forces in many countries – from Greece to Italy to Finland to Austria – find themselves besieged by an emerging anti-political class of populists from left and right. There is also a renegotiation of the relationship between the “core” and the “periphery” – with many EU member states, including larger nations such as the UK, Poland and Spain, deeply concerned that integration is forcing them to the periphery of the European project.

Most worrying is the fragmentation of the core itself, with possibly irreconcilable differences emerging between Paris and Berlin over the future shape of the EU polity.

China’s affluence crisis

Mark Leonard
Jul 31, 2012 15:40 UTC

For most of the last 30 years China’s leaders have been kept awake at night worrying about their country’s poverty. But as the country approaches its once-in-a decade leadership transition this fall, it is China’s affluence, rather than its poverty, that is causing sleepless nights.

Deng Xiaoping declared in 1979 that the goal of China’s modernization was the creation of a “Xiaokang (moderately well-off) society, where citizens would be comfortable enough to lift their eyes above the daily struggles of subsistence. For more than a decade, Chinese people have been living a version of this once-utopian concept.

On a recent trip to the prosperous Guangdong province on the Pearl River Delta I was struck by the sophistication and wealth of China’s urban experience – but also by the fragility of the social compact on which it is founded. The country’s economic growth “slowed” to 7.6 percent in the second quarter (the weakest quarter since 2009, when 20 million Chinese lost their jobs as a result of the global financial crisis). Only last week, Premier Wen Jiabao warned of tough economic times ahead.

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