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The new third world: Is Europe old and in the way?

Paul AmesGlobalPost.com

BRUSSELS — Remember Jacques Chirac?

Back in the early 2000s, France’s president liked to taunt the US with his vision of a "multi-polar" world where a cluster of emerging powers would team up with a strong, united Europe to challenge American hegemony.

What a difference a decade can make.

This week’s G20 summit underscored that Chirac should have been careful what he had wished for.

Those powerful new global players have indeed risen. But it's Europe, debilitated by its seemingly unending debt crisis, that's seen its standing eroded, with China, Brazil, India and the rest emerging on the world stage.

"We are witnessing the political weakening of the EU on the international scene," Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a senior member of the European Parliament, told GlobalPost.

"The impact of the crisis is not only about pure economy," added the veteran Polish politician. "It is about the collateral damage being done to the union itself, its future, unity and security."

At the summit in Mexico, emerging powers berated European leaders for not solving the debt crisis.

The Europeans were further humbled by the news that their failure to calm markets meant the likes of Colombia, Malaysia and South Africa had to come to their aid, chipping in when the International Monetary Fund passed round the begging bowl in order to double its firewall against a euro-zone meltdown to $456 billion.

That triggered immediate calls for the Europeans — and the United States which refused to contribute to the additional funding — to give up their dominant positions in running the IMF.

“Emerging economies are bailing out Europe, and they need something in return," said Carlos Zarco, a spokesman for the aid organization Oxfam. "Europe has to make room at the IMF decision-making table for the rest of the world."

European Union nations have suggested they are willing to review the system that gives them a third of votes on the IMF's board.

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More worrying in the longer term for the Europeans are the political and economic implications of contributions to the IMF war chest of $43 billion from China and $10 billion from Russia.

Kremlin officials have said that the "new economic environment" means European nations should be less picky about inward Russian investment in their economies. Chinese companies have been making cut-price investments in crisis-hit countries — including Portugal's electricity grid and Greece's main port. Some European diplomats are concerned that a creeping dependence is weakening Europe’s hand in political, strategic and economic dealings with Moscow and Beijing.

The crisis is affecting Europe's world standing in other ways.

Last month's NATO summit in Chicago failed to paper over deep concerns that plunging defense spending in cash-strapped European nations is undermining their capacity to run meaningful military operations.

“During the first two years of the financial crisis, defense spending by European members of NATO fell by $45 billion,” Karl Lamers, the German lawmaker who chairs the NATO Parliamentary Assembly told a recent conference.

“In the face of such spending cuts, it is increasingly difficult for NATO members to maintain defense capabilities in an appropriate way," he added. "We have reached a critical point.”

Before the crisis, Europeans responded to American criticism of their shrinking military budgets by vaunting the EU's "soft power" — notably, winning influence by coaxing former foes to follow the EU model of working together peacefully to build security and prosperity.

More from GlobalPost: Gordon Brown: G20 summit is the 'last chance' to save the eurozone

The past three years of internal squabbling, and the growing economic disparities between the EU's north and south have left that idea in tatters.

"Europe’s declining appeal means it can no longer set an example for regional development elsewhere, thus further undermining power to shape the international agenda," Rob de Wijk, director of the Hague Center for Strategic Studies wrote in the latest edition of Europe's World, a policy journal.

"EU member states can no longer effectively defend their security and prosperity in an increasingly multi-polar world," he added.

EU governments long regarded Turkey as a poor neighbor, and cold shouldered its efforts to join the European club. Now Turkey's growth and debt levels are the envy of most EU nations. Its citizens are now richer that those in Romania and Bulgaria, and with growth rates forecast at over 6 percent for the next five years, its fast catching up with other EU members.

At the same time, interest in EU membership is waning. Data released recently by the Turkey's statistics authority showed support for joining had dropped from 63 percent to 44 percent over the past six years. Among young Turks, support fell from 74 percent to 47 percent.

For some Europe's weakness has become a joke.

When Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy reportedly texted "Spain is not Uganda" as a justification for demanding favorable terms in the EU’s bailout of debt-ridden Spanish banks this month, tweeters from the African nation delighted in pointing out that Uganda's economy is set to grow at over 5 percent this year while Spain braces for a 1.8 percent contraction.

Critics of the EU's global ambitions have been much amused by a video that emerged this week showing the bloc’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton heading to greet new Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic while searching for an aide "who knows what he looks like." 

For Americans tempted to enjoy some schadenfreude at Europe's decline, the situation might not be so funny.

Not only does the prospect of a euro zone implosion threaten to drag down the US economy, but — despite the sometimes troubled relations with the likes of Chirac — Europe is a significant and, usually, reliable ally in certain geo-strategic times. Washington would miss its presence at diplomacy's top table.