Europe: Relations with the wider world

Establishing relations: Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang meets European leaders in June. © PA

Today, Europe attracts over half of the world’s tourists and a large proportion of global trade. But will competition from outside reduce its appeal to traders, visitors and diplomats?

As the UK parliament rose for the summer in late July, plenty of MPs got ready for some holiday. David Cameron, though, was first packing his bags for a working trip to southeast Asia. In explanation, the prime minister said: ‘Over the next 20 years, 90% of global growth is expected to come from outside Europe, and Britain must be poised to take advantage.’

The relationship between European countries and the outside world is likely to come under scrutiny during the debate over Britain’s place in the European Union (EU). The continent continues to attract interest from outsiders — it welcomes more than half of the world’s tourists each year, US President Barack Obama spoke in July of the importance of the ‘transatlantic union’, and the EU is the biggest export market for around 80 countries.

But questions are arising over whether all that will be maintained. The Eurozone crisis has created uncertainty over European prosperity and the controversy over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a free trade deal between the EU and the USA, may fuel suspicion between the people of Europe and the rest of the world.

European knowledge of, and interaction with, the wider world has been a relatively modern development. Following Christopher Columbus’s expedition of 1492, Europeans took great interest in exploring the ‘New World’ which opened up before them. Over the coming centuries European settlers, led by the English, made their way to North America, while Spanish and Portuguese sailors set out for Central and South America.

Centuries of economic and imperial rivalry followed. European monarchs fought for the treasures the New World bestowed, and competing empires took control of lands in Africa, Australasia and Asia. A more cooperative relationship only emerged after empires were disbanded in the mid-20th century.

What’s next?

Political scientist Dr Douglas Webber believes that Europe is now a declining force in the world. Its response to recent crises over the euro and Ukraine have shown it to be weak and divided. Attempts to take the lead on issues such as the environment have failed, and its members are cutting their defence budgets. Countries looking for a partner to protect their security and trade will soon be looking elsewhere.

Dr Webber’s peers, Mark Leonard and Hans Kundnani, disagree. When taken as a united bloc, the EU still possesses the largest economy in the world and the second-highest defence budget, and attracts trade from around the globe. A large group of developed countries, which has built up expertise and resources and learnt the bitter lessons of division and conflict, will always be at the centre of world affairs.

You Decide

  1. Is Europe’s influence in the world declining?
  2. Would leaving the EU damage Britain’s standing in the world?


  1. Create an advert on behalf of a European tourist board, to be shown around the world, encouraging people to visit the continent.
  2. Write an itinerary for a trip around the world, on behalf of Philip Hammond, the British Foreign Secretary. List 10 places you think he should visit, and explain your choices.

Some People Say...

“The world itself has become a smaller place.”

Madhuri Dixit

What do you think?

Q & A

How is Europe becoming more connected to the rest of the world?
Since the world’s first jet airliner flew from Johannesburg to London in 1952, international travel and advances in communication have rapidly made the world more accessible. It is now straightforward and normal for people in developed countries to go abroad on holiday or on business, including for prolonged periods of time, and to do business across international frontiers.
How could I take advantage of this?
You could travel abroad now – each year many British teenagers go on language exchanges even to countries such as China. You could also travel as part of a summer project or gap year; many charities, for example, are keen to recruit volunteers to help provide education or basic services in developing countries.

Word Watch

This deal, which is currently being negotiated between the EU and the USA, is designed to make trade between the two easier. Proponents say that it will allow the creation of many more jobs by helping to break down barriers to transatlantic trade. But opponents say it will remove protections which help to safeguard workers’ rights and public services.
Imperial rivalry
Britain and France formed particularly large empires in the 19th century; the British Empire covered almost a quarter of the world’s land mass at the height of its power, including land on five continents. During the First World War of 1914-1918, they would fight against the empires of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Turkey (known as the Ottoman Empire). The competition for land between the empires was a major factor in causing the war.
Empires were disbanded
After the war, Britain and France had little money or ability to maintain their empires, and many of the people within them demanded independence. Most notably, India and Pakistan became independent countries, having previously been ruled by the British.


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