As European Union member states exit COVID-19 lockdowns slowly, step-by-step, the bloc’s Brussels-based executive Commission is seeking to make up for lost time – and lost opportunities – by grabbing the initiative on a range of budgetary, economic, trade, and other measures. The message is clear: after faltering missteps at the start of the pandemic, Brussels is back in the driving seat, charting a new course, leading the Union towards a better future.
The Commission, which describes itself as ‘geopolitical’, is actively promoting ‘we’re in charge’ slogans in online debates, social media, and through good old-fashioned press releases and communiqués. There are multiple meetings among EU leaders and ministers and foreign counterparts, an array of important new initiatives and laudable efforts to revise and adapt earlier budgetary proposals to new, post-COVID-19 realities. Meanwhile Germany, the bloc’s most powerful member, is taking over the EU presidency with a vast and ambitious, mainly domestic, agenda.
It’s an enticing and uplifting narrative after a period when the EU was missing in action and national governments seized the upper hand in dealing with COVID-19, slapping border restrictions, clamping down on exports of essential pandemic related goods, and engaging in other beggar-thy-neighbour measures and policies.
However, the new ‘back to business’ EU story is only partly true. The EU certainly has a critical role to play in spearheading a European green recovery and, better still, ensuring a scenario based on ‘building back better’. But it would be a mistake to believe that European solidarity, already badly fragilised by discord over migration, is back.
A recent survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations points to deep public disappointment in the EU’s fragmented coronavirus response and European governments’ handling of the pandemic. Significantly, in Italy, one of the countries hit first by the virus, 63% said the EU failed its citizens as the pandemic tore through southern Europe and, asked who their most useful ally had been during the darkest days of the crisis, only 4% of Italians cited the EU while 25% said China.
Still, a deep reservoir of public goodwill towards the EU continues to exist, with the survey underlining that an overwhelming majority say the pandemic has convinced them that EU governments should cooperate more closely in the face of future external threats, thereby giving support to the idea that EU institutions need to take back control.
The truth is that Europe will continue to face ever-stronger daily tests. Years of efforts to build the single market and the Schengen border-free area have received fatal blows. Trust between member states is low and as Europe goes into recession and unemployment and inequality rise, the voice of Europe’s populists will become louder as they use the economic crisis to further marginalise refugees and migrants.
Therefore, EU attention will quite correctly be focused at home. But there is a gaping leadership vacuum on the global stage as well. As such, the real test of EU leadership will depend on its ability to deal not only with European problems but also with the overarching challenge of re-inventing globalisation and multilateralism.
With its unprecedented focus on the climate crisis and an expanding global conversation on the ethics and rules for IT and AI, the EU has already started placing the building blocks of a new global order. But during the lockdowns, too many EU policymakers have been declaring the death of globalisation, conveniently forgetting that the EU itself is the child of cross-border cooperation and the biggest beneficiary and standard-bearer of multilateralism.
As countries struggle to find the right tools for a rapid economic recovery, to create jobs and come to the aid of the most vulnerable, the world needs wise and inclusive economic governance. Here are some options that the EU should explore:
First, forcefully make clear that the EU believes in an inclusive rules-based multilateral order and illustrate this by building a more powerful global partnership on health. This means spearheading the drive to give the World Health Organisation (WHO) much-needed money and power to impose and monitor government health policies and ensure greater global exchange of information on health emergencies, epidemics, and pandemics. International cooperation – including the collaborative hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine – should be a priority. As such, the EU decision to hold a global vaccine summit on 27 June is important, as are calls from EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to ensure potential coronavirus vaccines are equally available to all nations.
Second, continue to press for an international financial-humanitarian rescue plan to help countries that do not have the national capacity, the money or the medical personnel to deal with COVID-19 and other future emergencies. Industrialised nations need to help workers in the gig economy. In developing countries, it’s the daily wage earners who are being hit hardest and will continue to suffer for years to come. Such measures are especially needed given the lukewarm response to the recent G20 blanket debt relief deal from both private lenders and African creditor nations who fear such help could hit their future credit ratings and access to international private finance. Encouragingly, China has promised to cancel debt for relevant African countries in the form of interest-free government loans that are due to mature at the end of 2020. This is importance since Africa owes China approximately $145 billion dollars, making the country its biggest creditor.
Third, take the much-needed, albeit difficult, decision to jettison the G-7. Once upon a time, the G-7 mattered. Set up in the 1970s when the US, Italy, Japan, Canada, France, Germany, and Britain dominated the world economy, the G-7 shaped and led the agenda. In 1998, when Russia joined (only to be kicked out 15 years later over its annexation of Crimea), Asia was in financial and economic meltdown. Times have changed. The truth is simple: the G-7 is a relic of the past, clueless, powerless and out of touch with the requirements of a rapidly changing and now very disrupted world. Europe must be brave enough to pull the plug.
Fourth, give the G-20 some much-needed oomph. The global nature of the current crisis and the search for new, innovative ways to accelerate recovery require the combined guidance and leadership of old and new economic powers. As it stands today, the G-20 is not fit for purpose. Countries in the group have different interests, diverging politics and are at different levels of development. But they are linked by the common quest for a quick economic rebound. Lacking enforcement tools, the G-20 cannot overhaul policies of sovereign nations, but collective peer pressure and some public chiding can promote greater alignment. A G-20 permanent secretariat could help achieve this.
Fifth, take a more pro-active approach to dealing with regional organisations. COVID-19 is spurring regionalism, boosting the role and heft of regional blocs. Asian nations – like in Europe – have always traded more with each other than with others. COVID-19 has accelerated that shift. Also, since the recovery and reopening are likely to be incremental and regional, with governments implementing stimulus policies to boost domestic consumption and near-shoring supply chains, regional blocs will become ever more important.
Sixth, invest more energy and effort into using the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) as a pro-active geopolitical tool. Established in 1996, ASEM brings together 53 key Asian and European players who meet regularly in different formats – summits, ministerials and at the expert-level – to discuss issues as diverse as foreign policy, security, trade, and religion. Sadly, ASEM has underperformed over the years; although recent conversations on connectivity have given it enhanced relevance.
When they meet in Cambodia in November, ASEM leaders should have a real conversation about the summit’s theme of ‘strengthening multilateralism for shared growth’, sending out a strong message on re-crafting global governance rules to reflect new realities. These include the growing popularity and need for plurilateral deals to tackle divisive issues like e-commerce and worker mobility, especially for health workers. ASEM’s long-standing acceptance of ‘issue-based leadership’ offers another way forward at times when consensus cannot be found.
To achieve this and more, European leaders will have to wean themselves off their current political, security, and economic over-dependence on the United States. As they rebuild European solidarity and speed up discussions on boosting the EU’s ‘strategic autonomy’, the long-overdue process of rebalancing EU-US relations has, in fact, already begun.