Following the COVID-19 outbreak, what began as a health crisis soon turned into an economic and social emergency. In view of the growing rivalry between the United States and China, the pandemic poses a threat to the western economic liberal model and risks jeopardizing the world geopolitical order itself. The gap between the two superpowers is such that some media outlets started ironizing about the advent of a possible new Cold War. Be it a new Cold War or anything else you want to call it, one sure thing is that Europe, for the second time around, finds itself squeezed between two powers, risking ending up, once again, as the battleground between the two different blocs.
If the pandemic hit hard on the economic giants, particularly true was for the European Union, where COVID-19’s wave shed light on Brussels’ enormous dependence on the two opposing powers. As of China, a relatively new economic partner, the virus highlighted the extent to which the continent is dependent on areas nowadays considered critical for prosperous growth, i.e., health, technology, AI, and data. Conversely, on the other side, is the American giant, the historical partner, on which Europe relies not only economically, but also in terms of security. Defined as Europe’s “security umbrella” , and under NATO alliance, the United States, having troops stationed in many EU states, have proposed themselves as the main guarantor of that security that Europe, over the years, has forgotten to implement.
With the US pushing for decoupling from China and, on the other hand, China lobbying silently for greater economic dependence (FDI, private investment, technology), the growing conflict is putting global cooperation into question. This time, however, as Marie-Pierre Vedrenne (Vice-Chairwoman of Parliament’s Committee on International Trade) stated , the EU, which with all its 27 Member States, stands out as the world’s second-largest economy, cannot once again end up being a victim. US unilateralism and Chinese assertiveness triggered a rethinking of the EU’s strategic landscape . To prevent Europe from being swept aside by the opposing powers, in the drafting of a new EU Recovery Plan, particular attention has been paid to what appears to be the key objective for Europe in the coming months, namely, strategic autonomy.
Admittedly, Europe, like many other Western countries, was poorly prepared on many fronts when it came to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the need for a more robust political and economic approach did not arise alongside the virus outbreak in February. It was still November when European Union President Ursula Von Der Leyen started talking about the need for a new European Geopolitical Commission capable of boosting Brussels’ political role in the world arena. Due to the coexistence of nation-states and the single market, cooperation between all 27 states is not always easy to be reached, as shown by the rise in recent years of opposing narratives such as populism and authoritarianism. Indeed, a plan is needed, or Europe will risk, as announced by French President Emmanuel Macron, to disappear geopolitically.
Making America Great Again: the Strain on EU-US Relations
The alliance between the EU and the United States has been going on for quite a long time. The partnership is evidenced by the fact that both blocs are each other’s first exporting partner, with annual trade worth around $1.3 trillion. The alignment is also reinforced by the fact that both blocs share common values, namely democracy, respect for human rights, economy, and political freedom, in line with UN Charter three main pillars (peace and security, human rights, and development). In recent years, however, the relationship between the two has evolved, and not for the better. Under Trump’s administration, Europe is facing a situation where, for the first time, an American president does not share the very idea of the European project (Macron).
Alongside its notorious motto “America First”, Trump’s administration has taken several initiatives which, besides creating tensions in the world order, have put the US-EU partnership at risk. Among the most heated ones were the steel and aluminum tariffs, import tariffs on EU aircraft Airbus, and the threat to impose higher rates on car imports from Europe. Beyond the economic aspect, tensions have also arisen in the field of security. The American President has long called on his Transatlantic allies to respect the rule according to which 2% of member countries’ GDP has to be allocated to NATO defense spending fund. Moreover, by firmly pushing for unilateralism and protectionism, the US presidency has also expressed its intention to withdraw from some of 21st-century key treaties, such as the Paris Emissions Treaty and the Iranian Nuclear Deal. Furthermore, as a result of growing tensions with China, Trump has also recently threatened to permanently cut US founding to the UN health body, WHO. Simultaneously, tensions have escalated after a series of harsh statements — “the Chinese virus” — which have added further strain to the US-China situation.
As far as US-EU relations are concerned, two key points should be borne in mind: security and technology. According to figures, the United States would currently store 92% of Western world data, and, at a time when wars are fought on digital terrain, data access appears crucial. Here the importance of digital innovation for Europe. In contrast to strategic defense, actual defense, i.e., military defense, on the other hand, is far from being achieved in Europe. Not having an army on its own, and due to the significant presence of American troops on EU territory, Europe is unlikely to detach itself from the US “security umbrella”, at least for the near future. This is partly why, instead of talking of pure autonomy, experts have chosen the word “strategic” to underline that independence must be achieved in those areas which, due to the globalized world order, have an impact at a strategic level, such as, for instance, the field of cybersecurity. Apart from its military capacity, Europe remains the world’s second largest economy, and despite the long economic and historical link, should not blindly follow the United States if this doesn’t meet its interests.
From ‘Strategic Partner’ to ‘Systemic Rival’: EU-China Relations
Much more recent, when compared to the opponent’s, EU-China relations began deepening in 2008. As a result of the global financial crisis, many European companies, one of the most affected regions, opened to Chinese capital and investment, creating valuable trade links. Over the years, the relationship significantly developed, resulting in a series of diplomatic initiatives, such as the EU-China Summit, dedicated to strengthening of the cooperation between the two in dealing with global challenges through the rules-based international system.
Historically, in terms of partnerships, Europe has tended to establish closer ties with “like-minded” countries  as of the United States. When looking at China, at that time, still considered a developing country, in the 1990s, Transatlantic policymakers saw the advent of the internet on the continent as a factor leading to greater openness and transparency . On the contrary, however, in particular under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the implementation of technology resulted in increased political control and repression (Tibet, Uighur reform camps, Hong Kong). An evolution that has surely not gone unnoticed by European politicians. “Europe has lost its naivety” (Macron). Evidence of this is also provided by the fact that, for the first time, in 2019, EU Strategy Paper on EU-China relations referred to the country as a “systemic rival, promoting a different kind of governance”.
While the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted Europe’s dependence on China’s supply chain (health sector), EU-China trade relations have long been affected by unequal market access. The lack of “competitive neutrality”  between the two, evidenced by policies, such as the “Made in China 2025” one, stems from the fact that China in seeking to favor its own national champions, wouldn’t grant in equal measures market access to foreign companies, among which Europeans.
If there is no doubt that the two continents share different set of values and distant rules of governance, further cooperation with China represents both an opportunity and a necessity (Charles Michel) , especially in view of a world order becoming every day more polarized. In Europe’s eyes China would simultaneously represent:
Cooperation Partner. Sharing the same objectives on the global scene, both could count on mutual aid in fields such as Climate Change (as of today China stands as the first country in the world for emissions, but at the same time as one of the most committed to the Paris Protocol) and global trade. In this regard, WTO modernization appears fundamental, especially to Europeans, in order to ensure that the current rivalry between the American and Chinese blocs does not result in a trade war.
Negotiation Partner. Although efforts to normalize dialogue between China and Europe are still ongoing, the creation of an annual China-EU summit (the last one taking place via Zoom in June of this year) represents an important step toward ensuring that the interests of both blocs are mutually respected.
Economic Competitor. Especially in critical sectors such as supply chain, technologies, AI and data.
Systemic Rival. Presenting a different form of governance and not acting in accordance with the three pillars established by the United Nations Charter (peace and security, human rights and development) concerning the respect of human rights, for the moment, an alignment like that with the US is still far from being conceivable. As noted by European Deputy Brando Benifei, it isn’t easy to engage in an on ongoing dialogue if you can’t have free debate .
Being Europe, the leading exporting country for China, and given current US administration reluctancy to implement multilateralism, it is in the interests of both countries that trade relations continue and that cooperation in critical areas such as climate change and international agreements is intensified. However, to accomplish this, some reforms must be implemented, especially when it comes to a more rules-based trade system. While EU and China are still far from the “like-minded countries” perspective, on the economic ground in order for collaboration to be fruitful for both parties, higher openness must be reached, namely creating a more balanced as well as more reciprocal level playing field.
On May 27th, the European Commission announced its Recovery Plan, setting out the necessary economic steps to “repair and prepare for the next generation”. In order to achieve this, Brussels is prepared to allocate substantial funds: €750 million to boost the 2021–24 EU budget — NextGenerationEU — along with a longer-term reinforced budget in the region of €1.1 trillion for the period 2021-27. This ambitious plan assumes a new evolutionary phase of globalization in which there is a trade-off between the desire to reap the benefits of the free market and the necessity of maintaining the sovereignty and security of new global players . In this context, the EU must too evolve, such that it can continue to promote multilateralism while at the same time being more responsive to its own interests.
Founding elements of the new plan are:
Diversification of supply sources. Through reinforced strategic stockpile building, especially in the health sector, Europe will boost its capacity to handle future crises, while, simultaneously, reducing its over-dependence from other world players such as China and the USA. In this context, of particular importance is RescEU, the European crisis management body, which will be reinforced through the strengthening of emergency response infrastructure, transport capacity and more active emergency teams, thus increasing EU’s resilience;
Relocation of EU strategic activities. The implementation of shorter supply chains to bring them as close as possible to their place of consumption will not only ensure a higher level of strategic autonomy but will also result in a positive impact on the environment. By cutting transport, corporate footprints will be profoundly reduced. Of particular importance, in this context, key markets, which should be kept within the European Union (Borell);
Free trade safeguard. Given today’s globalized world order (in contrast to the bipolar USSR/US situation), full economic benefits are only attainable in an international environment . In order for this goal to be achieved, protectionism needs to be limited, while on the contrary, openness, cooperation, and coordination must be further promoted and implemented. In accordance with this logic, WTO, UN’s trade regulator, appears to be of particular importance;
FDI Strategic Guidance. Several guidelines have been issued by the European Commission to protect its strategic interests with regard to foreign investment. For this to happen, it is essential that relevant information relating to the monitoring of current or future foreign investment is coordinated and shared between the Union member states according to a system based on precise rules;
EU Green Deal. By investing in a greener economy and increasing the circular economic model, the strategy aims to modernize EU buildings and critical infrastructure and provide the EU Member States with affordable, nutritious, safe, and sustainable food. New employment opportunities will additionally be created through initiatives such as Renovation Wave and Just Transition Fund;
Digitalization. As with oil in the 20th century, data in the 21st is increasingly becoming a major currency. As a result, those who control data are more likely to be significant players in the international political economy. Therefore, the EU’s objective is to invest in better connectivity alongside the development of its industrial and technological presence. The investment in data and a more digital economy will also provide additional job opportunities. To achieve this, Europe will need to implement its data sharing legislation, setting out clear rules and strategies to boost cooperation at the European level, together with the capacity to preserve EU infrastructure secure.
Throughout history, financial crises have paved the way for economic coercion, leading states to devalue their strengths and set aside their interests to comply with the coercer’s demands . Stuck between American protectionism and Chinese pressure, Europe risks devaluing its own potential. Standing, as of today still, as the world’s second-largest economy, when trying to face the crisis, Brussels must not succumb to the trap of transforming the current economic depression in a sell-off of its critical infrastructure and technology .
In view of what some have called a new Cold War, it is in Europe’s interests to maintain a dialogue with both, acting as a “stabilizer” between the two players, while at the same time developing its structure in those areas likely to provide it with greater strategic autonomy and safeguard its global relevance. As Vice-Chairwoman of Parliament’s Committee on International Trade, Marie-Pierre Vedrenne  pointed out, sometimes, it is better to refuse an agreement than to remain tied to an unprofitable one.
1. European Council on Foreign Relations, Hackenbroich J. ”China, America, and how Europe can deal with war by economic means” (2020), URL: https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_china_america_and_how_europe_can_deal_with_war_by_economic_meansn
2. EC Introductory statement by Commissioner Phil Hogan at Informal meeting of EU Trade Ministers (16/04/2020), URL: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/hogan/announcements/introductory-statement-commissioner-phil-hogan-informal-meeting-eu-trade-ministers_en
3. Marie-Pierre Vedrenne for Pole Evénementiel Jeunes Européens, “The world after COVID-19: Europe’s role between the United States and China” webinar
4. McKenzie M., Loedel P., “The Promise and Reality of European Security Cooperation” (1998) pg. 72-73
5. Marie-Pierre Vedrenne for Pole Evénementiel Jeunes Européens, “The world after COVID-19: Europe’s role between the United States and China” webinar
6. Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations “Europe in the face of US-China rivalry” (2020) URL: http://www.egmontinstitute.be/content/uploads/2020/01/200122-Final-ETNC-report-Europe-in-the-Face-of-US-China-Rivalry.pdf?type=pdf
7. Palgrave Studies in European Union Politics, “The European Union and Multilateral Governance” (2012)
8. CSIS (Center for Strategic & International Studies), Ortega A. “The US-China race and the fate of transatlantic relations. part II: Bridging differing geopolitical views” (2020) URL: https://www.csis.org/analysis/us-china-race-and-fate-transatlantic-relations-0
9. Joint communication of the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council, “EU-China – a Strategic Outlook” (2019), URL: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/sites/beta-political/files/communication-eu-china-a-strategic-outlook.pdf
10. EU-China Summit video conference, 22 June 2020, URL: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/meetings/international-summit/2020/06/22/
11. Brando Benifei for Pole Evénementiel Jeunes Européens, “The world after COVID-19: Europe’s role between the United States and China” webinar
12. European Council on Foreign Relations, Borrel J. ”The post-coronavirus world is already here” (2020), URL: https://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/the_post_coronavirus_world_is_already_here
13. European Commision introductory statement by Commissioner Phil Hogan at Informal meeting of EU Trade Ministers (16.04.2020), URL: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/hogan/announcements/introductory-statement-commissioner-phil-hogan-informal-meeting-eu-trade-ministers_en
14. European Council on Foreign Relations, Hackenbroich J. ”China, America, and how Europe can deal with war by economic means” (2020), URL: https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_china_america_and_how_europe_can_deal_with_war_by_economic_meansn
15. EC Introductory statement by Commissioner Phil Hogan at Informal meeting of EU Trade Ministers (16/04/2020), URL: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/hogan/announcements/introductory-statement-commissioner-phil-hogan-informal-meeting-eu-trade-ministers_en
16.Marie-Pierre Vedrenne for Pole Evénementiel Jeunes Européens, “The world after COVID-19: Europe’s role between the United States and China” webinar
Taking For Granted … Be Wary
The title of these comments is inspired by my personal experience in important areas of public policy both as a politician beginning in the 1970s and more recently as Secretary General of the OECD from 1996 until 2006. That was a very important decade as it ushered in the period which some day we thought would be known as the beginning of globalization on a grand scale.
When I took up my responsibilities in Paris at the end of May 1996 it was a time brimming with optimism about the great future ahead for our children and generations to follow! We were about to say goodbye to one of the most brutal and bloody centuries in human history. Physical human suffering was compounded by poverty and misery of hundreds of millions, especially in the developing world.
Many of us involved at the international level in public policy saw major opportunities to address challenges which had eluded us in the past. Indeed we took a great deal for granted and I must confess that I certainly did. Why? Here are a few examples and the reasons for taking so much for granted.
- We had just witnessed major geopolitical restructuring in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union had collapsed and we assumed that the threat of nuclear war had disappeared with it;
- With the replacement of the GATT the ( WTO) we took for granted the exciting prospect of global free trade and investment, which would bring economic growth and rising prosperity everywhere, but especially to the developing world. We expected “trade” not “aid” to be the route out of third world poverty;
- The expansion of the proven Marshall Plan formula to regions fractured by division and conflict. We took for granted that such approaches could bring peace to the war torn Balkans and perhaps even to the Middle East and the Arab World;
- We took for granted that with the publication of the Brundtland Report “ Our Common Future” on Sustainable Development followed by the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, followed by the commitments in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, that the decades long stalemate of slowing green house gas emissions (GHGs) (and therefore global warming) had been broken and that multilateral international commitments would ensure the protection of the biosphere and its natural capital;
- We took for granted that improvements to the stunning success of healthy capitalism through universal principles of good corporate governance, supported by an Anti Bribery Convention, would control the greed inherent in the undue exploitation of unfettered capitalism. We took for granted that the wealth and wage disparities would narrow, especially in the United States;
- We witnessed the remarkable rise of the European Union (EU) uniting former enemies. We took its expansion and global role for granted. Regarding the EU, I often quote a paragraph from the preface of A History of Europe by H. A. L Fisher, a warden at Oxford University in the 1930s. He wrote: “[No] question [would be] more pertinent to the future welfare of the world than how the nations of Europe … may best be combined into some stable organization for the pursuit of their common interests and the avoidance of strife“;
- We also took for granted the gradual spread of democracy and democratic institutions into the former countries of the Soviet Union and elsewhere in central Europe, South America and Asia;
- Early misgivings about the ideological bent of Recep Erdogan as the Prime Minister, and then President of Turkey, were dispelled as he initially seemed supportive of good governance, freedom of the fourth estate, free speech and democratic principles. We believed him and took for granted that the remarkable reforms introduced by Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk, would ensure the survival of a secular democratic Turkey;
- We took for granted the United States as a lone global superpower, magnanimous and fair, the first true united nation with people drawn from all corners of the planet to its robust democracy and unlimited opportunities.
As we look back over the past 25 years it is obvious that much too much was taken for granted. Given that so few of the opportunities we assumed would bring the world to a much better place were seized by my generation, what do you perceive as a better way forward? When we open that discussion in a few minutes, I hope I have convinced you to take little for granted. Be wary, if not skeptical, about those who foresee only a prosperous and peaceful future for this wonderful planet.
We need to remind ourselves of the following and address the questions I raise in our general discussion.
1. We failed to engage Russia with the West and as a result are now strengthening NATO in an effort to contain Putin’s aggressive behaviour. History may show this to be the most egregious of all Western public policy failures in the post-Soviet Union period because of its impact on other areas of global concern where Russia should have been a partner. Is it too late to recover from a failure to engage Russia despite the Russian adventures in Crimea and the Ukraine?
2. The EU is increasingly fragile, with concern about the future of the euro common currency and the EU’s capacity to deal with massive immigration from the war-torn areas of the Middle East. Do the weaknesses of the EU reflect a too rapid expansion without strengthening institutions which would move it toward a more federalist structure promoted by the Spinelli group?
3. Tensions have grown between China and its neighbours over territorial disputes, convincing the United States to pivot from its European focus and increase its military presence in Asia. Does this refocussing plus a strengthening alliance between China and Russia herald the reigniting of another Cold War like the one my generation grew up with?
4.Now many more nations( and possibly terrorist groups) have access to nuclear weapons. Does that greatly increase the possibility of a 21st century nuclear war?
5.The global free trade agenda is in the doldrums with the failure of the Doha Round and the concomitant rise of protectionist rhetoric, especially in the United States ,at the highest political levels. Does this mean that global free trade is now beyond reach?
6. Is the prospect of eliminating poverty in the developing world through trade and investment dying?
7.Reductions in GHG emissions, especially CO2, but also methane, continueto elude us after decades of effort, showing how ineffectual the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process has been and will be. The widely heralded but unenforceable Paris Agreement in the context of a history of failures is even dangerous because much of the public thinks our leaders have come to grips with this challenge (as we all did after the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997). Do they do not realize that even if the agreed upon targets are achieved they are not sufficient to keep global temperatures below the level that the scientific community tells us is necessary to prevent dramatic and irreversible climate change?Is there resistance to developing a Plan B as a last resort to prevent unacceptable global warming? Solar radiation management , a form of geo engineering, seems to be broadly under consideration. Is that good or of concern? As areas of the world may become uninhabitable, will there be mass migration from areas of the developing word to more temperate climates?
8. For those who believe in democracy and perceived it as beginning to take root after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union do subsequent developments undermine the confidence that many democratic governments may be in retreat? In some countries, such as Thailand, there has been a return to a military dictatorship. In others, such as Russia and other countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, there is only a pretense of democracy with rigged elections, as in Belarus. There also appears to be backsliding in Turkey, a very important global player and a bridge between Asia and its historic Western allies. The situation in Turkey, which held such promise only a decade ago, is very worrisome. President Erdogan seems increasingly autocratic and intolerant of criticism and dissent. Failure of this democracy could be a sad, even tragic, development. Turkey is a major regional and global power, and through the influence of Atatürk it became an emerging secular democracy with a majority Sunni population straddling Europe and Asia. Atatürk showed the world what individual leadership supported by ethical standards could accomplish in a short period of time.
9. Is the world faced with a growing number of autocratic strongmen who would prefer to destroy the important international infrastructure if it constrains their personal ambitions? It would appear that when one combines the far east, parts of Eastern Europe, Russia, Turkey, China, North Korea, the Philippines, Thailand etc, more than 50% of humanity is or will soon be governed by “strong men“. With few exceptions such as Ataturk, history shows that such people have only one interest “me”.
President Trump gives every indication that he is anxious to join the ranks of these strongmen, initially by withdrawing the United States from the central role it had played through visionary leadership by building and helping to maintain the post war international and institutional architecture. His slogan “America First” should be interpreted for what it really is, namely, “Donald Trump First”.
There is a disquieting commentary in the New York Times of 16 December 2016 entitled “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy” by Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard University. Here is an excerpt:
“Donald J. Trump’s election has raised a question that few Americans ever imagined asking: Is our democracy in danger? … Past stability is no guarantee of democracy’s future survival … Our research points to several warning signs.
The clearest warning sign is the ascent of anti-democratic politicians into mainstream politics. Drawing on a close study of democracy’s demise in 1930s Europe, the eminent political scientist Juan J. Linz designed a “litmus test” to identify anti-democratic politicians. His indicators include a failure to reject violence unambiguously, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of elected governments. “
Mr. Trump tests positive on all counts. In the campaign, he encouraged violence among supporters and pledged to prosecute Hillary Clinton;
He hasthreatened legal action against unfriendly media, and continues to suggest that he might not accept the election results saying the election will be rigged. If he loses will he in some way resist leaving office?
Since his 2016 election he has not changed his attitude on any of these issues.
David Frum, a Conservative and traditional Republican and a senior editor at the Atlantic published a book two years ago “Trumpocacy- The Corruption of the American Republic”. It has recently been released in paperback with a new preface by Frum which reviews the appalling record of this individual to whom Americans have entrusted the leadership of the most powerful nation in history.
In a concluding paragraph of the book he writes….” President Trump is cruel, vengeful, ignorant, lazy, avaricious and treacherous…”
Later he adds: “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can be your finest hour as a citizen and as an American”
Today I cast Frum’s challenge to each of you in a global perspective rather than just American.
Yes, democracy can be fragile everywhere.
We who live in well-established democracies must never be complacent or smug about the success of our societies. The comments of the Harvard professors above echo that concern.
Our democratic societies and their political systems must adapt to a rapidly evolving world. We are increasingly in that global village through forces of globalization amplified by communication and transportation technologies.
In line with the work of Charles Darwin, it has been said that “it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” The same could be said of democratic governments and even empires.
What happens next to global free government is up to your generation of leadership. It is a humungous challenge, especially in countries where the seeds of democracy have never been planted or where they have enjoyed short life spans, Thailand and especially Turkey come to mind.
The future of democracy across the globe could be destroyed if the autocratic motives and moves of Donald Trump succeed, as they well might if I read the current political climate in the United States correctly. Despite shortcomings which need correction such as the unfortunate influence on elections through Super Pacs, the United States has been perceived for years as a remarkable democracy which others attempt to emulate. This may be about to change as it is increasingly viewed as government by the rich, of the rich and for the rich, and Trump does not appear to feel constrained by the institutional checks and balances of the constitution. He could put American democracy on the terrible path to an autocratic state which he seems to admire, especially in the Russia and Turkey of today.
In summary, what looked to be a promising future in all the major areas of concern in the 1990s has evolved into what could best be described as an economic, social, and geopolitical mess. But as bad as that story is, we have succeeded in making the future even more problematic with the arrival of global terrorism.
My generation must recognize the extraordinary failures of the past decades. Your generation must do better.
It seems that efforts to create consensus on major issues amongst many sovereign nations does not work. Is there not a better way forward in global governance? This is the last question I leave you with.
Have 190 counties not offered proof of the impossibility of finalizing an international and binding free trade agreement known as the Doha Round, or as almost 200 countries have done in their efforts to find consensus on concrete solutions to address the challenges of climate change. Neither set of efforts, the first initiated through the WTO process and the second through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process, has delivered the results sought and it is unlikely they ever will.
Is starting small and gradually broadening an international consensus a better option? The EU successfully evolved from a small base but has it expanded too rapidly to consolidate and build upon its remarkable and successful beginnings? Even the G20 may be ineffectual because of size and economic and social diversity.
Does the difficulty of building broad consensus on these issues suggests that a structure more resembling the UN Security Council would be more effective? Could the Security Council itself with a limited membership of powerful countries become a global steering group and replace the G-7 process?
Whether we like it or not, each major power has spheres of influence over smaller regional powers through shared history, culture (sometimes language), and trade and investment.
When we compare human and societal evolution to a relay race one generation must pass the baton on to the next. In a small way that is what I am saying to you today. I hope our discussion will touch upon a number of these important and often controversial issues.
We have fallen behind in many respects in the early years of this 21st century, perhaps even forfeiting many of the hard-earned benefits of good capitalism and democracy to an ever increasing number of corrupt strong men and autocratic regimes.
Is that the future?
Remember the words Shakespeare attributed to Brutus:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
I am persuaded that the latter may be our fate. We did not take the flood of opportunities at hand in the 1990s. Is it too late to recover through hard work, sacrifice and creativity in restructuring global governance for a better world.
What should we do? What can you do?
It will depend to a large extent on your personal values which I hope have not been irreversibly warped by admiration for the material success of greed and visible wealth of the famous 1% who dominate power and politics in the USA and increasingly elsewhere.
I have described the state of the world today as analogous to the fireplace at my country home. It is usually fully loaded with tinder, kindling and dry wood. All it awaits is a match. Unfortunately, in the world today there are many matches waiting to be lit and spread their deadly destruction to regions, if not the planet as a whole.
*This text is exclusively made as supplementary for a university lecture held on 28 OCT 2020. It is a part of the so-called ‘Geneva Lecture Series – Contemporary World of Geo-economics’, concepted and considered by prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic for the Swiss University in Geneva.
Economic situation is EU citizens’ top concern in light of the coronavirus pandemic
In a troubled period marked by the coronavirus pandemic, trust in the EU remains stable and Europeans trust the EU to make the right decisions in response to the pandemic in the future. In the new Standard Eurobarometer survey released today, European citizens identify the economic situation, the state of Member States’ public finances and immigration as the three top concerns at EU level. The economic situation is also the main concern at national level, followed by health and unemployment.
In the new Eurobarometer conducted in July and August, concern about the economic situation is reflected in the perception of the current state of the economy. 64% of Europeans think that the situation is ‘bad’ and 42% of Europeans think that their country’s economy will recover from the adverse effects of the coronavirus outbreak ‘in 2023 or later’.
Europeans are divided (45% ‘satisfied’ vs 44% ‘not satisfied’) regarding the measures taken by the EU to fight the pandemic. However, 62% say they trust the EU to make the right decisions in the future, and 60% remain optimistic about the future of the EU.
Trust and image of the EU
Trust in the European Union has remained stable since autumn 2019 at 43%, despite variations of public perceptions during the pandemic. Trust in national governments and parliaments has increased (40%, +6 percentage points and 36%, +2 respectively).
In 15 Member States, a majority of respondents says they trust the EU, with the highest levels observed in Ireland (73%), Denmark (63%) and Lithuania (59%). The lowest levels of trust in the EU are observed in Italy (28%), France (30%) and Greece (32%).
The proportion of respondents with a positive image of the EU is the same as that with a neutral image (40%). 19% of respondents have a negative image of the EU (-1 percentage points).
In 13 EU Member States, a majority of respondents has a positive image of the EU, with the highest proportions observed in Ireland (71%), Poland and Portugal (both 55%). In 13 other Member States, the EU conjures up a predominantly neutral image for respondents, with the highest proportions observed in Malta (56%), Spain, Latvia and Slovenia (all 48%).
Main concerns at EU and national level
Citizens mentioned the economic situation as the most pressing issue facing the EU – over one-third (35%) of all respondents, a strong increase of 16 percentage points since autumn 2019, and rise from third to first concern. Concern about the economic situation has not been this high since spring 2014.
Europeans are also increasingly concerned about the state of Member States’ public finances (23%, +6 percentage points, the highest level since spring 2015), which moves from fifth to second place on a par with immigration (23%, -13 percentage points), the latter now being at the lowest level since autumn 2014.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, health (22%, new item) is the fourth most mentioned concern at EU level. The issue of the environment and climate change has lost ground, down 8 percentage points to 20%, followed by unemployment (17%, +5 percentage points).
Similarly, the economic situation (33%, +17 percentage points) has overtaken health as the most important issue at national level, rising from seventh to first position. Although in second position, health has had a notable increase in mentions since autumn 2019 (31%, +9 percentage points), taking it to its highest ever level over the past six years.
Unemployment has also increased considerably in importance (28%, +8 percentage points), followed by rising prices/inflation/cost of living (18%, -2 percentage points), the environment and climate change (14%, -6 percentage points) and government debt (12%, +4 percentage points). Mentions of immigration (11%, -5 percentage points), are at their lowest level for the past six years.
The current economic situation
Since autumn 2019, the proportion of Europeans who think that the current situation of their national economy is ‘good’ (34%, -13 percentage points) has declined considerably, while the proportion of respondents who judge this situation to be ‘bad’ has increased sharply (64%, +14 percentage points).
At national level, a majority of respondents in 10 countries says that the national economic situation is good (down from 15 in autumn 2019). The proportion of respondents who say the situation of their national economy is good ranges from 83% in Luxembourg to 9% in Greece.
The coronavirus pandemic and public opinion in the EU
Europeans are divided on the measures taken by the EU institutions to fight the coronavirus outbreak (45% ‘satisfied’ vs 44% ‘not satisfied’). However, a majority of respondents in 19 Member States is satisfied with the measures taken by the European Union institutions to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The highest positive figures are found in Ireland (71%); Hungary, Romania and Poland (all 60%). In seven countries, a majority of respondents is ‘not satisfied’, especially in Luxembourg (63%), Italy (58%), Greece and Czechia (both 55%) and Spain (52%). In Austria, equal proportions of respondents are satisfied, and not satisfied (both 47%).
However, more than six Europeans in ten trust the EU to make the right decisions in the future (62%). The most frequently mentioned priorities for the EU’s response to the coronavirus pandemic are: establish a strategy for facing a similar crisis in the future and develop financial means to find a treatment or vaccine (each 37%). 30% think that developing a European health policy should be a priority.
Europeans’ personal experiences of confinement measures were very diverse. Overall, close to three Europeans in ten say that it was fairly easy to cope with (31%), while a quarter say it was fairly difficult to cope with (25%). Finally, 30% say that it was ‘both easy and difficult to cope with’.
Key policy areas
Asked about the objectives of the European Green Deal, Europeans continue identifying ‘developing renewable energy‘ and ‘fighting against plastic waste and leading on the issue of single-use of plastic’ as the top priorities. More than one third think the top priority should be supporting EU farmers (38%) or promoting the circular economy (36%). Just over three in ten think reducing energy consumption (31%) should be the top priority.
Support for the Economic and Monetary Union and for the euro remains high, with 75% of respondents in the Euro area in favour of the EU’s single currency. In the EU27 as a whole, support for the euro has increased to 67% (+5).
EU citizenship and European democracy
A majority of people in 26 EU Member States (except Italy) and 70% across the EU feel that they are citizens of the EU. At a national level the highest scores are observed in Ireland and Luxembourg (both 89%), Poland (83%), Slovakia and Germany (both 82%), Lithuania (81%), Hungary, Portugal and Denmark (all 80%).
A majority of Europeans (53%) say they are satisfied with the way democracy works in the EU. The proportion of respondents who are ‘not satisfied’ has increased, by 3 percentage points since autumn 2019 to 43%.
Optimism for the future of the EU
Finally, in this troubled period, 60% of Europeans say they are optimistic about the future of the EU. The highest scores for optimism are observed in Ireland (81%), Lithuania and Poland (both 75%) and Croatia (74%). The lowest levels of optimism are seen in Greece (44%) and Italy (49%), where pessimism outweighs optimism, and France, where opinion is evenly divided (49% vs 49%).
The ‘Summer 2020 – Standard Eurobarometer’ (EB 93) was conducted face-to-face and exceptionally completed with online interviews between 9 July and 26 August 2020, across the 27 EU Member States, in the United Kingdom and in the candidate countries 26,681 interviews were conducted in the 27 Member States.
Could the EU Make its ASEAN Breakthrough with the Emerging Indo-Pacific Strategy?
The Indo-Pacific policy guidelines that was announced by the German Federal Foreign Office last week, is a clear signal from Berlin in becoming a shaper for the international order in the volatile region. Entitled “Germany-Europe-Asia: Shaping the 21st Century Together”, the policy guidelines is the second of such document in the European Union (EU) after the Macron administration released its own Indo-Pacific strategy back in August 2019. But considering that Germany is the current president of the EU Council, this policy guidelines has been ever more significant. For one, Berlin has made clear its intention to lead Europe into this new Indo-Pacific charge as the ‘third power’ after the US-led coalition and China ⸺ an aim that is highlighted not just by this German government’s policy guidelines but also, incisively described by the French as the ‘mediating power’.
The release of such document, of course, reverberates different responses from political observers outside of Europe. For instance, Sebastian Strangio sees the German latest move as part of Europe’s reassessment of its approach to China and boldly predicts that other EU nations are to follow suit with their new stand on China. Prominent Filipino expert, Richard Javad Heydarian, meanwhile, is of the view that Germany’s pursuit as the shaper of international order is deliberately focused on the key regions which bear strategic importance to Europe overall. On the other hand, Xin Hua, adopts a pessimistic view on the ability of Europe to influence the Indo-Pacific region. With Berlin’s policy guidelines, the Chinese scholar sees Europe’s reliance on soft power (such as norms diffusion)to influence the Indo-Pacific region, in contrast to the US that projects its hard power in the region through military prowess in the region, will make it less than what it aimed as the shaper of international order.
Be it applause or skepticism, the observers are in the same view that Berlin’s latest move is a drastic shift from its previous ambiguous position on the Indo-Pacific region which has become the hotbed for the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision pushed by the US and its military allies such as Japan and Australia. With this policy guidelines in place, it signals the seriousness of the German government in joining the Indo-Pacific region with the rest of the EU, as a third power that is independent from the US camp and China. What is left is the forming of a full European-level Indo-Pacific strategy and its implementation in the years ahead.
The ASEAN Context
In the ASEAN context, Germany’s move has created two questions that are worthy to ponder. First, how will this emerging Indo-Pacific strategy be different to Europe’s current cooperation policy toward ASEAN as a whole? This is the foremost question to ask among ASEAN member states as the German government’s Indo-Pacific policy guidelines singled out the Southeast Asian bloc as the country’s focused cooperation partner in different areas of cooperation: climate change, marine pollution, rule of law and human rights, culture, education, science, trade and technology. That said, this is not the first time ASEAN appeared as the important partner for the EU.As a matter of fact, two-way cooperation has been ongoing since the establishment of dialogue relations in 1977.
As of 2020, two EU-ASEAN Action Plans have been agreed upon, implemented and in the middle of enforcement. Within the Action Plan (2018-2022) that runs through the year 2022, a myriad of cooperation areas has been outlined, spanning across political-security, economic and socio-cultural pillars. In particular, those areas of cooperation identified in Germany’s Indo-Pacific policy guidelines are within the trans-regional plan as well. What is new is that Berlin has set security policy as a special focus area for Indo-Pacific cooperation ⸺ a point that is emphasized by the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas in his press release following the announcement of the country’s Indo-Pacific policy guidelines. In line with such niche orientation, Germany can readily lead the European initiative to assist ASEAN in the two sub-areas of non-traditional security that do not have substantial cooperation but chiefly important in the coming months and years: cybersecurity and public health security. These two sub-areas will be the best start for the EU’s Indo-Pacific push in the ASEAN region.
Second, how will the EU’s Indo-Pacific approach be different from its current dogmatic approach in its cooperation with ASEAN? By all means, it is no secret that dogmatic adherence to rules and norms remained to be the greatest obstacle for the EU’s full amelioration of ties with ASEAN in the past years. As of today, the EU’s ban of Indonesian and Malaysian imports as well as its unease on Filipino President Duterte and Burmese junta’s human rights records, are the contentious issues that prevented the European bloc to go past its finishing line in negotiating a full free trade pact with ASEAN. From such case alone, it is clear that the European bloc’s normative stance predicated upon Brussels’ strictly defined rules, norms and values on climate change and human rights issues, is in play when comes to international cooperation with ASEAN.
Having said that, Germany’s latest Indo-Pacific policy guidelines do not precisely highlight of its normative stance apart from maintaining the international rules-based order in the volatile region. But on the other hand, Germany’s aim for the EU to become the shaper of such order also sparks an open-ended question of whether its strict adherence to rules, norms and values (as in the present) will continue to be the defining feature of its cooperation with ASEAN. From the Indo-Pacific policy guidelines, this question is yet to be answered by the German government and perhaps, this dilemma is to betackled in the EU’s emerging Indo-Pacific strategy. Should a pragmatic approach is adopted by the EU ⸺ as has been recently demonstrated by the conclusion and enforcement of the EU-Vietnam Partnership and Cooperation Agreement despite human rights concern in the ASEAN member state ⸺ it will definitely clear the normative obstacle for the eventual conclusion of a free trade pact with the Southeast Asian bloc. More than that, it stands to facilitate greater cooperation in all areas of partnership between the two regions.
All in all, the EU’s emerging Indo-Pacific strategy should need to address these two questions that have surfaced fromthe former’s past and current experiences with ASEAN. While the German government’s Indo-Pacific policy guidelines have set new tone to Europe’s engagement with the volatile region, such document has yet to tackle these two difficult questions. Only by tacklingthese two questions will the EU be able to make its much-needed ASEAN breakthroughwith the emerging Indo-Pacific strategy.
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