What does the Coronavirus mean for the EU as an international actor?

What does the Coronavirus mean for the EU as an international actor?

Jamie Shea, Senior Research Associate, Martens Centre:

“The crisis is still far from over, and this gives the EU time and opportunity to re-assert its relevance. Its institutions and their leaders should focus on clear objectives and persuade EU national leaders and their bureaucracies, currently beleaguered by COVID-19 pandemic management and lockdowns, to join this effort now.

The first objective concerns recovery. The severe economic contraction in the industrialised countries could tip the global economy into a prolonged depression. So, the primary role for the EU is to lead the G7 and G20 together with the international financial institutions to come up with a coordinated global strategy to restart the global economy as soon as the virus subsides. The EU can best engage China in this effort in a way that the US finds increasingly difficult. China is where the virus originated, and it is the first major economic powerhouse to recover and restart production. So, it has a particular responsibility to help the rest of the world. The EU will need to persuade China to re-capitalise the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank and fully open the Chinese market to foreign goods and services. 

A second priority is to help Africa. African countries mostly lack the sanitary conditions, health infrastructure, and the possibility to self-isolate that richer countries enjoy. Yet if the pandemic is not contained in Africa with its rapidly rising population and exposure to climate change, migration flows, and jihadist extremism, the EU will have an even bigger security headache to deal with. COVID-19 would mutate and quickly spread back to Europe. So now is the time for the EU to develop a true health Marshall Plan for Africa and work with the World Health Organization (WHO), the African Union and the financial institutions and development agencies to elaborate an effective strategy before the pandemic runs into the millions and, like AIDS 20 years ago, brings entire African societies to the brink of collapse.

Finally, this pandemic will not be the last. The crisis has revealed multiple weaknesses in the global health management system from delays in sharing vital information, contradictory messaging and the spreading of fake news and disinformation, to uncoordinated responses and a lack of testing kits, respirators, and protective clothing. If the early stages of managing COVID-19 have been primarily national, emerging from it smoothly will need credible, authoritative guidance coming from international institutions. The EU should, therefore, lead an international ‘lessons learned’ exercise and push its conclusions robustly in the G7, G20, and UN bodies as well as regional organisations to ensure that the global community is better equipped to act early next time around. We need to mobilise more resources to lock down the pathogens before they spread beyond the point of origin. The EU can lead the way, first and foremost, by coordinating the crisis exit activities of its own 27 member states. It will then be in a stronger position to mobilise the rest of the world behind a better strategy for prevention.”

Giselle Bosse, Research Associate, Martens Centre:

“The picture of the EU as a failing, dysfunctional international actor in the COVID-19 crisis is misleading, at least up until now. The EU has minimal powers in the area of health, it can make recommendations, but member states are free to ignore them. And where it could, in areas of its legal competence, the Commission has already taken actions, for example, measures with regards to the lifting of export restrictions on medical equipment imposed by individual member states, or guidelines on borders to ensure the free movement of goods. The real challenge for the EU, the economic response to the crisis, is only just unfolding. This is an area in which the EU has significant competencies and instruments. Finding an agreement on financial rescue measures is not only crucial for the EU’s ability to offset the devastating economic consequences of COVID-19 and safeguard its standing as a major world trading power. Agreement on a joint economic response is also vital for trust and solidarity among the EU’s member states, which in turn is a precondition for a common EU foreign policy, including ongoing and future attempts to strengthen the EU’s autonomous security and defence capabilities.

Moreover, while much focus is (rightly) placed on containing COVID-19, saving lives and economic rescue, Human Rights Watch, among others, reminded the EU that ‘governments should avoid sweeping and overly broad restrictions on movement and personal liberty’ and cautioned against governments requesting movement data from mobile providers, which violates the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). To make things worse, on 30 March, Hungary passed a law that gives sweeping new powers to Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree, for an unlimited period of time. The manner in which the EU and its member states will handle human rights and democratic principles in the current crisis will send important signals internationally, and will very likely have implications for its credibility and legitimacy as a normative power.

In conclusion, much of the current criticism and depiction of the EU as a dysfunctional international actor in the COVID-19 crisis has been exaggerated, and often exploited for (geo-)political purposes. The current crisis will neither lead to the decline of the EU ‘as we know it’, nor will it fundamentally change global order or the EU’s geopolitical problems. However, the EU’s response to the crisis will send important signals beyond Europe, which can have significant implications for the credibility of the EU as an international actor. Such signals range from the EU’s commitment to multilateral trade (versus the EU’s ‘protectionist turn’) to its commitment to human rights and democracy (versus the toleration of illiberal governments and policies within the EU), its commitment to fighting climate change (versus calls to delay the Green Deal in times of economic crisis) and, above all, the member states’ commitment to social solidarity (versus national economic self-interest). How COVID-19 impacts the EU’s credibility as an international actor is (still) pretty much in its own hands.”

Jolyon Howorth, Senior Research Associate, Martens Centre:

“The pandemic is global; the response has been national/regional. The EU’s reputation for normative or soft power has been battered. The Union abandoned multilateral solidarity, even in the area (the welfare state) where it claimed superiority over other regimes. The EU, as an ‘actor’, has evaporated; member states closed borders and hoarded vital medical resources.

The crisis over finances replicated the Eurozone crisis, featuring a bitter internal struggle over the mutualisation of debt. Christine Lagarde initially declared it was ‘not the ECB’s responsibility’ to worry about German-Italian bond spreads. The refusal of the North to respond to Southern pleas for ‘Coronabonds’ poses an existential threat to the Union itself.

The crisis has demonstrated Asian efficiency and Western fumbling, highlighted by Trumpian denial. Transatlantic relations are in limbo. Logically, this should prompt a clear shift of EU strategy towards collective sovereignty and autonomy – faced with Beijing as a potential hegemon and Washington as a false friend. Yet, as a result of the crisis, the Union is uniquely ill-placed to pursue that path.

COVID-19 suggests the need for a total re-think of the balance of spending on defence and health. The ‘invisible enemy’ has demonstrated an exponentially greater need for protection against nature than against neighbours. The climate crisis awaits its turn on the stage.

The kaleidoscope has been shaken, and the pieces will take years to settle. Muddling through is henceforth akin to a death wish.”

Constantine Arvanitopoulos, Senior Research Associate, Martens Centre:

Europe is overwhelmed by a pandemic crisis of almost biblical proportions.

As countries are scrambling to deal with the immediate requirements of a colossal health emergency, an even greater threat looms on the horizon. Economists are warning us of the threat of an economic depression more significant than that of 1929.     

Our response to the health crisis was not the best moment of European solidarity. We will always be haunted by the images of the military lorries carrying the dead of the city of Bergamo and European member states looking to China for health aid and equipment.

This pandemic now threatens to infect the European «body politic». In political philosophy’s great tradition, the analogy between disease and civil disorder was proposed to encourage rulers to show foresight (Machiavelli) and reason (Hobbes), to prevent fatal disorder.

In this tradition, the tragic loss of life should mobilise European leadership to prevent the recession from turning into a prolonged depression. As Mario Draghi wrote, unforeseen circumstances require a change of mindset, or as  Keynes had put it, ‘when the facts change, I change my mind’. This is a war, and wars are financed by public debt. Otherwise, the cost of inaction will be devastating. Those in Europe that do not succumb to reason and adapt to change will have no one to blame but themselves.”

Niklas Nováky, Research Officer, Martens Centre:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Europe hard. Its immediate consequences will be economic and social in character. National governments across Europe will have to adopt unprecedented stimulus packages, adjust their existing budgets, and increase their national debt to protect their populations and economies from the pandemic and its eventual fallout. Yet, the pandemic will impact other policy areas as well.

With regard to the EU’s security and defence policy, COVID-19 is likely to make the Union increasingly inward-looking for the foreseeable future. As during the global economic and the eurozone debt crises, political willingness in the EU to address various crises in the Union’s neighbourhood is likely to decrease, for example. European crisis management activities won’t cease entirely, of course, as demonstrated by the EU’s recent decision to launch Operation IRINI to monitor the UN arms embargo in Libya. Still, it will become harder to convince EU governments to contribute to various existing and potential new operations, especially if those operations don’t serve their direct national interests.

The level of ambition of some of the new defence initiatives that the EU has launched since 2016 is also likely to be downscaled. The initiatives in the most immediate danger are the European Defence Fund, the European Peace Facility, and military mobility as their funding levels haven’t yet been agreed upon for the 2021-2027 financial period. Even before COVID-19, several member states expressed unwillingness to finance these initiatives at the levels proposed by the European Commission. COVID-19 will increase the number of such countries, and it is conceivable that some of the initiatives might not receive any funding at all. After all, in one technical compromise proposal made during the February European Council, the budget for military mobility was slashed completely. If this happens, it will be a severe setback to the European Commission’s ambition to be geopolitical.”