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Russia–EU Relations in 2020: Opportunities, Limitations and Possible Trends

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Any attempt to predict the development of Russia–EU relations in the upcoming years must certainly acknowledge the fact that relations between the two sides have remained remarkably stable since 2014, and the momentum of current dynamics (or, instead, the momentum of no dynamics) will most likely continue. 2019 marked European Parliament elections, the “overhaul” of the European Commission and other EU governing bodies, as well as the formation of a new balance of political power on the continent. It may be safe to assume that 2020 will be a quieter and altogether less nerve-wracking year for the European Union, although certain states (for example, Poland or Italy) may very well have some surprises in store. Additionally, a shift towards tackling the most critical issues associated with Brexit is a distinct possibility.

Most experts believe that the political system in Russia has a sufficiently large “safety margin” to pass through 2020 without being exposed to any significant destabilization risks, and the accumulated financial “safety cushion” will allow the country’s leadership to guarantee socioeconomic stability despite possible fluctuations in the global economy or world energy prices, or any changes to the international sanctions regime against Moscow. A real political challenge to the authorities may appear later, probably no earlier than the parliamentary elections of September 2021. Accordingly, it is unlikely that any new domestic factors will pop up before the end of 2020 that may trigger a significant shift in the EU’s approach to Moscow or Russia’s approach to Brussels.

Uncertainty Factors

Nevertheless, the features and orientation of internal processes in the European Union and Russia will undoubtedly influence their bilateral relations. In our opinion, the main uncertainty factor for the European Union rests in the level of political unity and the ability or inability of the new European Commission to successfully withstand centrifugal trends in the EU, as well as pressure exerted by populists in individual EU member states. Clearly, the new offensive launched by populists and deepening internal contradictions within the European Union will tempt Moscow to use the organization’s disunity to achieve “separate” agreements with its traditional European partners. At the same time, many in Europe will inevitably lay principal responsibility for confusion and vacillation in the European Union at Moscow’s doorstep. A strong and cohesive European Commission will restrict the possibility of the Kremlin pursuing “selective involvement” with convenient European partners.

On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that a weak and disjointed European Union will dare to launch a serious internal discussion of the prospects of its Moscow strategy beyond the five “Mogherini principles” that were formulated four years ago, given its concerns about further undermining the already fragile foreign political unity of its member states. It is common knowledge that the ongoing sanctions regime against Russia is less of an instrument of exerting influence on Moscow than it is one of the few remaining symbols of “European unity.” A weak European Union will be forced to prioritize maintaining the existing status quo and minimizing potential change-associated risks.

For Russia, the main uncertainty factor, it would seem, is still the level of socio-political tension in the country, and how authorities respond to it. If tensions continue to grow during 2020 (which can be expressed, for instance, in an increase in the number and size of rallies, picketing, demonstrations and other manifestations of street political activities) and the authorities tighten the screws in response (dispersing rallies by force, carrying out pre-emptive arrests and searches, holding trials and imposing harsh sentences), the European Union will be forced to somehow respond. This will inevitably create additional obstacles to the dialogue between Brussels and Moscow, energizing the forces that have no desire whatsoever to pursue discourse with Russia.

If the overall level of tension turns out to be relatively low and the response of the authorities relatively mild, then a prerequisite for the Russia–Europe dialogue will be more favourable. In addition to everything else, a low level of tension will serve as an additional argument for those forces in the European Union that consider Russia’s socioeconomic and political systems to be sufficiently flexible and adaptive, to remain stable for the foreseeable future. If this is the case, then it makes no sense for the European Union to repeatedly postpone dialogue with Moscow in the hope that inevitable radical political changes will take place.

The following external factors affecting relations between Russia and the European Union in 2020 will likely be most significant:

1. The outcome of the 2020 United States presidential election. Victory for the Democrats would mean that erstwhile transatlantic solidarity will be at least partly restored, and the United States and the European Union will be able to coordinate their policies towards Russia better.

Moscow will once again face a “consolidated West,” which will inevitably restrict Russia’s room for political manoeuvre. On the other hand, should Donald Trump emerge victorious, this will likely further deepen contradictions between the United States and the European Union, which will allow Moscow to solidify its current tactical advantages in its relations with the “disjointed West.”

2.The state of U.S.–China relations. Further exacerbation of the trade, economic, political and military confrontation between the United States and China, as well as the movement of the international system towards rigid bipolarity, will create additional restrictions for interaction between Russia and Europe, for instance, in implementing multilateral “Eurasian” projects. Russia will be oriented towards an increasingly close alliance with China, while Europe will be forced to follow in the wake of the policies of the United States. Conversely, if the confrontation between Washington and Beijing softens, this will allow Moscow and Brussels to avoid many of the restrictions that a rigid bipolar configuration entails.

3. The situation in the Middle East. Unexpected and significant negative dynamic in the Middle East (escalation in Syria or Lebanon, an acute crisis in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia or between Iran and Israel, or a new large-scale outflow of refugees from the region) may prove to be essential incentives for deepening Russia–Europe cooperation, especially if the situation worsens against the background of the United States continuing to roll back its commitments in the region. The preservation of the current status quo also means that Russia and the European Union will be able to maintain their current (low) level of interaction in the region. However, certain escalation scenarios (for instance, Damascus launching a large-scale offence on Idlib, with one of the parties to the conflict using chemical weapons) will create an additional problem for Russia–EU relations. Any aggravation of the problem of migration from the Middle East to the European Union will be construed as part of Moscow’s hostile strategy towards Europe.

4. The global economic situation. The global economy may enter another stage of the cyclical crisis in 2020, or even fall victim to a systemic global financial crisis similar to that of 2008–2009. The future systemic crisis will likely be more dramatic than the previous one, since the principal actors in the global economy are less inclined today to cooperate than they were ten years ago. The new crisis will undermine the economic foundations of Russia–EU relations and give rise to more pronounced protectionist and nationalist sentiment in both the European Union and Russia. In a crisis, the opportunities for positive interaction between Moscow and Brussels will be limited. Conversely, economic acceleration in the European Union and Russia will increase the interest of both parties in expanding cooperation.

Probable Risks

The current trends in Russia–EU relations carry a number of risks that should be mentioned when predicting possible scenarios for the further deterioration of these relations:

The general deterioration of European security due to the expiration of the INF Treaty; the degradation of confidence-building measures; and the start of an arms race, including hi-tech weapons (understanding that the military-political situation in Europe cannot change drastically in 2020, and military spending in European countries is not expected to rise sharply);

The continued competition for influence in the post-Soviet space, including Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia (the collapse of the political coalition in Moldova in the autumn of 2019 is a negative sign); and the further divergence of stances on the Donbass settlement will have a particularly negative effect on relations;

The intensification of sub-regional competition between Russia and the European Union (this competition appears to be particularly dangerous in the Western Balkans, given the possibility of an acute political crisis in one or more of the countries in the region);

The intensification of the information war in Europe (in particular, the European Union may approve a “blacklist” of Russian media outlets, while Russia may significantly expand its own list of “undesirable” European organizations); we cannot rule out the possibility that investigations may be launched in some EU states in connection with accusations of Russia interfering in their elections and supporting separatists and political extremists.

The harsh confrontation between Russia and some EU member countries in pan-European organizations (PACE, OSCE); 2020 will be a challenging year in the history of these organizations, which will be put under immense political pressure;

The further politicization of energy cooperation between Russia and the European Union (for instance, the emergence of new issues in completing work on Nord Stream 2; and the blatant refusal of some EU states to prolong gas contracts with Russia);

The clash between Russian and European interests in some regions of the world, including Africa and Latin America; and competition between Russia and Europe for preferential relations with Turkey might posit a particular issue.

Unfortunately, “black swans” may very well throw a spanner in the works – the unfortunate incident in Salisbury in March 2018 and the events in the Kerch Strait in November of the same year are prime examples. Such events may again lead to a deterioration of relations between Moscow and Brussels, regardless of who is to blame. A distinctive feature of Russia–EU relations today is that significant progress should be visible along the entire line of interaction between the parties, while a single negative event in any of these areas is enough to provoke a new crisis. This makes the process of restoring even limited cooperation extraordinarily fragile and unstable. And this a situation will continue throughout 2020.

Potential Opportunities

At the same time, we can identify several most promising areas of Russia–EU cooperation where, under favourable circumstances, certain practical results may be achieved as early as 2020:

Progress in settling the conflict in the east of Ukraine. The recent domestic political scandal in the United States in connection with Ukraine further obstructs Washington’s constructive involvement in resolving the crisis. The Ukrainian crisis is objectively less critical for the United States than for Europe, and certainly for Russia.

On the other hand, the new leadership in Kyiv is more focused than its predecessors on achieving a peaceful settlement to the situation in the Donbass. By all accounts, Moscow is ready to (or could) demonstrate more flexibility than before in its approach to Ukraine’s implementation of the Minsk agreements. If progress is achieved at the upcoming Normandy Four summit in terms of implementing the Steinmeier formula, then opportunities will appear as early as the first few months of 2020 to involve the European Union in the peace process, including post-conflict reconstruction programmes in the Donbass.

Expanding interaction in the “shared neighbourhood.” Neither Russia nor the European Union are interested in further escalation in the area. The example of several post-Soviet states, for instance, Armenia, shows that the balance of influence between Russia and the European Union does not necessarily have to be a zero-sum game.

Deepening interaction on Iran-related issues. The positions of Russia and the European Union on topics such as the Iranian nuclear and missile programmes and Iran’s role in Syria and the Middle East are not identical, although they are close. Given the current escalation in relations between Iran and the United States, as well as between Iran and Israel (this trend will most likely continue in 2020), Russia and the European Union can and should coordinate their actions more closely concerning Iran.

Launching full-fledged dialogue between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union. In 2020, this dialogue can be moved from the current technical to political level. It could include coordinating multilateral cooperation in Central Asia, implementing the European “connection” concept and possibly even discussing progress in implementing China’s “Belt and Road” project.

Developing a new “energy/environmental plan” for Europe. There is reason to hope that politically difficult problems related to Nord Stream 2 and the future of gas transit via Ukraine will be partially resolved in 2020. If this does happen, then it may be possible to try to “depoliticize” the European energy agenda. This could include, for instance, climate change, prospects for energy cooperation between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, issues of standards, energy security and energy efficiency, training personnel and the exchange of experience.

Making Europe’s Russian sanctions regime more flexible. We should not expect the European Union to lift the sanctions against Russia in 2020, even if progress in settling the Ukrainian crisis is achieved. However, the European Commission might set itself the more modest task of modifying the mechanisms of applying the sanctions. History shows us that sanctions, especially bilateral sanctions, do not work if the sides do not have the option to respond to even small behavioural shifts promptly. In mid-2016, Frank-Walter Steinmeier proposed modifying the EU’s sanctions mechanism, and this idea has maintained its relevance for the last three and a half years.

Preserving pan-European areas. Despite the growing divide in Europe along the East-West axis, common European areas of science, education and culture can still be maintained. If progress is achieved in other areas in 2020, then the connecting role of humanitarian areas should be strengthened further. For instance, the parties could spearhead a joint plan to liberalize the visa regime or introduce visa waivers for students, scientists, scholars, artists and cultural figures.

Developing a new “road map” for the development of the OSCE. 2020 will mark the 10th anniversary of the Astana declaration, the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris and the 35th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act. Structured dialogue on military and political issues was launched in 2016, and it turned out to be one of the most productive formats of East-West communication in Europe. The OSCE still needs political support from both the European Union and Russia.

Of course, we should not assume that activating some or even most of the abovementioned areas of cooperation in 2020 will result in a “reset” of Moscow–Brussels relations. The current “strategic disconnection” between Russia and Europe is not caused by their differences on specific issues (even issues as serious as Ukraine and Syria), but rather by their profoundly opposing views on the fundamental problems of global politics, its contents, driving forces, priorities and the desired model of the future world order.

Until these differences are overcome, relations between Moscow and Brussels will remain primarily focused on rivalry. Consequently, the next common task for Russia and the European Union is to cut the costs and reduce the risks that are inextricably related to such rivalry. However, achieving even modest progress in this area in 2020 and creating an atmosphere of positive dynamics would be a significant outcome of the year that concludes a challenging decade in global politics for both the European Union and Russia.

From our partner RIAC

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Recovery action plan of the Union: On Next Generation EU & a New Independent authority?

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The first address of the European Commission since the pandemic was one highly anticipated by all the citizens of the EU block. On September 16, President Ursula van der Leyden took it upon herself to reveal the EU’s roadmap for a post-Covid world following the approval of the recovery funds last July which constituted a breakthrough and sent a welcome signal in terms of cohesion and solidarity on the part of the 27 members.

Aside from paying tribute to our frontline workforce and praise the courage and human spirit showed by all in the face of virus spread, van der Leyen set out what she called NexGenerationEU; a movement to breathe new life into the EU but also and most importantly to adapt and lead the way into shaping tomorrow’s world. Through her speech, the president highlighted roughly 8 key themes which will be at the centre of this new European era’s agenda for the next 12 months, in accordance with the cardinal principles of trust, tolerance and agility. In other words, the 750 billion recovery funds raised extra-ordinarily will be directed towards the following areas:

1° Economy: the Union members must all breed economies that offer protection, stability and opportunities in the face of the continuous health crisis with a specific wish expressed for a stronger Health union – and thereby an extension of the Union’s competencies on the matter – but also the advent of European minimum wages.

2° Green Revolution: the Union will adopt more radical attitudes towards mitigating climate-change and safeguarding our planet, starting with the ambitious aim of becoming the first climate-neutral continent by 2050 through the EU’s Green Deal. So called ‘lighthouse’ high-impact and hydrogen-based projects will become an additional focus.

3° Technology: Europe has to step up its game and become a digital leader through securing industrial data and using it to support innovation. Delineating the use of AI by regulating the field, creating a secure EU e-identity and ensuring connectivity deployment so as to fully cover rural areas are also high on the list.

4° Vaccine management: The Union praises the open approach followed up until now in facing the virus whilst many others have opted for withdrawal and undercutting of cooperation. Having served as an example regarding vaccines research and funding, the EU must uphold its policy all the way to the finish line and ensure its accessibility for every citizen around the world.

5° Multilateralism: the current international order system needs some rethinking and international institutions need reform in order to de-paralyze crucial decision-making in urgent situations. This starts with the EU taking faster univocal positions on global issues (Honk-Kong, Moscow, Minsk, and Ankara) and systematically and unconditionally calling out any HR abuses whilst building on existing partnerships with EU’s like-minded allies.

6° Trade: Europe will be made out as a figure of fair-trade by pushing for broker agreements on protected areas and putting digital and environmental ethics at the forefront of its negotiations. Global trade will develop in a manner that is just, sustainable, and digitized.

7° Migration: A New Pact on Migration will be put forward imminently as to act on and move forward on this critical issue that has dragged for long enough; in that regard every member state is expecting to share responsibility and involvement including making the necessary compromises to implement adequate and dignifying management. Europe is taking a stand: legal and moral duties arising from Migrants’ precarious situations are not optional.

8° Against hate-inspired behaviours and discriminations: A zero-tolerance policy is reaffirmed by the Union by extending its crime list to all forms of hate crime or speech based on any of the sensitive criteria and dedicating budget to address de facto discriminations in sensitive areas of society. It is high time to reach equal, universal and mutual recognition of family relations within the EU zone.

Granted, the European ‘priorities forecast’ feels on point and leaves us nearly sighing in relief for it had been somewhat longed for. The themes are spot on, catch words are present and the phrasing of each section is nothing short of motivational with the most likely intended effect that the troops will be boosted and spirits lifted subsequently. When looking closer to the tools enunciated for every topical objective, there seems however to be nearly only abstract and remote strategies to get there.

This is because a great number of the decisive steps that the Union wishes to see be taken depend on the participation of various instruments and actors. Not only does it rely for most on the converging interests, capabilities and willingness of nation States (inside and outside the euro zone), but it is also contingent on the many complex layers and bodies of the Union itself. And when a tremendous amount of the proposed initiatives for European reconstruction is reliant on such a far-reaching chain of events, it simply calls into question the likelihood for the said measures and objectives to be attained – or at the very least in which timeframe.

One might then rightfully wonder whether good and strong willpower coupled with comprehensive projections can be enough. And perhaps in the same vein, whether we can afford to wait and let it play out in order to find out? In his recent writing Giles Merritt, founder of the platform ‘friends of Europe’ tends to suggest we most certainly do not have the luxury of waiting it out and not pushing the forward thinking even further. Indeed, according to him, Europe could and should do more. More than a call for action and change that might end up echoing and fading in the depths of the EU’s bureaucracy, the Union would be expected to back up its ambitious intentions with the setting up of an independent planning agency to ‘ensure revolutionary ideas and projects are speedily implemented’, to borrow Merritt’s words.

Whilst van der Leyen’s announcement was promising and efficient in that it sent an important message – the EU is wanting to get in the driver’s seat – only the follow-up with radical motions such as the creation of a readily available tool to implement fast and impactful changes can lend support to a claim that Europe is in a position to resolve current internal and external EU challenges, and more generally to bounce back from conceded decline suffered in the most recent decades.

As a matter of fact, Diplomat Ali Goutali and Professor Anis Bajrektarevic were the firsts to make an analysis in that sense as they articulated their proposal for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) earlier this year. Faced with similar challenges and need for sharper thinking and tools in order to be at the forefront of the economic and technologic challenges ahead, the OIC had relied heavily on its Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation and agenda reform to reinforce its cooperation and innovation capabilities as a global player.

Nevertheless, Goutali and Bajrektarevic already felt months ago that additional steps ought to be taken for the OIC to be able to respond swiftly and reaffirm further its mandate of facilitating common political actions. To that end, it was suggested that a mechanism for policy coordination in critical times – the Rapid Reaction Capacitation – in charge of, primarily, vaccines management and AI applications should be introduced. Furthermore, the stakes behind the urgent need of strengthening our international order through cohesive endeavours are evidently the same for both the EU and the Arab World. That is to permanently leave behind a pseudo-competitive nation-based attitude that is nothing but a relic from the past and has achieved little in the context of the Covid outbreak.

Hence, if such an independent body was to be established, all three authors agree that it could gather the indispensable political power and resources to carry out the desired reforms on multilateralism, cyber and digital infrastructures, Covid recovery measures or geopolitical partnerships. Necessarily streamlined in order to avoid undue blockades, these new regional bodies could be composed of energetic forward thinkers across the private and public sectors empowered to map out and act on adequate strategies for a post-Covid world. This is because we all share the same goal: achieving solidarity not only on paper or as a conceptual motto but in real life and in real time. And after all, didn’t von der Leyen herself concur with that line of thinking as she enjoined Member states to move towards qualified majority voting to avert slow and cumbersome decision-making processes?

It seems pretty clear to me that such discussions in relation to the aggressiveness in actions and potential bureaucratic barriers might raise an old-as-the-world yet still very important questions: Should we, Europe, be ready to risk losing some of the legitimacy or democratic aspects of our political bodies in order to gain in speed and efficiency in times of crisis? And if not, considering the embracement of some of our supra-national entity’s actions is already on shaky grounds, how can we ensure that such bold measures may still be reconciled with maximal legitimacy given our equally urging need for unity?

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Deciphering EU’s new investment deal with China

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The perceived economic gains of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI), which the 27-nation European Union recently struck with the People’s Republic of China, come at the cost of disregarding human rights, which the Western bloc is known for, amid clear and irreconcilable systemic differences.

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The closing days of 2020 saw the European Union and China striking a deal known as the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI), thereby concluding seven long years of negotiations, as per the year-end deadline. China is also the EU’s biggest trading partner after the United States, but a strategic and systemic rival too.

The European Commission, Brussels-based executive arm of the EU, primarily led the negotiations on behalf of the bloc. Germany, being the holder the EU Council Presidency and led by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s continued push, combined with Beijing’s last-minute concessions, proved instrumental in expediting the process of finalising the CAI before the end of 2020.

However, the deal will still have to wait for a formal ratification by both sides and an approval by the Strasbourg-based EU Parliament, a tougher task, before finally setting it on course to be effective in a couple of years’ time, if not by early 2022.

Better rules, level-playing field for European businesses

The EU, by this deal, aims to widen the access for European companies to lucrative Chinese markets, with billion-plus consumers, on a wide range of sectors, particularly in services such as healthcare, finance, cloud-computing and air travel, among others, that has always been restrictive to foreign players in the past.

The deal could bring in a level playing field in the conduct of European businesses in China wherein Chinese state-owned enterprises will no longer be given preferential treatment through subsidies, thereby promoting fair competition and ensuring transparency in technology transfers. Newer possibilities for the expansion European businesses in China will be opened.

The CAI also promise better rules, investment protection, and an investment dispute settlement mechanism within two years of signing, which will replace all the separate bilateral investment treaties currently signed between China and EU member states. The EU maintains that the main purpose of this new deal is to address the economic imbalance in its relations with China.

However, the most striking aspect of the CAI is that, for the first time, China commits to follow accepted standards on climate and labour aspects, even though in a vague form. And for the EU, the timing of this deal with China is significant as a way of signalling its reengagement with the world in the aftermath of a post-Brexit scenario.

At the same time, the CAI reaffirmed reciprocal access for Chinese companies into European markets, which they always had. So, the deal matters to Europe, more than it matters to China. So, the real question is the extent of compromises which European negotiators had to make to strike the deal with the Asian superpower.

The issue of forced labour in China

Many EU member countries and the US had been apprehensive about the human rights situation in the northern Xinjiang province of China where there have been evidences and investigations on the use of forced labour from the media and elsewhere, which has not been duly factored in while concluding the investment deal.

It has been alleged that in the past several years, the Chinese government has forced over a million Uighur minorities in Xinjiang to perform seasonal labour against their will and are often underpaid. But, the Chinese government has repeatedly denied such allegations.

Many European lawmakers believe that China is not interested in fully complying with international agreements after signing it and is not a responsible and trustable partner. The presence of mass detention camps in this province, as verified by satellite imagery and other documents, is also a human rights concern which the EU was not supposed to ignore, considering its historical commitments to human rights.

US concerns and strategic rivalry

The incoming Biden administration has also raised concerns about the CAI, stating that it would “welcome early consultations” with its European partners on shared concerns surrounding China’s unfair economic practices, hinting at the issue of forced labour and the deal’s lacking on the question of enforcement of human rights.

Being a security and strategic partner of the US and part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), any such deal which EU and its member countries sign with its strategic rival, China, could effectively undermine American-led efforts to counter the strategic and geopolitical threat posed by Beijing’s aggressive and expansionist policies around the world.

It also flies in the face of an incoming Biden administration which is openly committed to mend relations with allies in Europe that had been worsened under Donald Trump. Many experts in the US have felt the EU should’ve waited for a few more weeks until the Biden administration takes charge to form a co-ordinated approach, as it related to their common systemic and strategic rival, China.

Moreover, the deal comes at a time when individual EU members such as Germany and the Netherlands have recently released their own outlook on the Indo-Pacific strategy, which is perceivably aimed at containing China’s rise and to ensure balance of power in the region. Meanwhile, France’s outlook is in existence for two years now.

Way ahead for implementation

The deal has now been reached at the technical level, paving way for a final ratification. But, getting the deal through the European Parliament, which attaches far more significance to human rights concerns than the Commission and the Council, is going to be a tough task, as many European legislators are increasingly sceptical of Chinese intentions and commitments to any deal.

The coming months are going to be crucial with regard to how the European legislators will debate and take forward the deal to the next level.

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Hungry for change: An open letter to European governments

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In 2020, the entire world knew what it was to be hungry. Millions of people went without enough to eat, with the most desperate now facing famine. At the same time, isolation took on a new meaning, in which the lonely and most remote were deprived of human contact when they most needed it, while the many victims of Covid-19 were starved of air. For all of us, the human experience fell far short of satisfying even the most basic needs.

The pandemic has provided a taste of a future at the limits of existence, where people are bereft, governments are stymied and economies wither. But it has also fuelled an unprecedented global appetite for change to prevent this from becoming our long-term reality.

For all the obstacles and challenges we face in the weeks and months ahead, I start 2021 with a tremendous sense of optimism and hope that the growling in our stomachs and the yearning in our hearts can become the collective roar of defiance, of determination and of revolution to make this year better than last, and the future brighter than the past.

It starts with food, the most primal form of sustenance. It is food that determines the health and prospects of almost 750 million Europeans and counting. It is food that employs some 10 million in European agriculture alone and offers the promise of economic growth and development. And it is food that we have learned impacts our very ecosystems, down to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the climate we enjoy, come rain or shine.

Even before the pandemic, 2021 was destined to be a “super-year” for food, a year in which food production, consumption and disposal finally received the requisite global attention as the UN convenes the world’s first Food Systems Summit. But with two years’ worth of progress now compressed into the next 12 months, 2021 takes on a renewed significance.

After a year of global paralysis, caused by the shock of Covid-19, we must channel our anxieties, our fear, our hunger,and most of all our energies into action, and wake up to the fact that by transforming food systems to be healthier, more sustainable and inclusive, we can recover from the pandemic and limit the impact of future crises.

The change we need will require all of us to think and act differently because every one of us has a stake and a role in functioning food systems. But now, more than ever, we must look to our national leaders to chart the path forward by uniting farmers, producers, scientists, hauliers, grocers, and consumers, listening to their difficulties and insights, and pledging to improve each aspect of the food system for the betterment of all.

Policymakers must listen to Europe’s 10 million farmers as custodians of the resources that produce our food, and align their needs and challenges with the perspectives of environmentalists and entrepreneurs, chefs and restaurant owners, doctors and nutritionists to develop national commitments.

We enter 2021 with wind in our sails. More than 50 countries have joined the European Union in engaging with the Food Systems Summit and its five priority pillars, or Action Tracks, which cut across nutrition, poverty, climate change, resilience and sustainability. And more than two dozen countries have appointed a national convenor to host a series of country-level dialogues in the months ahead, a process that will underpin the Summit and set the agenda for the Decade of Action to 2030.

But this is just the beginning. With utmost urgency, I call on all UN Member States to join this global movement for a better, more fulfilling future, starting with the transformation of food systems. I urge governments to provide the platform that opens a conversation and guides countries towards tangible, concrete change. And I encourage everyone with fire in their bellies to get involved with the Food Systems Summit process this year and start the journey of transitioning to more inclusive and sustainable food systems.

The Summit is a “People’s Summit” for everyone, and its success relies on everyone everywhere getting involved through participating in Action Track surveys, joining the online Summit Community, and signing up to become Food Systems Heroes who are committed to improving food systems in their own communities and constituencies.

Too often, we say it is time to act and make a difference, then continue as before. But it would be unforgivable if the world was allowed to forget the lessons of the pandemic in our desperation to return to normal life. All the writing on the wall suggests that our food systems need reform now. Humanity is hungry for this change. It is time to sate our appetite.

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