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9 June 2016

Kofi Annan 1938-2018: his 2016 interview with Gordon Brown

The late UN secretary general discussed the EU's future with Brown ahead of the 2016 UK referendum. 

By Kofi Annan

What can we learn from the 50-year history of the European Union?

The EU was built from the rubble of two world wars and has ensured peace and prosperity for a generation of Europeans. The creation of a family of nations based not just on common economic interests, but on common values, is unique. Interestingly, critics of the EU denounce losses of national sovereignty and national identity which, ironically, are much more likely to take place when a country decides to go it alone – unless it is the size of China or India. The forces of globalisation will challenge national identity and sovereignty much more unless nations join together to shape and deflect those forces in a lasting manner.

How far is Europe damaged by its inability to deal with the refugee crisis?

The European house is not yet fully built, and yet crises, wars and globalisation have already battered its unfinished structures and institutions. I would guess that most Europeans share this diagnosis but differ on how to move forward. One segment of the population wants to leave the house behind, tear down the walls and revert to a pre-EU situation. The other segment wants to reform, where reform is needed, and give the construct the stability and agility it needs to deal with the crises facing it, along with other challenges such as climate change, violent extremism or inequality.

It is regrettable that the refugee crisis, which should have united Europe, has instead divided it. A common European approach would have made the crisis eminently solvable. A community of 500 million people could have absorbed one to two million refugees. Smaller and less prosperous nations have done much more.

The route Europe chooses is up to its citizens but it is evident that big challenges cannot be dealt with by one country alone.

How important is it that the EU is committed to gender equality?

I can’t overstate how important this is: there is no tool for development that is more efficient and effective than the empowerment of women. This is a perfect example of how Europe aligns political and economic imperatives with moral and ethical ones. Values such as these are what makes the EU politically, economically and ethically attractive to millions of women and men in Europe and beyond.

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How far has integration in Europe been a model for Asia, Africa and elsewhere?

The EU is the envy of much of the world. Other regions are striving to make similar progress, be it the African Union, the Association of South-East Asian Nations or the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. Europe needed two world wars to mobilise the political will necessary to imagine a different future for itself. Today it inspires other parts of the world which also see the benefits of co-operation and collaboration over competition and fragmentation.

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How important is a common European foreign and defence policy?

Europe will be able to deal with enormous challenges if it speaks with one voice. We saw this in the negotiations with Iran around the nuclear deal. Europe, represented by the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, played an important role in ensuring a successful outcome. Europe needs to decide whether it wants to be a global player – or many regional players. If it wants to be the former, pooling resources and creating robust common institutions will be inevitable.

Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to people voting in the UK referendum?

We live in an increasingly interdependent and globalised world. No nation can afford to be too isolated. What unites the people of Europe is greater than what divides them. Despite some shortcomings, the European Union project has been a triumph and all the member states should strive to strengthen rather than to weaken it.

Kofi Annan was UN secretary general from 1997 to 2006 and is the chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation

This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe