The European Union response to the pandemic shows that while the crisis has significantly challenged the multilateral system, cooperation and EU co-leadership are more needed in the post-COVID-19 world.
This article is part of GP-ORF series — From Alpha Century to Viral World: The Raisina Young Fellows Speak.
“This is the time for cooperation. This is the time for science and solidarity. This is the time for all humanity to rally around a common cause. And you can count on Europe to always play for the team,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the World Health Organisation’s 73rd assembly in May 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic<1>.
But is this really the case? Europe’s initial response to the pandemic showed its unpreparedness and a profound lack of solidarity, but there have been improvements since then. What impact has the pandemic had on the multilateral system and what can Europe do to help preserve it? The European Union (EU) response to the pandemic shows that while the crisis has significantly challenged the multilateral system, cooperation and EU co-leadership are more needed in the post-COVID-19 world.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent socioeconomic crisis had a profound impact on countries around the world. While the health crisis is far from over and the full scale of its economic impact will depend on how fast an effective vaccination can be deployed, and if it will also protect against future mutations of the coronavirus, it is already clear there will be far-reaching implications. The impact on the global economy is already more severe than during the 2008 financial crisis<2>, and there is a widespread expectation that the pandemic and its aftermath represent a profound change to the global order. But it could also be a window of opportunity.
The EU was overwhelmed at the beginning of the crisis, as were most other countries. The first reactions in Europe were suboptimal and focused on the national level. Border controls were quickly established, and there was a profound lack of solidarity among the member states, with restrictions imposed by some on the export of personal protective equipment (notably, face masks), even as others in the union were struggling to tackle the crisis. Most telling is that when Italy, among the hardest-hit countries in the early months of the pandemic, sought assistance, it took its European partners longer to provide such support than it did for China, Russia or even Cuba and Albania<3>. Despite calls for unity at the pan European level, the early months of the crisis were marked by a lack of solidarity and a disregard for established rules of the single market and the Schengen area. Indeed, most actions taken during the initial phase of the pandemic were dependent on the competence of the member states, notably in health, and therefore the EU as such was not able to act more swiftly in these areas. This, however, led to many seeing the EU response to the crisis as insufficient and the grouping losing public support<4>. The most visible expression of this feeling was the “heartfelt apology” offered by von der Leyen to those that felt abandoned during the worst phase of the pandemic<5>.
However, as outlined some days later by High Representative/Vice President of the European Commission Josep Borrell, “handling the corona crisis is a marathon, not a sprint”<6>, and a shaky start does not mean that one cannot win in the end.
Indeed, the EU has since then advanced significantly in its fight against the pandemic. Over half a million EU citizens have been repatriated to their home countries from around the world<7>. Moreover, coordination at the EU level has increased on a wide range of subjects, including the reopening of borders, keeping trade open, joint procurement of medical equipment, supporting research on vaccines, diagnostics and treatments, as well as relaxing state aid rules to allow for government support to the economy to save jobs and companies. This also included emergency purchases of private and public financial securities through the European Central Bank or agreeing on the screening of foreign direct investment to protect critical assets and infrastructure<8>.
The EU can function efficiently and effectively in addressing the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic since its competencies in those areas are strong. The most important response in this field was the agreement on the next EU budget, the Multiannual Financial Framework, for the 2021-2027 period<9>. Despite the initial resistance — notably from ‘the frugal four’ countries that positioned themselves against grant-based support to the most-affected member states<10> — and a long negotiation marathon, the outcome was a big step forward. The key achievement is the agreement that the EU can borrow funds totalling 750 billion euros on the capital markets as part of the ‘Next Generation EU’ package, leading to common debt. These funds are earmarked to support those countries and economies hardest hit by the pandemic. The funds are to be repaid over a long period from the EU’s resources, representing a major step forward in European integration and serves as a visible sign that “we now feel sufficiently interdependent and united to make commitments together for the coming decades”<11>, as outlined by Borrell. Furthermore, the Council agreed on a tax contribution from member states to the EU budget based on non-recycled plastic packaging waste — the first time a new EU own-financing resource has been agreed on since 1988<12>.
On the global level, the pandemic has highlighted the weaknesses in the interconnected global system and accelerated existing crises, strengthening already existing trends. First, a stronger competition or even confrontation between the US and China might become the defining feature of global politics in the years to come<13>. Second, the trend of de-globalisation has accelerated as the pandemic revealed vulnerabilities linked to overdependence on foreign suppliers and global supply chains, particularly in the health and pharmaceutical sectors. Third, attacks on the post-Second World War global order, including by the creator of this order (the US) have continued. The US is also said to have actively undermined multilateral efforts to fight the pandemic by cutting funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) due to the organisation’s alleged China bias<14>. The pandemic was the first major international event since the beginning of the twentieth century to see the US not take a leadership role in crisis response. This lack of leadership at the global level brought multilateralism under further strain, evident by the limited multilateral reply to the pandemic<15>, with Borrell even calling it “a real crisis of multilateralism — the G7 and G20 are absent, the UN Security Council is paralysed and many ‘technical’ organisations are turned into arenas where countries compete for influence”<16>. While the US administration under President Joe Biden has already announced a different approach, notably by re-joining the WHO and is planning for a Global Summit of Democracies, it is clear that the lack of leadership has damaged multilateralism at the time when China presented itself more assertively on the world stage.
Given the absence of global leadership to defend multilateralism, there are increasing calls for the EU to take up the mantle. Indeed, the EU has always defined itself as a strong supporter of multilateralism and already has included this aim in its 2003 Security Strategy<17>. The pandemic has created an opportunity and emphasised the need for those who believe in multilateralism to come together in its defence. As the world’s largest trading block and largest provider of development assistance, the EU is “not only well-placed, but almost doomed to play this leading role”<18>.
European leaders understood the need for the EU to play a stronger role in global affairs even before the pandemic hit — ahead of assuming office as European Commission president, von der Leyen called for a geopolitical Commission and for “the European Union to be the guardian of multilateralism”<19>. The new strategy on strengthening the EU’s contribution to rules-based multilateralism<20> underlines the union’s willingness to take on this role. It outlines, as stressed by EU Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen, “our ambition on inclusive multilateralism, our strong commitment to renew it” through specific actions<21>. It is in the EU’s interest to engage in the defence of multilateralism, as not only a core value of the EU but also a key factor in defeating the pandemic and preventing such outbreaks in the future. According to Borrell, the EU “will only be able to control this disease if it is controlled everywhere” and “Europe has a key responsibility to defend effective multilateralism and help developing countries in need”<22>.
Furthermore, the EU must avoid, as far as possible, getting mired in the US-China rivalry as well as for this rivalry to have lasting negative consequences for the international system, putting even further pressure on its institutions. Although the EU is culturally and historically aligned to the US — and the new Biden administration in Washington DC provides opportunities for closer cooperation — it is also important to continue to engage with China. The EU has made it clear that it sees China as a partner, competitor and systemic rival<23>, thereby acknowledging the interest and the capacity to work with China on several key issues of crucial global importance to find compromises.
Notably, the EU must also find a way to balance a desire for more market control, de-globalisation and security (amid rising de-globalisation sentiments) with global engagement. It must focus on increasing strategic autonomy, mainly reducing dependencies and increasing diversification, protecting critical infrastructure and strategic activities<24>, or the “capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible,” as outlined in the November 2016 Council conclusions progress in implementing the EU Global Strategy in the area of Security and Defence<25>.
It will be paramount for the EU to engage with other like-minded democracies on these issues, especially the defence of the multilateral rules-based system. The EU will need to strengthen its cooperation with all willing countries, particularly strategic partners like the US, Japan, India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Korea, as outlined in the ‘Borrell Doctrine’ to “make multilateralism great again”<26>.
According to Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of European integration, “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises”<27>. Actions by European leaders during the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath are no exception to this and have shown that there is scope for a stronger Europe. Changes implemented during the pandemic will shape the future of Europe, with likely further integration in the follow-ups to the Multiannual Financial Framework and the ‘Next Generation EU’ package.
There have been calls within and outside the EU for stronger European leadership, notably to save multilateralism, which has drawn increasing support from EU citizens, even as some remain relatively sceptical<28>. Although the EU already appeared to have been acting on this before COVID-19 struck, the grouping’s foreign policy strategies amid the crisis reiterates its commitment to live up to the promises of defending multilateralism. This will be key to address the current global health crisis and other challenges that require a strong and united multilateral response, such as climate change, biodiversity loss or ecological degradation.
The views expressed are purely those of the writer and may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the European External Action Service.
<1> Ursula von der Leyen, (speech, Brussels, World Health Organization’s 73rd Assembly, 19 May 2020).<2> “Pandemic, Recession: The Global Economy in Crisis,” in Global Economic Prospects (World Bank, June 2020).
<4> Ivan Krastev & Mark Leonard, “Europe’s Pandemic Politics: How the Virus has changed the public’s worldview,” European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR) Policy Brief, June 2020.
<5> Ursula von der Leyen, “EU coordinated action to combat the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences” (speech, Brussels, European Parliament Plenary on the, 16 April 2020).
<7> Borrell, “The EU’s corona marathon”
<10> Leigh, “A tale of two pandemics”
<12> Peter Becker, Kai-Olaf Lang, Barbara Lippert and Pawel Tokarski, “Die Pandemie und die EU: Integrationsimpuls mit ungewisser Wirkung," in International Politik unter Pandemie-Bedingungen, eds Barbara Lippert, Stefan Mair and Volker Perthes (SWP Studie 26, December 2020).
<14> Nicole Koenig and Anna Stahl, “How the coronavirus pandemic affects the EU’s geopolitical agenda,” Policy Paper, Heartie School/Jacques Delors Centre, 24 April 2020.
<15> Fraser Cameron, “EU-Asia should defend multilateralism,” Asia Europe Journal 18 (2020), pp. 217-221.
<18> Koening and Stahl, “How the coronavirus pandemic affects the EU’s geopolitical agenda”
<20> European Commission & High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council on strengthening the EU’s contribution to rules-based multilateralism, Brussels, 17 February 2021, JOIN (2021) 3 final.
<23> European Commission & High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council, EU-China – A Strategic Outlook, Brussels, 12 March 2022, JOIN (2019) 5 final.
<25> Council of the European Union, Council Conclusions on implementing the EU Global Strategy in the area of Security and Defence, Council of the European Union, 14 November 2016.
<26> Josep Borrell, “What European Foreign Policy in times of COVID-19,” Groupe d ’études géopolitiques, 14 December 2020.
<27> Jean Monnet, Mémoires, (Paris: Fayard, 1976), pp. 488.
<28> Krastev and Leonard, “Europe’s Pandemic Politics”
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Lucas Maurer currently works in the Asia-Pacific Department of the European External Action Service (EEAS). As co-desk for India and desk for Nepal and Bhutan ...Read More +