The pandemic, power rivalries and the EU


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Sieglinde Gstöhl
Sieglinde Gstöhl

Director of the Department of EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies at the College of Europe

Scholars, think tankers and policymakers are pondering whether the COVID-19 pandemic will fundamentally shift the international distribution of power or whether the current global order will largely be preserved, and where that will leave the European Union. EU member states have been hit hard with the loss of thousands of lives, severe social and economic consequences, and a glaring lack of solidarity at the start of the pandemic featuring an uncoordinated closing of borders and export bans.

The crisis has clearly highlighted Europe’s vulnerabilities: its dependence on third countries such as China for critical medical supplies as a result of years of outsourcing and just-in-time production, but also the EU’s lack of competences in public health, where member states have often sought to keep Brussels out.

Given the differences in economic and demographic growth, the balance of power is likely to shift further from West to East. Power rivalries have intensified already prior to the pandemic, especially under the current leadership in the US, China and Russia. The latter two have in recent years been rather ruthless in the pursuit of their great-power status. China is seeking recognition mainly by economic means, for instance the Belt and Road Initiative, but it has also been sabre-rattling in the South and East China Sea. Russia’s great power status is largely limited to the politico-military field and some leverage based on its energy exports. In contrast to China’s big purse policy and Russia’s (troll) army, the United States remains ‒ despite President Trump’s unilateralist Rambo politics and trade wars ‒ a like-minded partner and ally for Europe that shares the commitment to human rights, democracy and rule of law.

A geopolitical approach does not separate economic from political or even military tools. However, unlike the Westphalian nation-states, the EU’s external economic policies and its foreign and security policies have remained rather insulated from each other due to different actors and legal competences involved. Nevertheless, the EU has since 2014 sanctioned Russia over the illegal annexation of Crimea and its interference in eastern Ukraine, and in 2019 labelled China a “systemic rival” even before the von der Leyen Commission branded itself as a geopolitical Commission. Moreover, the EU accuses both Russia and China of “confuse, divide and rule” practices by spreading disinformation or by offering investment and funding with seemingly no strings attached, such as China’s ‘17+1 format,’ which includes 12 EU member states and five Western Balkan countries.

Europe has started to learn the ‘language of power’

In response to these trends, there were signs the EU was engaging more strongly and leveraging its economic weight already before the pandemic.

On the one hand, the EU has moved a step towards ‘weaponising’ trade with a reform of trade defence instruments and a screening mechanism for foreign direct investment. It has embarked on a quest for more economic sovereignty by empowering the euro; for instance through the establishment of INSTEX for business with Iran, or promoting the use of the euro for transactions in the energy, aircraft and commodities sectors.

On the other hand, the EU seeks to strengthen its strategic autonomy (i.e. the ability to make and execute decisions in foreign, security and defence policy), also in light of US calls for burden-sharing in NATO and the British departure from the EU. In this context, the EU launched in 2017 the European Defence Fund and the Permanent Structured Cooperation. Hence, Europe has started to learn the ‘language of power’, as High Representative Borrell had called for, in order to better translate its resources into geopolitical impact.

In the past, the EU has often emerged stronger from crises as member states realised the need for common action

The pandemic has fuelled the existing power rivalries through blame games, fake news and an assertive ‘face mask diplomacy’ in which the EU has not taken part. The European Union has been slow in responding to the crisis. It took a while to mobilise a multifaceted and forceful pan-European approach but it is well underway. In the end, people will judge the governments by how effectively and transparently they have handled the pandemic and its consequences, whether they showed solidarity and contributed to international efforts to address the challenges.

In the past, the EU has often emerged stronger from crises as member states realised the need for common action. COVID-19 could thus also open new opportunities; the crisis could and should propel the green and digital transitions and lead to more investment in social justice and in the resilience of European societies, democracies and economies. The European Commission is now advocating an “open strategic autonomy”. This means diversifying international supply chains in critical sectors and strategic stockpiling where necessary – a combination of just-in-time and just-in-case production and distribution. It also means developing future technologies and standards.

Europe needs to protect itself without falling into the trap of protectionism and ‘Europe First’. It needs a more strategic approach towards great powers and towards populist or authoritarian narratives that is in line with the ‘European way’ and its core values. Yet the EU cannot save multilateralism and provide global public goods alone, it needs partners. These partners may vary depending on the issue at hand, and there are more potential partners out there than the three big players. At times the EU will also have to take the lead.

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