What European foreign policy in times of COVID-19?
Josep Borrell FontellesHigh Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
What European foreign policy in times of COVID-19?
Josep Borrell FontellesHigh Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
What European foreign policy in times of COVID-19?
For the European Union and its foreign policy, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis will closely depend on the decisions we take in the coming months.
We are living through a serious crisis of multilateralism. The G7 and G20 are virtually absent; the UN Security Council is paralysed and many sectoral structures, such as the World Trade Organisation or the World Health Organisation, are being turned into arenas where countries are fighting each other.
For the first time since the beginning of the 20th century, we are experiencing a crisis in which the United States has not played a leading role so far. At the same time, China is increasingly asserting itself on the world stage. Everywhere, authoritarian regimes are on the rise.
The current crisis is also responsible for growing divergences between countries. Not all countries have the same capacity to face the challenges posed by the pandemic. This situation is leading to a backsliding in terms of global poverty and inequality.
The combination of these trends makes the situation difficult for Europe. While the election of Joe Biden in the United States opens up more encouraging prospects for multilateralism and our democratic values on a global scale, we should not expect miracles.
Is Europe too divided to have a real foreign policy?
To make our foreign policy more effective, I have insisted since the beginning of my mandate that the Union must “learn to speak the language of power”. I am often told that it is too divided to achieve this goal.
I have been involved in European politics for many years now and I am of course aware of how different the Europe of 27 is from the Europe of 12. The divisions within Europe have undoubtedly increased since its eastward enlargement. However, this is not the only line of division. The “divide” on migration, for example, is not solely West-East, and the North-South “divide” between debtors and creditors mainly affects countries that were already members of the Union before its latest enlargement.
Because of our diversity, we Europeans, North and South, East and West, often don’t have the same understanding of the world. Let me give a personal example to illustrate this. My Polish friends often say that they owe their freedom to Pope John Paul II and the United States of Ronald Reagan which won the Cold War. And they are right. However, like many Spaniards, I also believe that we owe it to the United States and to the Pope for having suffered 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship. Franco was only able to stay in power for so long because he first had the support of the Catholic Church and later of the United States in the context of the Cold War.
These differences enrich us if we are able to focus on what brings us together. But they also pose serious foreign policy challenges. We saw this again recently with regard to the question of sanctions following the rigged presidential elections in Belarus. It took us almost two months to decide on them, and our credibility has been affected.
This is certainly not the first time we have experienced such divisions. From the break-up of Yugoslavia to the Middle East peace process, from the war against Iraq in 2003 to the independence of Kosovo, from the Libyan issue to Turkey’s actions in the Mediterranean, they have often paralysed the EU’s decision-making process or rendered its reactions meaningless.
What decision-making process for European foreign policy?
What can be done? The main answer lies in the creation of a common strategic culture: the more Europeans agree on how they see the world and its problems, the more they will agree on what to do about them. We want to achieve this by building a “Strategic Compass” for the Union with our Member States. But this is, by its very nature, a long-term process. In the meantime, we must be able to take decisions on difficult issues as they come.
Foreign and security policy remains an exclusive competence of Member States and decisions in this area must be taken unanimously, each country having a veto power. Many of these decisions are binary: whether or not you recognise a government, whether or not you launch a crisis management operation. This often leads to blockages.
This is in stark contrast to the many areas, from the single market to climate or migration, where the EU can take decisions by qualified majority (55% of member states and 65% of the population even though, on these issues, important national interests often clash as much as in foreign policy.
In areas where the EU can decide by qualified majority, however, it makes very little use of this decision-making method. Why is this? Because we always prefer to seek compromises on which everyone can agree. To achieve this result, all states must agree to invest in unity. The threat of qualified majority voting encourages them to do so.
From the very beginning of my term of office, I have argued that if we want to avoid paralysis in foreign policy, we should consider taking certain decisions without the full unanimity of the 27. Last February, when the launch of Operation Irini to monitor the arms embargo on Libya was blocked, I raised the question whether it was reasonable for one country to be able to prevent the other 26 from moving forward when it would not participate in the operation anyway.
It is not, of course, about subjecting all foreign policy decisions to qualified majority voting. But it could be used in areas where we have frequently been blocked in the past – sometimes for reasons totally unrelated to the issue – such as on human rights or sanctions. In her State of the Union speech, Ursula Von Der Leyen, the President of the Commission, took up this proposal but the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, expressed his disagreement.
Other possibilities certainly exist. It is sometimes preferable, and this has already happened to me, to make a public announcement on a substantial position supported by 25 Member States rather than having to wait before publishing a declaration supported by all 27 Member States but reduced to the lowest common denominator.
As the Treaty provides, “constructive abstention” can also be used when a country does not support a position without preventing the Union from moving forward. This is how, for example, the EULEX mission in Kosovo was launched in 2008.
I hope that we will be able to discuss ways of facilitating foreign policy decision-making in the coming months, particularly in the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe. There is indeed an urgent need for the EU to increase its capacity to act in a dangerous world.
We can push back Euroscepticism
We have also seen a rise in Euroscepticism across many Member States in recent years. It is often difficult for ‘us’ – academics, policy makers etc. – to do what populists do: simplify issues to address emotions first. It will always be easier to shout “America first” than to call for a rules-based international order.
The detail of the Commission’s work and our complex institutional dynamics are indeed difficult to translate into emotions. But we Europeans can be proud of our work. We have built a system that combines lasting peace, political freedom and social cohesion like nowhere else in the world.
However, there are also more objective reasons for this rise in Euroscepticism. After the 2001 and 2008 crises, it took us a long time to show enough solidarity to turn the situation around. So much so that these crises, which originated in the malfunctioning of American finance, eventually had more lasting consequences in Europe than in the United States.
Europe has also been slow to take action to control abuses related to the posting of workers or to limit excessive tax competition between European countries. However, the Union is now determined to fight more actively, in both the social and fiscal fields, against these infringements on genuine, free, and undistorted competition.
As we have seen in the COVID-19 pandemic, we have also been unable, for the time being, to set limits on a deindustrialisation process that leaves us highly dependent in many sectors. Likewise, we have not been able to make Europe a significant actor in the digital economy, which is essential for the future.
However, the importance of a more active industrial policy is now acknowledged, and we have already taken substantial steps to better protect our businesses and rebalance our trade relations with our external partners. There is indeed a strong economic dimension behind the development of Europe’s ‘strategic autonomy’.
The current crisis has finally shown that we have learned the lessons from our past difficulties. This time, Member States, the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the European Council have reacted quickly and strongly. We have obviously succeeded in making the euro area more resilient, although we still need to strengthen the international role of our common currency.
Thanks to our social systems, which are the most developed in the world, it has also been possible to cover the entire European population in terms of health, while safeguarding Europeans’ incomes and jobs better than elsewhere.
However, the sanitary and economic crisis has affected EU countries in very different ways. Many of the most affected countries were also among those most affected during the 2008 crisis, limiting their ability to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. This raised the risks of further widening the gaps within the EU.
It was therefore essential to support these countries. This is what the Commission proposed with the “Next Generation EU” initiative, endorsed by the European Council last July. Even though it has yet to be finalised, this initiative breaks important taboos by allowing the Union to issue a common debt and make significant financial transfers to the most affected countries, not only in the form of loans but also as direct grants.
While this very diverse Europe is still difficult to bring together, particularly in terms of foreign policy, progress has been made. In a world facing challenges like climate change and dominated by powers like China, India, or the United States, Europeans are, I am sure, increasingly aware that they can only survive if they join forces. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the idea that we need more European integration.
For all these reasons, I am rather optimistic about our ability to overcome Euroscepticism. The strengthening of our internal cohesion is indispensable for the strengthening of our external action.
A new start with the United States
The results of the US presidential election are another reason for cautious optimism. Relations between the Union and the new US administration will obviously be crucial for the future of European foreign policy. After four difficult years, it is time to make a fresh start.
This does not mean that we will always agree. It wasn’t the case before Donald Trump, and it won’t be the case under Joe Biden. There are fundamental reasons – demographic, economic and political – why the historical trajectories of the United States and Europe may diverge. However, we have an enduring partnership with the United States, based on shared values and decades of experience working together. For the next four years, we will be dealing with an American President who believes in partnership among democratic allies. Europe intends to make the most of it: we are not approaching the Biden presidency solely with demands, but with proposals too.
We have a lot of things to fix, but even more to build together. As High Representative, I presented a “New transatlantic Agenda for Global Change” together with the European Commission in December 2020, covering many areas. Here, I want to focus on three foreign and security policy areas.
Although the United States remains indispensable for European security, we Europeans need to be more concerned about our own security. This is why we want to strengthen our defence by carrying a greater share of the “burden” and increase Europe’s operational engagement capabilities, particularly in our neighbourhood.
It would be a waste of time to debate in abstract terms whether we should adopt an approach based on “European autonomy” or “transatlantic partnership”. These are two sides of the same coin: a strategically aware and more autonomous Europe is a better ally for the United States.
In terms of European security, we will have to work together in particular to integrate the whole of the Western Balkans into Euro-Atlantic structures, support sovereignty and reforms in Ukraine, develop a strong and coherent approach towards Russia and prevent Turkey from continuing to “drift away”.
I have also worked hard, as coordinator, to keep the Iranian nuclear agreement alive. We now need to find a way with the Biden administration to get the US back into the agreement and for Iran to return to full compliance. Once this is achieved, we must be ready to build on it and find ways to address further regional security concerns. I am convinced that the only long-term solution for the chronic instability is a regional one.
Last but not least, the rise of China and its competition with the United States will continue to shape the global landscape. With the US, we will need to discuss and address many of the challenges that this implies: from persistent asymmetries in market access to legitimate 5G issues, attempts to push for rival standards in multilateral organisations and to weaken collective action on human rights.
China, a partner, competitor and systemic rival
The rebalancing of our relations with China is fundamental for our future. However, this will only be possible if EU Member States are united and if we make full use of Community instruments, in particular the power associated with our single market. Indeed, unity is vital in our relations with Beijing, because no European country is capable of defending its interests and values alone against a country the size of China. Only in this way can we ensure that Beijing finally fulfils its commitment to move towards greater reciprocity in its relations with the EU.
Economically, however, we are too interdependent to decouple from China, as the Trump administration has been preaching. Some analysts speak of a new Cold War, but this analogy is misleading because the United States, Europe and the Soviet Union were never as economically linked as we now are with China. Of course, we must develop our “strategic autonomy” with regard to this country in the economic field, especially in the digital field, but although the coronavirus is definitely going to change globalisation, it will not stop it.
A rebalanced EU-China relationship remains essential also to address and ultimately resolve major global issues. The most obvious example is the fight against climate change. We will only succeed in limiting its effects if, in parallel with our own efforts, big polluters such as China, the US and India, follow our lead and if Africa engages in a different development path from the one we have had.
The EU therefore wants to combine cooperation with China, particularly on climate change, with a stronger stance in areas where it is needed. This approach will also need to be combined with a more active EU presence in the wider Indo-Pacific region, together with our democratic partners in Asia. Indeed, we have just established a “strategic partnership” with the ASEAN.
We will discuss these issues with the Biden administration, as we have already begun to do in recent months with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the framework of the EU-US dialogue on China, launched in the Fall of 2020.
Europe facing new empires
The rise of authoritarian regimes is one of the main threats to the future of Europe and our democratic values. Beyond their specificities, countries such as Russia, China and Turkey share several characteristics. They are sovereignist vis-à-vis the outside world and authoritarian within their own borders. They want their zones of influence to be acknowledged and are determined to protect them from outside scrutiny. Finally, they want to change the rules of the global game.
For democrats, sovereignty rests first and foremost on the expression of the will of the people, whereas sovereignism focuses solely on the sovereignty of states, which is a different matter. Sovereignist states are also increasingly opposed to the respect for fundamental human rights. They seek to block international support for civil societies that demand more freedom, as in Belarus or Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Moscow believes it has a right of scrutiny over Belarus and wants to prevent Europeans from supporting civil society protests against the rigged presidential elections. The conflict is not between Europe and Russia, but between the people of Belarus and their leaders.
Turkey’s action in the Mediterranean was aimed at getting Ankara acknowledged as a major player that could not be excluded from either the sharing of natural resources or a political settlement in Libya. It is obviously not by chance that the first religious ceremony at Sainte-Sophie, which has become a mosque again, coincided with the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which marked the restoration of Turkish sovereignty after the humiliation of the Treaty of Sèvres. Turkey, Russia and China share a common trait in that they use history to advance their interests in an imperial way.
We are not going to change geography and Turkey will continue to be an important partner for Europe on many issues. This is why, while firmly defending international law and that of our member states, including by resorting to sanctions if necessary, we wish to depart as quickly as possible from a dangerous confrontation with this great neighbour. However, this prospect only makes sense if it is shared by Turkey.
In conflicts such as Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya, or Syria, we are witnessing a form of “astanisation” (in reference to the Astana format on Syria) which leads to Europe’s exclusion from the settlement of regional conflicts in favour of Russia and Turkey. Nature abhors a vacuum: we risk now seeing Russian and Turkish military bases being established in Libya, a few kilometres away from our coasts.
In order to emerge from this situation and to be able to settle our conflicts peacefully with these new empires built on values that we do not share, we must continue to fill the gaps in our common defence capabilities. This is the price which must be paid to give birth to the geopolitical Europe that President Von der Leyen and the European Commission have called for.
Our responsibility towards emerging and developing countries in difficulty
Beyond our immediate surroundings, Europe must also help mobilise the richest countries to help the poorest ones cope with the current crisis. This is not only a question of solidarity, it is also in our own best interest: if Europeans succeed in overcoming the crisis but the rest of the world is seriously unstable, Europe will inevitably end up losing stability as well.
We are facing the worst recession since the Great Depression. Developed countries have been hit very hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, but developing and emerging countries have much less fiscal space and much more difficulty accessing the financial means necessary to deal with its consequences.
There are fears of another lost decade in Latin America, Africa’s take-off has come to an abrupt halt, and South Asia is experiencing major economic and social difficulties. For the first time in decades, extreme poverty is expected to rise by another 90 million people worldwide.
The debt suspension initiative, launched in April 2020 by the G20, has given some relief to the most indebted poor countries. But it is clearly not enough. Argentina again defaulted on its external debt last May and Zambia on 13 November, increasing the risks of a downward spiral of sovereign defaults, particularly in Africa, which could lead to a new global financial crisis.
At the request of the EU and its member states in particular, the G20 took additional measures last November. It extended the suspension of debt servicing until June 2021, with the possibility of extending it for another six months. The G20 and the Paris Club also agreed on a new common framework allowing for the start of the debt restructuring process.
In recent years, China has become a major creditor for many developing countries, particularly in Africa. It is not a member of the Paris Club and has not been very proactive on the debt issuance so far. However, it has accepted the new G20 framework: this is an important step forward. We now count on the same motivation and the same level of commitment from all partners in this area.
However, we would like to go further: the EU advocates extending the G20 debt framework for poor countries to middle-income countries in need. We also support a new general allocation of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), an international currency issued by the IMF, to meet the needs generated by the crisis.
For the Union to make its voice heard on this crucial issue, we also need to increasingly act as a real “Team Europe” in order to weave the strengths of our Member States and of the Union, as we have started to do since last Spring in response to the pandemic.
To prevent the gap between countries from widening as a result of the current crisis, it is also crucial to ensure that the future will be green and inclusive for all, and that everyone will be able to ride the digital wave. President Von der Leyen’s call for a global recovery initiative that links debt relief to investment in these areas is essential in this regard.
Despite our significant internal difficulties, the way we handle the issue of helping emerging and developing countries in difficulty to deal with the current crisis will have a decisive influence on Europe’s place in the world and in particular on our relations with Africa. Between China, the United States and Europe, those who will be most proactive in this area will have scored points for the post-crisis period.
Make the COVID-19 vaccine a global public good
The other issue that we need to address if we are to avoid a backsliding and a worsening of global inequalities is that of vaccination against COVID-19. After several difficult months, we are finally starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.
Developing a vaccine is one thing, producing and distributing is another. It is a challenge for the EU, but even more so to reach remote villages in Niger, Peru or Kiribati. That is why we now need the resources to deploy vaccines quickly and safely as soon as they become available.
We must avoid “vaccine nationalism”, whereby only the strongest and richest countries would be able to vaccinate their populations. We also need to avoid “vaccine diplomacy”, which would link access to vaccines and political subordination. From the onset of this pandemic, the European Union has indeed chosen multilateralism and cooperation rather than nationalism and competition.
We want vaccines against COVID-19 to be seen as global public goods and distributed without discrimination, based on medical need. This is why the EU and its member countries have jointly mobilised €870m to support the international COVAX initiative, which aims to make vaccines available to all countries.
In the aftermath of this pandemic, we will need to reform the World Health Organisation and equip it with the tools and means necessary to manage the health challenges of the 21st century.
Rebuilding and strengthening multilateralism
As we often say, Europe must act alone when necessary, but with others whenever possible. In order to do so however, we must succeed in revitalising a multilateralism that has suffered a great deal. In recent years, Europe has often felt a bit lonely trying to hold it together.
The effectiveness of the multilateral system and its institutions is contested, quite often rightly so. From climate change to arms control, from maritime safety to human rights or trade, global cooperation has been weakened, international agreements abandoned, and international law undermined or selectively applied. The distribution of power within several institutions no longer corresponds to the changes the world has seen in recent decades. Many of the multilateral institutions that we have built need to be reviewed and reformed.
Does this mean a clean slate? I don’t think so. Post-war multilateralism has produced a lot of results despite its many weaknesses. Building a new system from scratch would take too long in the midst of a growing number of emergencies. We need to build on what already exists in order to take the next step. It is high time to “make multilateralism great again”, to paraphrase Donald Trump.
In order to do so, it is up to Europe to mobilise other democracies so that we can better defend and promote fundamental human rights and democratic values on the international stage. Whether in Hong Kong, Sudan or Belarus, the events which occurred in recent months have confirmed, if proof were needed, how universal these aspirations remain and how much people deprived of their rights on all continents aspire to them. This means, of course, resuming the dialogue with the United States on this subject, but also working more closely with Japan, South Korea, Canada, Mexico or Australia.
The task is therefore immense but essential: the future of Europeans will depend, to a large extent, on our ability to pull Europe out of the COVID-19 crisis and increase its role and weight in the world.
To cite the article
Josep Borrell Fontelles, What European foreign policy in times of COVID-19?, Dec 2020,
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