Europe’s great responsibility

The COVID-19 crisis has further weakened the multilateral system while favouring authoritarian regimes. Europe must act towards revival and modernisation of the rules-based international order, fit for the 21st century.

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

  • This article was originally published as part of the 2020 edition of Bled Strategic Times, the official gazette of the Bled Strategic Forum (BSF) international conference. You can access the full version of this and other BSF publications by visiting our official website.

The COVID-19 epidemic is both the largest and the most global crisis we have experienced since the Second World War. And it is still far from over. It is therefore difficult to anticipate all its consequences. However, it seems already clear that the crisis should in particular act as an accelerator of previous trends.

The western-led world order was already in a deep crisis before the pandemic. This is the first major crisis in decades where the US is not in the lead and the actual US administration has mostly withdrawn from the global order it has built in the past. At this stage, this crisis seems likely to complete the break-up of the multilateral system, destabilise a number of developing countries and favour authoritarian regimes all over the world.

In this global context, Europe has a great responsibility. We have been, and are still, very much affected by the crisis, both in health and economic terms. At the outset, the Union encountered serious difficulties in coordinating the health responses of its Member States and several, Italy and Spain in particular, are among the worst affected in the world. Nevertheless, the strong measures subsequently taken throughout Europe have enabled to bring the pandemic under control, even if the threat of a resumption is still there. On the economic side, Europe has reacted with greater speed and vigour than in previous crises and its social model has proved its effectiveness in absorbing shocks of this type. If it follows through on the strengthening of its internal cohesion initiated with the recovery plan adopted by the European Council last July, this crisis could lead to an improvement of its position in the world.

Europe must help countries in its neighbourhood to overcome this crisis in a democratic way and work hard to rebuild multilateralism. It must do so against the backdrop of greater US-China strategic competition. Every day we see deepening tensions between the US and China with clashes over a variety of issues. Positions are hardening with advocates of decoupling in the ascendancy in both Washington and Beijing. This US-China strategic rivalry will probably be the dominant organising principle for global politics, regardless of who wins the next presidential US elections. In that context, we need to frame our own EU approach along with a few principles that should guide us.

China is increasingly asserting itself on the international scene. This was already the trend before the current crisis, but the coronavirus pandemic has accentuated this. China has become more assertive — some say even aggressive - in its neighbourhood especially in the South China Sea or on the border with India, but also worldwide as we have seen with the recent Iran-China agreement. Also, Chinese leaders did not hesitate to leave aside international commitments with the imposition of the Hong Kong National Security Law and to develop obvious human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

In the United States, the current administration has for years now taken steps to “contain” China, in terms of trade and technology but also security. Internal difficulties in controlling the COVID-19 outbreak and the social tensions it has created have exacerbated this trend. Some even talk now in Washington about a new “Cold War”, referring to the global competition between the United States and the former USSR after World War II. However, this comparison does not make much sense: the circumstances are very different this time, not least because the USSR was never the economic power that China clearly is today with a very strong interdependence with the rest of the world.

As for Europe, we need to be clear where we stand. We must follow our own path and act in accordance with our own values and interests. This does not mean we should be equidistant from the two protagonists. Indeed, we share a long history with the United States, marked by the decisive support they gave to defeat Nazism, followed by their help to rebuild Europe. We have worked together to build a Europe ‘whole and free’.

We are products of the “Enlightenment” period and share a political system: democracy, with the people holding the government to account. In a way, we are ‘political cousins’: both are committed to political pluralism, individual rights, media freedom and checks and balances. In Europe and the US, elections matter — in China not so much. The combination of this shared history and shared values creates, a priori, a close affinity between us.

For its part, modern China was built on values and a political regime that are very different. And contrary to what many, particularly in Europe, had hoped, the economic development of China and the growth of its middle class has not resulted in a marked evolution towards democracy, with respect for individual rights, civil society and freedom to dissent. The idea of ‘convergence through trade’ has disappeared.

On the contrary, there has been in recent years less tolerance for dissent and a growing centralisation of power, particularly with regard to Xinjiang and Hong Kong. To respond to the serious situation in Hong Kong, the EU and its member states have recently adopted a coordinated response which foresees significant concrete actions.

During the last years, China has undoubtedly become more powerful, but also somewhat friendless. People respect China, but many also fear it, as it uses economic coercion. As a result, the idea of a mighty, benevolent power is fading. Where do we go from here? It must be clear that Europe still has an enduring interest to work together with China, even if difficult, on a number of global issues on which it plays a crucial role. China has necessarily to be part of global solutions to planet-size problems like tackling the COVID-19 pandemic or mitigating climate change. Unlike in certain sectors in Washington, in the European Union, we want neither to head towards a generalised strategic rivalry similar to a new “Cold War”, nor towards a broad economic decoupling.

However, with the US — and with other democracies — we do share, beyond values, a number of other deep concerns on the substance of Chinese behaviour that must be ad- dressed: the persistent lack of a level-playing field in the economic area; the distorting effects of industrial subsidies; the absence of reciprocity in procurement rules. The list is quite long. And our impatience is growing that despite Chinese commitments to address these concerns, there is insufficient follow through in terms of actual reforms.

These issues are regularly discussed with our Chinese counterparts, like in the 8th High-Level Trade and Economic Dialogue (HED), which my colleague Executive Vice President Dombrovskis held on 28 July with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He. For its part, the EU made clear that further steps and commitments are needed from China on market access, industrial subsidies, regulatory issues and other areas.

In this triangular context, the EU and the US need to analyse together what China’s global ambitions means for them, to enhance coordination and share information on our respective approaches. That’s why last June we proposed to launch a high-level EU-US dialogue on this issue to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He agreed on it and work is underway to set the modalities.

Precisely because we agree with the US on many points on China, we regret that the chosen methods in terms of American foreign policy have lately so often been unilateral in nature, without consulting the EU and, at times, harmful in substance to EU interests. Whether it is by imposing tariffs on EU products, abandoning the JCPoA on Iran’s nuclear programme, damaging global action against climate change by abandoning the Paris Agreement or sanctioning European companies involved in the Nord Stream project.

Let me give one example, among many, to demonstrate why the actual situation between EU and the US does not make sense: while the US is punishing Airbus and we pre- pare measures on Boeing, China is fully subsidising wide-body aircrafts which they will sell everywhere in the world, including to our own private companies…

To sum up: given everything that’s happening in the world and the rise in authoritarian powers, it is important to have stronger cooperation with like-minded democracies. The EU and the US should be at the heart of this effort, but we should also be working closely with Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and others.

The ultimate goal of this coordinated effort must be the revival and modernisation of the rules-based international order, fit for the 21st century. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how necessary effective multilateralism is: nobody can beat this disease alone. If COVID 19 is not beaten everywhere, it could come back easily. It has also shown how deeply interdependent we are in economic terms. Effective multilateralism is also the only chance we have to overcome the very serious ecological crisis we are facing, be it climate change or the loss of biodiversity.

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