European foreign policy in times of Covid-19
Josep Borrell FontellesHigh Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
European foreign policy in times of Covid-19
High Representative Borrell : Thank you for this invitation to speak to the Groupe d’études Géopolitiques. I welcome your research on geopolitical questions and I am an active reader of le Grand Continent. This debate provides me with the opportunity to talk about the lessons to draw after a year and half of pandemic. My book, European Foreign Policy in times of Covid-19, is actually a collection of my writings from this past year, some of which I have published on my blog, in op-eds, in the press, newspapers, and interviews. I write so much because I enjoy it but above all because I believe in the importance of narratives. To me, a politician must be a storyteller because political battles are won or lost depending on how the issues are framed. In international politics, the same process applies. Hence, I always try to write from the standpoint of a protagonist, of an actor taking an active role. In my opinion, there is today a lack of common understanding of the world among Europeans, which is unfortunate because in order to make a change, you need to understand the world. As Marx once said: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point however is to change it”.
The book covers the big and dramatic developments of 2020 until the beginning of 2021, and analyses how the EU responded to it.
The first part is about how the pandemic is changing the world. Just to give one illustration, my most-read blog post was when I talked about the weaponization of medical supplies at the beginning of the pandemic. I mentioned new concepts such as the “politics of generosity”, the “politics of masks and vaccines” as well as the “battle of narratives.” It got quite criticised at first but now everyone agrees. The book also covers the birth of “Team Europe” – this combination of resources from the European Union, its Member States, and financial institutions (like the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) to support partner countries in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences. It is important to recall that we are not only the Commission and other EU institutions, but these institutions plus member states all together.
The second block covers the crises in our neighbourhood. Our neighborhood is in flames. From Libya, to the Eastern Mediterranean, Ukraine, Belarus and the Sahel. The latter may seem far away but it is our neighborhood. What is underlying is the return of the ‘empire mentality’ among Turkey, Russia, and China. All three have been big, powerful empires. Furthermore, our neighbourhood is also becoming more contested.
The third block is about the global battle between the US and China, which will have consequences for Europe because this power struggle is being waged through battles over trade, technology, and standards. It raises questions about our positioning and the meaning of strategic autonomy. In fact, this global battle is being used to define where and how Europe can position itself in this new polarity. However, US-China competition is also the backdrop to think about our partnerships with Africa, the Indo-Pacific but also Latin America. They all want to avoid binary choices and they all want more from Europe. They need a third pole and Europe should be that third pole.
As you may have noticed, there is a considerable debate on the ‘how’ to build EU foreign policy and on ‘who’ frames it. The most important thing is how to avoid paralysis, because in most cases, Member States are very much divided. This inevitably leads us to the debate on how to make decisions. Should the decisions be taken at unanimity or according to the rule of qualified majority?
The consequences of not having a shared strategic culture must also be taken into consideration. Without a common understanding of the world, it will be very difficult to adopt a common foreign policy. In the end, European foreign policy is how Europe projects itself to the rest of the world and therefore the way to exert its influence (through sanctions, norms and standard setting).
I will not go around the world and say what we are doing or should be doing in this or that region, or conflict or issue. I have already had plenty of debates like that. Let us reflect more deeply on how we can improve our impact. After eighteen months into this job, it is clear to me that overall trends are not favourable to us. The wind is not blowing in our favor. There is less European influence then there ought to be. Yes, there is a geopolitical awakening across the EU, but translating this awakening into action remains a work in progress. While time is relative in physics it is also the case in politics. My friend Javier Solana once said, “if you are changing at a slower speed than the world around you, you are going backwards in relative terms.” The important thing for the EU is to compare our speed with the rest of the world’s speed. From this point of view, we are going backwards in several issues in relative terms. The challenge for Europe is to ensure that as world history is accelerating, our response does as well, in terms of speed and scale. But that is not the case.
Foreign policy is a highly complex business, especially in the EU because it is not a state. In the EU, there are many actors and also many veto points. That is why the European success rate is often low. But that is also true for the foreign policy of superpowers. We must remember that foreign policy is about changing the domestic politics of other countries. What is foreign policy for us, means domestic politics for others.
It is worth distinguishing between three different types of problems: first, the problems of dysfunctional politics, second the problems of power politics and finally the problems of collective action.
In many places around the world, the core of many problems is dysfunctional politics: a disagreement on the nature of the state and society. A lack of a political settlement and a lack of governance. From Afghanistan to Libya, the Sahel, to Lebanon, or Venezuela, the list goes on: the state is weak and contested. We call this ‘poor governance’. The key insight here is that the problem doesn’t lie in the lack of resources such as the lack of financial, natural or military resources. When you take a look at Afghanistan over the past 20 years, hundreds of thousands of troops have passed through, hundreds of billions dollars have been spent in this conflict, and yet, in Afghanistan as elsewhere, what has happened is that local forces have not reached an agreement on a viable and legitimate political settlement and we, as outsiders, cannot do it for them. They are the only one able to do so, even if we know that this failure to produce functioning politics will inevitably have collateral damages for us, with increased insecurity, migration flows, etc. This is where our security starts. To get progress, we have to understand the local forces at play, be it Venezuela or Chad. So, one lesson I learned is the need to invest to truly understand local forces at play. What forces are driving the conflict? How can outsiders work along the local protagonists to build functioning politics?
The second category of problems has to do with power politics. Everyday we witness Putin, Erdogan, Xi Jinping and their behaviours: ready to use force, economic coercion and openly linking everything with everything. It is almost a cliché now to say that Europe needs to wake up and look at the world as it is, not as we want it to be. We must get rid of a certain naiveté and recognise that we live in a world where we do have many partners but also some strong adversaries — people out to harm us and our type of political system and society. Europe must be able to take care of itself. We cannot solely rely on the US, no matter how pleased Europe is to have America back with Biden, or on the approach which assumes that open markets and global rules will solve everything.
Open markets and global rules will not solve everything, especially after the pandemic. On the issue of masks at the beginning of the pandemic, and now regarding vaccines for instance it is clear that access depends in part on political considerations. The same applies to strategic investment: 5G, AI, rare earths minerals, etc. We must remain the masters of our own future and cannot outsource the protection of our interests. Hence this concept of strategic autonomy, much debated in 2020. In 2021 we ought to put it in action. This awakening to a world of power politics will require new mental maps and a new vocabulary. For more than eighteen months now, I have been fighting for Europeans to learn ‘the language of power’. We have more work to do in defining more clearly what our political priorities are, i.e to prioritise we must better prioritise where we can make the difference.
The truth is that Europeans have more power or levers of influence than they realise. When we put together our normative power (rules setting called the ‘Brussels effect’) — our financial assistance, our trade and investment policies, our CSDP operations, our delegations: it adds up to a lot. But where the US is able to make ‘grand strategy’, where China does issue linkage under the Belt and Road Initiative, we, Europeans are masters of silo thinking and disjointed efforts. Each policy tends to develop according to its own logic and rhythm. The way to go is to use these instruments as part of one political strategy.
In short, in Europe we have a problem of mentality (reluctance to think in terms of power, priorities, trade-offs) and of organisation (linking goals and means) remains. But step by step, Europe is becoming better at this even if it remains a work in progress. The framing of China as a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival is probably the most striking example. These concepts are now leading to concrete and comprehensive decisions on investment, foreign subsidies, procurement, due diligence, AI etc.
The third category of problems falls under the heading of public goods and collective action like health (access to vaccines for instance) or action on climate change and biodiversity, but also the fight against extreme poverty and rising inequalities. The big issue here is that the multilateral system that has been created to handle these problems is being challenged like never before, precisely by power politics. Therefore, the WHO and WTO are struggling, the G20 and UNSC are often paralysed, and there is a growing number of problems without multilateral ‘regimes’, like cyber, AI, and other emerging technologies. The EU should do much more to revitalise multilateralism and make it fit for purpose. Europe must be ready to invest in multilateralism, building consensus among great powers if possible, and be more creative with the ‘emerging types of multilateralism, beyond the state-to-state’s framework. Experiment more with multilateralism and work more with regional organisations like AU, ASEAN, etc.
While this might be a sobering analysis, the good news relies on the fact that making a change is mainly down to us, and to the collective choices of Europeans. Above all we must change our mentality. As Luuk van Middelaar wrote in Le Grand Continent: “Where Europe fights to minimise losses, others fight to win.” We ought to change this situation. And I, as the HR/VP, will do everything in my power to push this agenda.
Monika Sie Dhian Ho: First of all, I would like to express my appreciation for a leader who writes and acknowledges the power of narratives in today’s world. Mr. Borrell wrote in the introduction of his book that political battles are won or lost depending on how we frame these issues. The way we describe and analyse our changing world will therefore impact Europeans collectively. Chinese dynasties on their hand have been mobilizing power of narratives for more than two thousand years. The Han dynasty and many subsequent dynasties appointed their own narrators to write the history of China and create a historiography. Under President Xi’s, this tradition is brought to a next level through the use of narratives in a geopolitical context. This is exactly what Mr. Borrell rightly called “a battle of narratives”.
Sven Biscop and I have been asked to focus our introductions on the emergence of Europe as a geopolitical entity. I would therefore like to do so by stating that speaking of a geopolitical Europe has more radical consequences for our perspective than is often acknowledged in policy texts. Hence, as Mr. Borrell rightly stated, Europe needs to learn the “language of power.” However, I must highlight that by adding ‘geo’ to ‘politics’, we must focus on two other important dimensions: geography and collective identity.
When speaking the language of geopolitics, we delineate a territory and focus on the feeling of belonging of the people who live within those borders. The element of the ‘geo’ part has been pushed for a long time in the background of European politics. As a matter of fact, the European construction has been focused on markets, rules, and getting rid of borders, on individual consumers and producers, and their economic interests — along with their universal and human rights — rather than their identities, and preferred societal projects. But as we have found out, other civilizations do think about territory and foster collective identity. With enlargement, the EU has bumped into the territorial delineations of Russia. And in the context of irregular migration, European populations themselves have asked for delineating and guarding the external European borders. In sum, Europe cannot neglect the ‘geo’ part of geopolitics.
The emergence of a geopolitical Europe has three dimensions: politics, territory, and collective identity. Nevertheless European leaders have not thought yet of these universal implications in a geopolitical perspective. What does it really imply, in concrete policy, when we acknowledge the existence of a systemic rival that will still be our partner?
In his book, Mr. Borrell writes as a subtitle “the difficulty of fighting identity politics,” but why should we fight identities as long as they are inclusive, and not based on religion or race?
Public opinion research shows that eight out of ten people see that there is common ground for building a European community but at the same time, people feel that their national culture is specific and needs to be preserved. In a nutshell, the majority of European citizens do not sense an incompatibility between a European and national sense of belonging.
I was also struck by the contradiction between collective identities as something purely emotional and the rationality of European policies as academics, engineers, or politicians understand them. I truly believe that thinking in terms of politicized identities speaks to the hearts and minds of people. The French socialist, Jean Jaures, epitomized this idea by saying “the only possession of the worker is the state.” This is both an emotional and rational reference to the fact that collective identity is inevitably linked to the state. Drawing on that, European political identity could be a supranational support to European states in order to protect the “European way of life” and support the societal projects in those states, which constitutes our collective identity. The approach of “Team Europe” used by Mr. Borrell, has that same balance of emotional and rational appeal. It is a way to mobilize both the national and the collective European identities, which sustains a close relationship between Member States and European institutions in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sven Biscop: Thank you to give me the opportunity to be on this panel with these colleagues and the High Representative. I particularly appreciate the idea of politicians being “storytellers,” which is something I always tell my students and my team. It is extremely important before starting a paper to think about the story you want to tell — and that if you do not have any story, maybe you should not write that paper. As a matter of fact, we have been talking about strategic culture within the common foreign security policy since the early 90s and before the implementation of the CFSP. At that time we were all optimists and we thought the whole world would democratize, respect human rights, and become social market economies just like Western Europe. That did not happen but I think that the strategic culture of the European Union, to the extent that it exists, is still shaped by that. There are still people in Brussels who somehow feel that the point of European foreign policy is to democratize the world and enforce human rights throughout the world. I beg to differ, the point of foreign policy is to defend your interests, to make sure that Europeans can continue to live in the way they have chosen. The point of foreign policy is not to change other peoples’ way of life.
In a way, the EU is drafting a strategic compass at the moment but the key question is what about the moral compass of the Union? Instead of saying that Europe is not paying enough attention to human rights, Europe should have a clear idea of what is vital or not and what are its levers.
States like China and Russia are authoritarian states, which means that Europe has endless reasons to adopt sanctions against them because there will be endless violations of human rights. However, will sanctions change anything? Probably not, because for these states, the violation of human rights is one of their vital interests while it is probably not vital for us. To put it bluntly, the vital interest of Europe is not how China or Russia treat their citizens, but how they treat us. In that respect, sanctions for human rights violations are only marking our discontent, but is this signalling more effective through the adoption of sanctions? Perhaps we can get the same signal across by consistently repeating our condemnation of human rights violations. In fact, sanctions ought to be used when China and Russia violate our actual red lines in their foreign policy, not their domestic policy. It strikes me that European foreign policy makers are more concerned about human rights violations in China and Russia than with assertive — or even aggressive — Russian and Chinese behavior in Europe or the clear transgressions of international law — for example the de facto annexation of the South China sea by China.
I acknowledge that my point of view is unpopular and I would be much more happy if I could argue that it is indeed in our power to democratize the world and enforce human rights everywhere. However, I think that strategic thinking means accepting the realities and limitations of your power. Therefore, Europe should care about human rights and take a stance on human rights but in the spirit of William the Silent: “one need not hope in order to to undertake, nor succeed in order to persevere” because there will be no short-term development and while we should still stand for human rights, Europe should earmark effective sanctions or, if necessary, strong sanctions for China and Russia’s subversive and coercive actions against the EU.
Nicoletta Pirozzi : I will start by saying that it is late for the EU not to adopt an ambitious foreign policy for two reasons. On the first hand, as Mr. Borrell said earlier, Europe’s neighborhood is in flames, its partners are not keen to intervene and competitors are pursuing their interests, which differ from European ones. On the other hand, the EU has already discussed extensively its strategic autonomy. Hence, in order to avoid those evolutions to become a “boomerang” for the EU, Europe has to deliver.
Mr. Borrell emphasizes in his book the need for Europeans to avoid resignation. First, by building a common culture, and second by avoiding dispersion. I do agree on both points. First of all, the creation of a common strategic culture – as the EU has done with its strategic compass – should remain the first priority and will probably deliver its first results next year. However, should the EU take short term measures such as qualified majority voting in order to move forward? Mr. Borrell’s book underlines the effectiveness of qualified majority voting in order to address the lack of common strategic autonomy in the EU and whether this could be a specific objective of his mandate. On the dispersion matter, I agree that in order to be credible and effective, the EU needs to prioritize and above all, to choose its battles. And yet, the latest joint communication on the Southern neighborhood goes in the opposite direction, since it lays out a full menu of actions instead of a plan with clear priorities for our neighborhoods.
My final point is about multilateralism, which is one of the preeminent topics of Mr. Borrell’s book and an important topic for the international projection of the EU. Since the EU remains one of the staunchest supporters of multilateralism, it should be time for Europeans to be shapers of multilateralism. On one side, this objective can be done in line with its core values and on the other side through sectors where the EU can provide significant added value. In this regard, the EU could use its regulatory powers in areas such as climate, taxation of Big Tech companies or A.I. The EU has already shown its capacity to deliver on a more global and multilateral level.
Adam Tooze: I have been tasked to talk about the issue of the economy. I do so a little reluctantly because I agree with Mr. Borrell’s view that narrative formation is key here. The thing about narratives is that they have boundaries, they have limits and that is where they derive their unity, their purpose and force from. Bringing in a theme that has been relatively lacking to the conversation so far is at risk of breaking what – I think – has been a coherent conversation around the narrative that High Representative Josep Borrel has stitched out. At the risk of doing that, let me try to find one point of connection.
Mr. Borrell said that the world was looking for poles, for alternatives since it does not want to choose between the US and China. It would like to be able to have it both ways and there is a strategic opportunity for Europe here to position itself as a pole. If that is true, then it is fundamentally based on the significance of Europe as a market, on the significance of Europe as an economic player. In fact, if you take the dollar exchange rate instead of referring to the purchasing power parities that flatter the Chinese and the developing world, then Europe is the number two player in the world. Indeed, the United States represents 25% of global GDP, Europe is second with 20% and China holds 15%. Thus, Europe remains a very critical economic bloc. I would suggest furthermore that the economy plays a role for Europe which is even deeper than that. In this sense, many people have tried to formulate this idea that Europe is not about power but about the rule of law. I would submit that it is really also, in some fundamental sense, about the economy.
Mr. Borrell once gave a speech where he stated: “sovereigntists view international society as a collection of colliding billiard balls, while we Europeans see the world as a dynamic interplay of interdependent fluids regulated by norms.” That vision of the world as a dynamic interplay of interdependent fluids regulated by norms is essentially a vision of the economy. In fact, it is a vision of monetary flows, of the flow of goods, of information and of people. One could say that it is specifically an ordo-liberal or social-market conception of the economy. Indeed, it has a distinctly German feel to it.
How can we think about the relationship between the economy in the wider picture of European power and foreign policy, if our understanding of the economy too is shifting ? This is something that has been described in various ways and which is now being regularly labelled as the New Washington Consensus. What happens to the role of the economy as an anchor of European power in a world in which we no longer think of economic policy as basically the devising of good norms to regulate the interdependent flows of fluids, but as something more active? And what challenges does that pose for Europe?
With this, we immediately think of state capitalism and we have Kishore Mahbubani on the panel as one of the great exponents of the Singaporian model and its significance for the world and our thinking about the economy, but I would have thought the more fundamental challenge for Europe is posed by the developments in the US itself. Where we have seen since the 2008 crisis the developments of a massively more interventionist central bank and now a move toward a rather aggressive vision of industrial policy harnessed to America’s self-positioning versus China.
I would love to hear you talk more about the way in which, if the world is moving away from this relatively orderly view of the economy, does it require Europe to reconfigure its power in other dimensions so as to not be so heavily, so ontologically dependent on a particular conception of the economy? Or is it the economic policy side that you, as High Representative in the foreign policy sphere would like to see Europe updating? One might make the case that the ECB has now emerged as a competent global central bank, very much as a partner of the FED. But do we therefore, from a foreign policy side, not see an imperative also to move towards a greater competence on fiscal policy for instance ; the development of a safe asset for Europe?
Kishore Mahbubani: It is a great honor and pleasure to be part of this very distinguished panel. And Mr. Borrell congratulations on completing your book. For having published one as well, “Has China won ?”, I know the difficulties of publishing a book. The theme of my remarks is a very simple one. The Chinese word for crisis is a combination of two characteristics: danger and opportunity. And regarding the biggest geopolitical contest between the US and China, the European Union is faced with both a danger and an opportunity. The opportunity for the EU is that the world is looking for a third pole, and if Europe can provide that third pole : it would be welcomed by the 6 billion people who live outside the US and China. But in order to do that, the EU has got to understand as clearly as possible what is the US/China contest about?
Surprisingly, even though we all know that a great geopolitical contest has broken out, it is difficult to understand because, if you look, for instance, at the United States’ attitude toward this contest, there is a rock-solid consensus that this is the US’s biggest challenge. That the US must stand up to China. And you notice that, in this regard, nothing has actually changed from Trump to Biden. Why is that so? The problem that many in the rest of the world faces is trying to understand what exactly is the US trying to accomplish with China. If you want a strategy for dealing with China, you should specify what the goal should be. Is the goal for the US to make sure that the chinese economy does not become number one? That will fail because if the Chinese economy keeps going, they will undoubtedly become number one. Is the goal for the US to arrange the collapse of the Communist party in China? The Chinese Communist party, even according to a Harvard Kennedy School study, now enjoys far greater support among the Chinese people because they have had the best forty years in four thousand. Is their goal to contain China like they successfully contained the Soviet Union? That too will fail because China does more trade with the rest of the world than the US does. You cannot contain China, it is not possible. Hence, what exactly is the US trying to accomplish with China? There is no clear statement of goals or, as I explained in my book, there is no clear statement of strategy. The man who told me that the US lacked strategy towards China was Henry Kissinger.
What is clear nevertheless is that China’s emergence is challenging the US’s primacy on the world. That is very clear. It will be painful to move from a world where it is possibly number one to conceivably number two. Ironically, the US does not understand that the nature of the contest with China is actually not in the military sphere. Therefore when the US spends $750 billion in defense expenditures, it is a geopolitical gift to China. This money is wasted. There will be no war between the US and China. The real contest, paradoxically, is the economic one. And frankly what Joe Biden is doing in terms of investing in the economy is the right approach. This is what the EU can encourage the US to do.
This brings me to the point about the third pole and how the EU can play a valuable role. This contest will gain momentum and, at some point, Washington DC will need to know whose side Brussels and other European capitals are on. I believe that this moment of decision will come and the EU will have to make a choice. It will be torn between its head and its heart. Its heart is clearly with the US. They share the same culture, the same civilisation and in a way the same history. But if you go by the rational calculations, China can also be a valuable partner to Europe because, in the case of Europe, the number one challenge is no longer the threat of Russian tanks coming to Europe. The biggest challenge will be the demographic explosion in Africa. Whereas Africa had half the population of Europe in 1915, it now has double Europe’s population, and by 2100 Africa will have ten times the population of Europe. Mr. Borrell spoke about the Sahel, can you imagine a Sahel multiplied five times? What world would that create for Europe? Clearly the number one priority for Europe is to take care of its immediate neighborhood and promote development in Africa. And the number one new investor in Africa is China. This is where the challenge clearly stands out. Will Europe try to block Chinese investments in Africa because the US says that is bad for the world? Or will Europe encourage it because it creates a dyke against more Africans coming to Europe? These are the kind of hard choices that Europe needs to make, and I think one key point you emphasized is that often in the European dialogue, there is a reluctance to confront hard, geopolitical truths squarely. The key point about geopolitics is that we must always remember that it is a combination of two words: politics and geography. Geography is important. The geography of the US is different from the geography of Europe. Europe must respond to its geography, and if it wants to respond to its geography, it can actually work with China in that way. That is the challenge I see for Europe coming ahead.
Josep Borrell: Thank you for such insightful remarks and exchanges of views. Before becoming geopolitical, Europe should become political. As Kishore Mahbubani mentioned: geopolitics is geography plus politics. If you want to be a geopolitical actor, you must be a political actor first. And this means having a certain kind of political unity. For now, the problem is that the European Union is not political enough. Europe is not a political union, and actually it seems some Member States do not want to be part of a political union. The British for instance, left because of that, but there may be members within the EU that share some of the same outlook. When the President of the Commission said she wanted the Commission to be a geopolitical Commission we should take into consideration that the Commission alone cannot be geopolitical. It should be the EU as a whole because the Commission has only part of the necessary competences you need in foreign policy and defense. It is extremely complex to be geopolitical when you lack these two legs. The EU as a whole has to be geopolitical, but first, it has to be political.
We say we want to speak with a single voice. But we do not need a single voice, we need a single message. I do not mind if we have several voices repeating the same message. The problem is different voices with different positions. For instance, the strategic agreement on investment with China which went quickly in the last few weeks of last year before the end of the German presidency clearly responds to certain priorities which affect some countries more than others. For some countries, it is critical, for others it is less relevant. We have to understand that we have not reached the level of political integration that can allow us to be geopolitical in a way that the US or China are.
That is the reason why the concept of strategic autonomy is debated so intensively. It will be the first step towards acting as a third pole. I have spent the whole year discussing it, and I have the feeling that Europe has been playing word games. This debate has been increasing and again, one realizes that some Member States do not share the same view about autonomy. From a military point of view, they like to be dependent on the aid provided by the US because they do not believe in the idea that if things go wrong, Europe would have enough capacity to participate in tough situations. That is very clear on the Eastern border because they have the memory and the history of what happened in ‘39 and what can happen in the future. I agree with Kishore Mahbubani on the fact we are not going to see Russian tanks flowing into the plains of central Europe. Putin, whatever one might think, is not Stalin. However when you speak with Ukranians and tell them not to worry about an invasion, they will reply that Russia already has Crimea. Everything depends on perspective.
The threats and challenges we are facing are not perceived the same way from Riga to Madrid. From Riga, the Sahel is not a problem, and in Madrid, Russia seems very far away. This is why we must work on a cultural process in order to share an understanding of the world. I am old enough to know that this understanding of the world depends on history and culture. Someone from Poland and someone from Spain cannot share the same approach to the US, because the Spanish have fought against the US and had one of the most awful wars against them, whereas Poland owes its freedom to the US. So we have to build a common culture, which is going to take quite a long time.
There is also the matter of identity. We have been very good at overcoming the fight between identities inside Europe. The German and French are no longer fighting about identities like they once did. They overcame the antagonism of identities, which is an extraordinary success, but we have not yet built a common identity. Yes, we are Europeans and we share a lot of common ground, but the feeling of belonging and being part of a political union remains flimsy. One realises the weakness of this feeling of belonging when the financial framework, which is the level of solidarity of the European people inside the European framework, is discussed. While it only represents 1% of GDP, it is over that tiny part that the fiercest battles occur as leaders want to deliver toward their national opinions. Above all, leaders want more than what they give, which is not a clear sign of a shared identity. This is something that will require time and will.
Concerning sanctions, I spend my time trying to understand the world and to travel, because sanctions are not a policy per se. In fact, the sanctions Europe can implement are not only economic sanctions – such as the American ones – but personal sanctions against individuals and entities. I am very much aware that using only sanctions affects our capacity of building and implementing our foreign policy. The treaties require us to base our foreign policy on our interests and values but also to stand up for them. Where is the balance between interests and values? Can we sanction everybody everywhere in the name of values? No. In fact, sanctions depend on ‘who’ and ‘where’ and are intrinsically asymmetric. It is clear that we do not sanction the same things everywhere, so we must look for a better balance. However, we cannot renounce on human rights violations happening inside the borders of Russia and China. It would mean that both countries could do whatever they want within their borders? Our public opinion will not accept this. In the meantime, EU Member States are always asking for more sanctions, despite their impacts perhaps being limited and the consequences getting costlier. The European Union needs to think about it and better coordinate with the US but the US also uses sanctions that the EU does not use because of the unacceptable consequences from a moral point of view. So, it is not easy to find the right balance between defending values and defending interest.
A common understanding of culture means a common understanding of threats. I am sure that in the US, people living in Alaska and people living in Miami all understand that China is a threat because they share the same political culture. For us, it is a completely different situation. The EU must build this culture with the knowledge that we will not play the role of being a leading military power in the world. The EU has to look at its economic strengths: on investments, foreign subsidies, economic coercion, the international role of the Euro, and our industrial policy. On many of these policies, we have been extremely naive. When China joined the WTO, the EU hoped that le “doux commerce ” would create a Chinese middle class aspiring to political freedoms and a multi-party system. And at that time the EU thought that welcoming China in the WTO could help to reach these objectives. Now we know this is not the case, quite the opposite. As you said, the Chinese Communist Party has had strong support since the last forty years that have been -by far- the best years of China since the discovery of the steam engine. The political system has continued to provide progress and as long as it will be the case, they will not change their political system, and neither will we. Once more, it shows the complicated balances that are crucial to define a European foreign policy.
On the economic side, I fully agree with Adam Tooze. I have been very critical towards our answer to the Euro crisis during my time as a scholar at the European University Institute where I had time to think, to listen and to write. Indeed, the European answer to the Euro crisis was a mistake. It is this kind of failure that we must avoid. When I hear people say that we must quickly deal to reduce debt and deficits, I think, “My God, let’s not make the same mistake again.” Look at what is happening today in the world: there are new questions and concerns. It is clear that the US is doing the opposite of what the EU has been preaching about economic policy for years. The fiscal push in the US is much bigger than ours. True, we started talking about a recovery plan last Spring, but an economic tool that takes a year and a half to be designed and implemented is not exactly the right answer to an economic crisis that requires us to act quickly. A year and half is too long to deliver. Europe decided to share a currency but we still have different economic policies so when we decided to work together, we spent one year discussing and another year implementing. But thanks to the ECB – as also happened during the Euro crisis – we are more or less surviving.To finish I think this idea of three poles is interesting and illustrates the quest for hegemony. In fact, why does the US worry about China? Is it because they are concerned the Chinese will land in California? No. It is about who is in command of the world. This is also why Europeans must consider to be more than the epigon and have their own capacity to act in the world.
To cite the article
Josep Borrell Fontelles, Kishore Mahbubani, Adam Tooze, Nicoletta Pirozzi, Monika Sie Dhian Ho, Sven Biscop, European foreign policy in times of Covid-19, May 2021,
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