Brussels – In 2020, people around the world experienced life in slow motion, even as political developments accelerated. For the European Union, navigating the COVID-19 crisis has been challenging; yet, despite much naysaying, Europeans not only stuck together, but grew together, forging a more cohesive bloc. In 2021, global cooperation ought to make a strong comeback, and the EU should continue to pursue “strategic autonomy” so that it can safeguard its citizens and interests in the years and decades ahead.
It is a truism that 2020 marked a watershed. In fact, the world has been undergoing several tectonic shifts for years now, including but not limited to growing public distrust, polarization and identity politics, tepid economic growth, rising debts and deepening inequality. We have witnessed the weaponization of interdependence. Trade, technology, investment, tourism and other former venues of deepening cooperation have become instruments of power and domains of intense competition.
This was the big picture that we in the EU leadership saw when we took office in December 2019, just before conditions became even more challenging. For Europeans, it looked as though everything we held dear was being contested, be it multilateral cooperation; solidarity between countries, generations and individuals; or even basic respect for facts and science. In addition to several crises brewing in the EU’s neighborhood and the escalation of Sino-American tensions, we were hit suddenly by COVID-19, which has compounded all the other longer-term challenges Europe faces.
The pandemic stress test
There is no denying that the EU struggled during the early days of the pandemic. We were ill-prepared, and many member states were initially inclined to let everyone fend for themselves. But genuine acts of solidarity soon followed, with many countries taking patients from, and sending emergency equipment to, those most in need. Then the EU-level measures kicked in. The European Central Bank provided massive liquidity, and the European Commission authorized member states to incur large deficits to support their economies.
The discussion quickly turned to how the EU could provide fiscal support to the hardest-hit countries, and these debates culminated in a historic “recovery fund.” An unprecedented €1.8 trillion ($2.1 trillion) was allocated for a new “Next Generation EU” instrument and the bloc’s next seven-year budget. Moreover, two long-standing economic-policy shibboleths were shattered. For the first time, EU leaders agreed to issue large-scale common debt and allow for fiscal transfers, provided that spending is aligned with the twin priorities of funding a green transition and securing Europe’s digital future.
On the international front, the EU’s position has been clear: a “pandemic world” needs multilateral solutions. We have lived by this motto even when others were going it alone. Our May 2020 (virtual) pledging conference to raise funds for vaccine research was a perfect demonstration of the EU’s unique strengths. While the United States and China were proverbially at each other’s throats, Europe stepped up to lead on this critical issue. Moreover, we did so in a quintessentially European way (call it “Multilateralism 2.0”), working with not only governments, but also foundations and the private sector.
Since the summer, Europe has suffered a second wave of infections and struggled with renewed lockdowns. Although we have far more knowledge about COVID-19 and how to treat it, “pandemic fatigue” is widespread. Worse, the initial economic rebound appears to be fading, indicating that the crisis will continue to dominate our lives for months — and perhaps years — to come. As such, we must keep mobilizing across all of the relevant domains, from public health and the economy to security and global governance.
A new moment for multilateralism
Revitalizing multilateralism thus will be a top priority for the EU in 2021. Obviously, we cannot achieve this alone. But we anticipate that we will have more partners in the year ahead than we did in 2020. With Joe Biden succeeding Donald Trump as president, the U.S. is expected to rejoin to the Paris climate agreement, restore its support for the World Health Organization, return to the Iran nuclear deal, and adopt a more constructive stance within the World Trade Organization.
America’s return to the global stage will serve as a much-needed shot in the arm for multilateralism. We hope that others, including China and Russia, will follow suit in reversing their selective and self-serving approach to multilateral cooperation in the U.N. and elsewhere.
To be sure, pleas for “rules-based cooperation” often sound less inspiring than bombastic appeals to “take back control.” We must ensure that multilateralism delivers tangible results for citizens. No one will be safe until we have a reliable vaccine, so the paramount questions on vaccination are who will get what, when, and how. There is a serious risk of “vaccine nationalism” or “vaccine diplomacy,” with rich and powerful countries forcing themselves to the front of the line. In early 2020, some countries used “mask diplomacy” to extract political concessions in exchange for critically needed personal protective equipment. The EU will insist on the opposite approach: vaccines must be treated as a global public good and distributed based on medical needs.
The second big multilateral priority for 2021 is climate change, another area where the EU has shown leadership. Having already set a 2050 carbon-neutrality target, we are close to an agreement on a binding commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 55% by 2030. Moreover, these efforts seem to have inspired others: China has signaled its intention to become carbon neutral by 2060, and Japan and South Korea have said they will do so by 2050. We now need the US, India, Russia, Brazil and other big emitters to get on board.
Climate change is the existential challenge of our time. As with COVID-19, the warning signs are visible for all to see, and there is a solid scientific consensus about what to do. The difference, of course, is that there will never be a vaccine for climate change. So, we must bend the curve of greenhouse-gas emissions as fast as possible.
European strategic autonomy
Finally, at the same time that we pursue multilateralism, we must build a capacity to act autonomously when necessary. As I argued a year ago, Europeans must confront the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. The EU must “learn to speak the language of power.”
The pandemic has underscored the need for European strategic autonomy, a concept that originated in defense circles, but that now extends to public health and many other domains. We have learned the hard way that there are costs to depending on just a few suppliers of critical goods — especially when the supplier is a country whose value system is fundamentally at odds with our own. The solution to this problem is diversification and, when necessary, shorter supply chains.
This is not just about market failures in medical supplies. Strategic autonomy is about how Europe can address vulnerabilities across a wide range of areas — from critical technologies and infrastructure (such as digital networks and cloud computing) to rare earths and the raw materials needed for the green transition. We must avoid excessive dependence on external suppliers in these strategic sectors. The point is not to embrace autarky or protectionism, but to safeguard our political independence so that we remain masters of our own choices and future.
Some elements of this strategy were put in place in 2020. Europe now has a mechanism to screen foreign investments, and we have begun to address the distorting effects of foreign subsidies. We are also boosting the international role of the euro, and preparing additional measures on issues such as government procurement. As matters stand, the EU procurement market is almost totally open, while that of some others remains almost completely closed. We must either ensure reciprocity or take steps to restore balance.
Strategic autonomy also applies to cyber issues. How can Europe manage data? We must avoid the dichotomy whereby data belongs either to Big Tech platforms (with little government oversight) or to the state (including its link to the security apparatus). The EU’s last major tech legislation was the General Data Protection Regulation in 2018, and much has already changed since then.
These are just some of the many challenges the EU will have to navigate in 2021. It will be rough sailing, but we will emerge stronger if we stay focused on two complementary priorities: revitalizing multilateralism and building up strategic autonomy.
Josep Borrell is EU High Representative for foreign affairs and security policy and a vice president of the European Commission. © Project Syndicate, 2020.
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