(Post)-pandemic geopolitics: together in a world apart


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Josep Borrell Fontelles
Josep Borrell Fontelles

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission for a Stronger Europe in the World

After 18 months and several waves, the European Union is getting out of the tunnel – even if we need to remain vigilant because of the Delta variant. However, while the EU is leaving the pandemic behind, the virus is still raging in the rest of the world.

In South America, mortality stands at 3,500 deaths per day, half of which are in Brazil: this is more than 10 times the number of deaths in the EU today. In Africa, the total number of deaths is rising by 23% per week and the continent’s vaccination rate is still under 3%, whereas 50% of the EU population has received the first dose of the vaccine. Outside China, cases are rising fast and the situation is worsening in large parts of Asia too.

For the world, the pandemic will not be over until 2023. By then, our world will look very different: less ‘Western’, more digital and much more unequal – within and between countries.

Solidarity and self-interest point in the same direction

The determining factor for managing the pandemic is the availability of vaccines. It is impossible to overstate their importance. Where politics has often given divisions and competition, science and collaboration have given us vaccines.

The EU is still the only region to vaccinate its own population and export half of its production, while being a leading donor to COVAX. The EU has delivered a total of 3.2mn doses to the Western Balkans through exports, COVAX and donations. The total figure for sub-Saharan Africa is 9.5mn. This is nowhere near enough. Access to vaccines is the great fault line in the world today. Vaccine inequality will drive a very unequal recovery, leading to a more unequal and hence unstable world.

COVAX is vital but not yet delivering in large enough volumes, in part because India is not exporting vaccines. As China, Russia and others play the vaccine diplomacy card in the EU’s neighbourhood and around the world, the EU must increase its donations to a minimum of 100mn vaccines this year. In addition, it is also essential to build up global production capacity, especially in Africa.

According to IMF calculations, if 40% of the world’s population is vaccinated this year and 60% by the middle of 2022, we will gain $9tn in output by 2025, with advanced economies benefitting from 40% of the predicted gain. Failing to vaccinate people globally leaves fertile ground for new mutations that could come back to the developed world. Therefore, solidarity and self-interest point in the same direction.

These trends are unfavourable for a predictable world of rules-based multilateralism

It is hard to summarise the outlook for our post-pandemic world but five trends are clear: none are fully new, but all accelerated by the crisis. The first is unprecedented competition between states, shaping a world of competitive nationalism, power politics and zero-sum games. Secondly, our world is becoming more multi-polar than multilateral, with the strategic competition between the United States and China often paralysing the United Nations Security Council, World Trade Organization and World Health Organization.

Thirdly, although we have stopped travelling as individuals, globalisation continues. Interdependence is increasingly conflictual and soft-power is weaponised: vaccines, data and technology standards are all instruments of political competition. Next, some countries follow ‘a logic of empires’, arguing in terms of historical rights and zone of influence, rather than adhering to agreed rules and local consent. Finally, the world is becoming less free and democracy is under attack – both at home and abroad. We face a real battle of narratives.

These trends are unfavourable for a predictable world of rules-based multilateralism favoured by the EU, based on open markets, positive-sum games and solidarity and with people and countries free to shape their own lives.

We have to treat the world as it is. This is not to say we should accept it but rather base our policy choices on a realistic assessment. These five trends should be viewed as a call to action.

The agenda is vast, but EU needs to step up when it comes to its neighbourhood

Going forward, three mega challenges will determine the EU’s future role in this post-pandemic world: how do we deal with a more ‘crowded’ neighbourhood? What is the EU’s position in its strategic triangle with the US and China? And how do we ensure effective action on global challenges, especially the climate crisis and the regulation of technology?

The EU’s neighbourhood has become ‘crowded’ and competitive, with Russia, Turkey and others employing hybrid tactics. At the same time, we know that the people in the neighbourhood want more from Europe, delivered faster and better. The European model of democracy, solidarity, freedoms and fundamental rights remains extremely powerful and attractive. We must continue to work with anyone that shares our vision.

That means maintaining our commitments with the Western Balkans and keeping the whole region on a European path, which includes reviving the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue. That means supporting Ukraine when it faces Russian aggression and as its reform agenda brings the country closer to the EU. That means continuing to put pressure on the regime in Belarus for the oppression of citizens. That means supporting Libya and its new national unity government. And that means doing all we can to prevent a catastrophe in Lebanon due to the political stalemate. The list goes on.

The agenda is vast, but EU needs to step up when it comes to its neighbourhood, both by demanding and by offering more.

It’s crucial to keep in mind that the EU and US have a shared history

The second mega challenge is how to steer the EU’s course in the US-China-EU strategic triangle – and how to mix elements of cooperation and competition into a coherent strategy.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party – a chance to underline its historic achievements but also send a defiant message. President Xi Jinping warned that foreign powers will “get their heads bashed” if they attempt to “bully or influence” the country.

Growing Chinese influence, built on centralisation at home and assertiveness abroad, is recognisable everywhere, and cooperation with China is getting more difficult. This is in part due to the EU’s linkage between market access and human rights. However, with 25% of all global growth in 2021 expected to come from China, economic cooperation remains essential.

Meanwhile in the US, the talk is about seeing China as a partner, competitor and rival, as the EU does, but there is a bipartisan consensus that strategic competition will dominate the relationship. For US President Biden this is about democracies versus authoritarian powers, which was the main framing for the recent G7 and NATO summits.

US-China strategic competition will shape the world for decades to come, and the EU needs to steer a clear course. The Biden team has welcomed the relaunch of an EU-US dialogue on China. It’s crucial to keep in mind that the EU and US have a shared history and our political systems are the product of the Enlightenment even if our interests are not always identical.

A lot of EU-China work is about doing our homework regarding investment screening, foreign subsidies, 5G, procurement, anti-coercion instruments and developing an Indo-Pacific strategy.

Europeans need to work hard to help set the rules for the future

Finally, we face a crisis of multilateralism. Even after the ‘return’ of the US under Biden, the supply of multilateral action is still less than the demand. The revival of multilateralism is critical if we are to deliver on the big issues. Climate change and technology are two exemplary tests for the multilateral system.

Freak weather is not something that will happen in the future, it’s already happening today; two weeks ago, it was 49.6°C in Canada. Global warming is happening twice as fast in the Arctic. We are moving past all sorts of ‘tipping points’. A world of 3°C warming by 2100 – which is the current trajectory – is radically different from 1°C or 2°C warming. COP26 in Glasgow is the probably the last moment to still halt runaway climate change, but this will require a radical acceleration of global efforts. Climate change is also a geo-political issue. It will create new security threats and shifts in global power.

Multilateralism also needs to deliver on technology, specifically on standard setting for Artificial Intelligence, data (the oil of the 21st century), autonomous weapons, cloud services and surveillance. Who will set the rules? On what basis and values?

Throughout history, control over technology has determined who runs the world. Can we continue to rely on the ‘Brussels effect’ if none of the Big Tech companies are European? Europeans need to work hard to help set the rules for the future.

This article is derived from a speech delivered by HRVP Josep Borrell at the Dubrovnik Forum on 9-10 July 2021.

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