The EU and the Covid-19 crisis: emerging stronger or weaker on the international stage?

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow at Friends of Europe and former deputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges at NATO

A crisis is like a storm. When it is raging., we are all fully occupied in saving our livelihoods and our property. Only once the storm subsides can we survey the landscape to determine how much has changed, temporarily or permanently, and how much we ourselves must change so we are prepared to face similar storms in the future.

So it is with the European Union. The new European Commission under Ursula von der Leyen, the new EU Council President Charles Michel, the head of the European Central Bank Christine Lagarde, and the new intake of members of the European Parliament had barely moved into their new offices when the coronavirus struck. Whatever the plans to show the rest of the world a new “geo-political” face of the EU and to develop a European multilateralist “third way” vis-a-vis the two increasingly antagonistic power blocs of the United States and China, the EU has had to put its foreign policy ambitions on hold. Like everyone else it has turned inwards as EU member states have closed their borders and sought derogations from EU rules such as in enforcing budgetary discipline or giving state subsidies to industry.  As EU member states have argued over the extent of solidarity, the size of a Recovery Fund and mutualising expanding national deficits through devices such as “coronabonds”, the debate has been less about how the EU can project its values to the wider world and more how it can rescue itself. 27 national policies to combat the virus have collided with the desire of the EU institutions to play a coordinating role, and the fear has been that the EU project of an ever closer union will emerge fatally weakened by resurgent post-crisis populism and more state control at home.

Certainly the next few weeks will be crucial for the EU’s credibility with its member states and their citizens. Will the EU succeed in putting in place a financial package to kick start the frozen EU economies back into life, to restore the functioning of the single market and to coordinate the end of the national lockdowns in a way that spreads the recovery throughout the EU as a whole? Yet even as the EU grapples towards common solutions, it is also a characteristic of crises that the rest of the world does not stop to give institutions a breathing space to focus on their immediate problems at home. On the contrary, the lack of international attention allows the tensions and conflicts in the rest of the world to fester and worsen. At the same time, the antagonisms and blame games thrown up by the crisis itself make it harder for the major powers to come together and exercise concerted international leadership to manage the crisis, not just for their benefit but for the planet as a whole. We have just seen a blatant example of this in the UN Security Council with the US and China haggling over a Resolution proposed by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in the various conflicts around the world, to allow governments to deal with the pandemic. The US objects to references to the WHO while China is unhappy about references to the origins of the coronavirus outbreak. These issues are hardly central to humanitarian ceasefires.  The dispute underscores that what is tragic about crises is not just the damage they inflict but all the opportunities that are missed to limit that damage through decisive international cooperation and leadership. In this way we risk moving backwards in our ability to shape events while the conflicts and instabilities around us move inexorably forwards.

It is this yawning gap which has to preoccupy the EU’s leaders as they contemplate the strategic landscape at a time when the EU us emerging slowly and painfully from this first phase of the pandemic. Coming out of crises gives leaders much less room to make mistakes than getting into crises. The public and the media can be indulgent with leaders who could not have foreseen a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic and whose countries were not prepared for something so unusual: an invisible threat difficult to locate and to assess. But they will be far less tolerant of leaders who fail to learn the lessons and who make the crisis worse by failing to get the balance right between health and the economy, and easing up too quickly or too slowly.

There are six issues in particular that will define the EU’s role in the post Covid-19 world

So at a time when the decisions EU leaders will be making will be particularly important for the future of the union and its place in the post-virus security environment, this is an ideal moment for Friends of Europe to be organising the ‘EU In The World’ debate as part of the 2020 Transatlantic Security Jam. Beginning on the afternoon of 12 May and running over 48 hours, this worldwide Jam will allow prominent political leaders, experts as well as the interested public to discuss all the key issues on the EU’s security agenda. Friends of Europe looks forward to hearing your insights and opinions. Together with our guest speakers and debate moderators we will endeavour to respond to your questions, react to your views and gather your ideas and proposals. The best of these will be transmitted in a consolidated report to the EU leadership and we will engage them in a dialogue on the Jam’s major findings and policy recommendations. So please take advantage of this opportunity to join us on the Jam and make your voice heard.

There are no limits on the topics ‘Jammers’ may want to discuss. Yet for my part there are six issues in particular that will define the EU’s role in the post Covid-19 world and determine whether it will shape, or be shaped, by the new international order that emerges.

The first is the EU’s relationship with the United States – which will still be the most important and powerful country in the world on account of its economy and military, even if it is unwilling to exert its leadership. Before the crisis, Commission President Von der Leyen and Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan were planning to visit Washington to restart EU-US trade negotiations and reboot a relationship that had turned tense. So far the crisis has been a lost opportunity with both the EU and the US receiving medical supplies from China, Russia and Turkey rather than from each other. They have not led financial recovery efforts together, nor assistance to Africa and the developing countries as Brussels and the US Federal Reserve and Treasury did after the 2008 financial crisis. So can they work together now to re-open the global economy and relaunch efforts on a transatlantic trade pact in goods and services?

The second theme concerns NATO. The EU is a powerful bloc which paradoxically relies for its defence on a ring of non-EU NATO allies (the US, Canada, the UK, Norway and Turkey). These countries together pay over 70% of the total NATO defence budgets. So the EU has a crucial interest in a strong cohesive alliance that is more than just a reactive military organisation but pulls the West together in projecting stability and partnership beyond its borders. So what can the EU do to give NATO a strategic vision beyond day-to-day collective defence and crisis management and to calm the burden-sharing controversy with the US Administration?  This is certainly not the time for Germany to open a new debate on nuclear burden-sharing within the alliance by suggesting that it may oppose the stationing of US sub-strategic weapons in its territory. NATO has had a good crisis thus far in airlifting medical supplies to its allies and partners but major exercises involving US reinforcements have been cancelled or curtailed and defence budgets, which were starting to pick up after the 2008 financial crisis, could lapse back into prolonged decline. So the big question is what can the EU do to make a military contribution to the alliance more in keeping with its economic power?

The third topic is China. It has had a good crisis in terms of the aid it has provided to some EU member states and its investment in EU infrastructure like the Budapest to Belgrade motorway. But it has also had a bad crisis in terms of the defensive and even aggressive stance it has taken vis-a-vis the EU on the handling of the coronavirus narrative. This recently produced a controversy in Brussels in the light of media stories that the EU’s External Action Service had watered down a report on China’s disinformation activities in response to diplomatic pressures from Beijing. Even before the crisis, the EU was rethinking its relationship to China to reflect the fact that a more assertive China was as much a rival and competitor as it was a partner. China is unlikely to emerge from the crisis in a more docile frame of mind and its worsening relationship with the US will put the EU in the invidious middle position of having to choose which side to take. So how can the EU uphold its values and interests with respect to China in a way that exerts real influence in Beijing?

We all have an interest in seeing the EU emerge unscathed from this crisis

The fourth topic concerns the developing world and the many conflicts unfolding on the periphery of Europe. The Covid-19 pandemic may have reached Africa and the Middle East later than Europe or the US. But because of the poor public health infrastructure, poverty levels and insufficient governance in these regions, the virus may have a much more devastating and long-term impact. The EU cares about the fate of Africans and Arabs because of its values. Yet it also knows that political and social breakdowns in these regions close to its own borders will inevitably affect its own security and political cohesion, as we saw in the recent massive flows of migrants. So what can the EU do to help resolve the conflicts in places like Syria, Libya and the Sahel that can interact so toxically with the pandemic? How can it better coordinate its actions and rally the global community behind a comprehensive aid programme to assist the most stricken regions to its south and east?

In fifth place is the theme of resilience. The last decades have seen an almost unprecedented succession of rapid shocks to our societies, from terrorist attacks, to financial meltdowns, extreme weather events related to climate change, cyber intrusions and now pandemics. The EU has had to upscale its activities in the area of resilience and its assistance to its member states. Two solidarity clauses were inserted into the 2010 Lisbon Treaty. Health was not part of the EU’s mandate before the Covid-19 crisis, but this crisis demonstrates once again that no member state can handle let alone recover from a pandemic without the assistance of its EU partners. So what are the lessons to be learned from the crisis in terms of EU preparedness, response mechanisms and resilience? Should health now become a formal EU responsibility?

Finally, where do we stand now with EU ‘strategic autonomy’?  This concept was in search of a precise definition before the crisis. Was it mainly military or also economic and industrial?   What capabilities would be needed to make the goal of EU strategic autonomy achievable, and according to which missions and priorities? One particular concern has been that the EU, economically weakened by the crisis, would be more vulnerable to hostile takeovers or controlling stakes in its critical infrastructure and high-tech companies. Currently only 14 of the 27 EU member states have comprehensive regulations on the screening of foreign investment. So does the EU need to be more vigilant in protecting its defence and technology industrial base and is there a larger role for Brussels here?

We all have an interest in seeing the EU emerge unscathed from this crisis and with greater legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. The post Covid-19 world is not shaping up to be a more harmonious or cooperative one. It will need a strong, influential EU willing and able to promote its own model and to speak on behalf of the dispossessed. The EU does not control everything that happens to it and events out of its power often force its hand.  But It is not helpless either. What is needed urgently is the right diagnosis and creative but achievable ideas to move Europe forward. The Security Jam will soon be open to bring together the best and the brightest in both categories. I am very much looking forward to it.

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