Monday

18th Jan 2021

Opinion

The future of Europe - rook or pawn?

  • The coronavirus has caused an unprecedented thinning-out of the chessboard. In the process, it has weakened the positions of both Kings (Photo: Wikimedia)

Coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the global geopolitical chessboard.

There are no doubts about who is the King on the chessboard. On either side of the board. The game is now about whether, and for how long, will 'White' be able to maintain its dynamics and dominance.

Read and decide

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The bottom line is what pieces the sides still have at their disposal. Coronavirus has caused an unprecedented thinning-out of the chessboard. In the process, it has weakened the positions of both Kings. However, my impression is that until now, this has applied slightly more to White.

Who is (until now) playing with Black?

There is no doubt that China will aspire to global dominance even though it holds primary responsibility for the corona crisis.

It keeps striving for global influence and a boost to its own reputation. It seems that it has bounced back from the pandemic and is heading towards economic recovery.

The power of its propaganda is not diminishing, quite the contrary, it is gaining momentum. There seems to be widespread perception that these past few weeks, the whole world depended on a supply of face masks from China.

The country has skilfully intervened with assistance, not only to Europe but also to the United States. Its propaganda is acquiring legitimacy and impact in the eyes of the masses.

Who is (still) playing with White?

There has existed a decades-long belief that the United States, with its democratic architecture, its system of checks and balances, and strong democratic institutions, is a guarantee of unwavering stability and continuity in the pivotal moments of foreign policy.

Allegiance to the trans-Atlantic alliance was considered in Europe as eternal, unshakeable.

However, with the advent of president Donald Trump to power, the trans-Atlantic fortress has been set off balance. President Trump's rhetoric, but especially certain brash steps by the current US administration, were met with European reactions ranging from surprise (e.g. to the unilateral withdrawal of the US from the nuclear agreement with Iran), through indignation (to the imposition of tariffs on Europe's steel and aluminium, and threats to impose car duties), to serious concerns (e.g. a steady weakening of multilateral cooperation).

The pandemic has hit the US with great force.

President Trump gives off the impression of a commentator rather than a leader. The suspension of contributions to the World Health Organization and disputes with the governors of some states reminds more of chaos than of a deliberate, driven course of action. This kind of response weakens the US and the entire Western world.

Will US policy change after November?

I do not think that the presidential election in the US will bring about a dramatic change in the country's foreign policy, or in its stance towards Europe for that matter.

Not even in the case of a (unlikely at best) victory of Joe Biden.

What can change, however, is the general tone of the new or re-elected president, who would might not be as tempted as in the past to constantly mobilise against Europe as a "foe" because he cannot be elected for a third term.

The rhetoric of the new US administration towards Europe may become more appeasing. But its expectations of the EU taking on a more substantial role in sharing the global security burden, and especially the expectation of Europe being able to secure the stability of its neighbourhood on its own, will not change.

The corona crisis and its impact have further intensified such expectations. And, to an extent, makes them legitimate.

Where is Europe's place on today's chessboard?

There is no doubt about which side of the board the EU will move on. For many politicians, China remains a trade magnet and the epitome of the capability of action.

But many also see that China does not play an open game with the rest of the world. This applies to the search for a response to the causes of the pandemic.

The inverse is also true, as China takes advantage of the coronavirus crisis to jail leading democratic activists in Hong Kong.

We must not let the corona crisis paralyse us, nor should we allow it to drive us into focusing only on how to put out the fire ignited by the virus. This would be a fatal mistake.

We would, using chess terminology, lose a tempo which we might not be able to restore.

The question is, which piece should the EU become on the global political chessboard? Europe is manifestly not quite ready to become the Queen of the Western world.

Not so much in terms of its capacity, as in terms of mental and political bandwidth.

We could, and also should, become the White European 'Rook' on the chessboard. In order to become, and to be able to move such an impactful figure on the global geopolitical chessboard effectively, we must spring to action. We must start conducting a more audacious foreign policy.

Also, concerning China, the country must be held accountable.

Not only on account of the coronavirus outbreak, not only on account of the environment, but also on account of human rights violations.

It is essential that the EU and its member states see a joint tackling of the Chinese challenge, together with the US and other like-minded democracies, as one of the most important projects of an improved transatlantic relationship.

In order to engage in such a course of action, the EU must become more robust and garner greater respect. The road to achieving this is through reform of the EU, including reform of the Eurozone.

The corona crisis has not weakened the need for such reform, rather it has strengthened it even more.

Regrettably, the leaders of EU institutions postponed the Conference on the Future of the EU to autumn.

A discussion on this fundamental issue is needed at this time, right as we are about to allocate and spend substantial sums of money on pandemic-related rescue and recovery programmes.

It is needed now, as we are revising the European budget for 2021-2027; now, as we are launching new economic mechanisms and stimuli; now, as we are about to take on considerable debt.

Besides, at this time of mutual solidarity, but also of anxiety and concern about the future, we must consider the European security and relevant geopolitical connotations.

If we fail to do this, we could rapidly slide from the position of a potential 'Rook' to that of a 'Pawn'.

And the global geopolitical chessboard could – partly also because of the weakness of the EU – see an unfavourable exchange between White and Black pieces.

Author bio

Mikuláš Dzurinda is president of the Martens Centre, and former prime minister of Slovakia.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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