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28th Feb 2024

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Ukraine shows the EU must think beyond tomorrow

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Even in the midst of war, it is vital to think beyond tomorrow. Ambitious and visionary organisers of the Bretton Woods Conference did just that almost 80 years ago.

It is time to follow in their footsteps.

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  • As Russia's aggression against Ukraine rages on and signs point to a painful prolongation of the war, the world is changing — has already changed — in myriad, irrevocable, ways

As Russia's aggression against Ukraine rages on and signs point to a painful prolongation of the war, the world is changing — has already changed — in myriad, irrevocable, ways.

Shockwaves from the conflict have destroyed hopes of any quick post-Covid global economic recovery. Cozy assumptions about the sanctity of the multilateral "rules-based order" have been up-ended.

The war is playing havoc with the economies of already-fragile, pandemic-hit nations which now face a deadly combination of drought, high temperatures, higher oil prices and disruption in exports of commodities and fertiliser.

Famine and food insecurity stalk many states.

International Monetary Fund managing director Kristalina Georgieva is among those who has warned that increases in food and energy prices will trigger social unrest. Pakistan and Sri Lanka are proof that this is already happening.

Thinking ahead is certainly difficult in the face of urgent challenges. But the Ukraine war's devastating global economic fall-out, especially on the world's most vulnerable must not be ignored.

Making a clear-eyed assessment of the great geopolitical re-ordering currently underway is also important.

EU attempts at lucid foresight are complicated by America's apparently changing war aims and the difficult quest to slap new sanctions on Russia while trying to enforce old ones.

It is time, however, to stop hunting for headlines, to tone down whimsical references to the mythical prowess of "geopolitical Europe" and to take a cool-headed look at the reality of a deeply transformed world and its impact on Europe.

Patchy EU solidarity during the Covid crisis must not be replicated when it comes to urgent action to bolster food security.

That means taking impactful decisions at the UN Security Council's meeting on "the nexus between conflict and food security" on 19 May.

It also means that the World Trade Organization's upcoming ministerial meeting must ensure that national measures to restrict trade in commodities do not impact the World Food Programme's ability to procure vital food.

Understanding ongoing geopolitical mutations will take more time — but it must also be done.

The US administration may see the world as a competition between democracies and autocracies.

EU policymakers must decide, however, whether a "one world, two systems" scenario — under which "good" nations are pitted against "bad" ones — is in the wider global interest.

Dealing with climate change, eliminating poverty and fighting pandemics requires working with all nations, not just the "like-minded".

The Ukraine war has accelerated the emergence of a truly multipolar world where countries have the know-how, the agency as well as the self-confidence to reject a binary choice between two opposing camps.

Flattery or threats?

Most countries today operate in "mix and match" mode where they can select and choose between the best available deals which align with their key interests.

This lesson needs to be learned quickly. EU policymakers have so far engaged in either cringe-worthy flattery or thinly-veiled threats to non-Western nations which refuse to align with West's policies on Russia and Ukraine.

There are also endless self-congratulatory declarations about Western unity and leadership which while necessary to tackle war-related disinformation are beginning to sound tediously repetitive.

Instead, the EU must evaluate ways in which the global transformation impacts on its foreign and security policy as well as in areas such as trade, development, migration and the green transition.

At stake is the EU's global standing and influence, its hopes of revitalising deeply disrupted relations with Africa, remaining relevant in the Middle East and Latin America and ambitions of becoming an authentic actor in the Indo-Pacific.

Given its multilateral credentials, the ability to juggle and compromise and well-honed negotiating skills, the EU is well-placed to operate in the emerging multipolar landscape.

This will require, however, an end to using an exclusive Eurocentric prism, jettisoning double standards — especially when it comes to dealing with refugees and migrants — and easing away from an excessive reliance on the transatlantic alliance as a main point of reference.

As reactions to the Ukraine war have shown, a multipolar world is not an easy place to navigate.

It is complex mix of political systems and ideologies, different values and interests, further complicated by the existence of important business networks and an array of powerful civil society organisations.

The EU itself is not really that different.

That is why while America and China may believe they can lead such a puzzling configuration, it is the EU — if it plays its cards right — that is probably best placed to operate in a new multipolar world.

That is also why, even as they engage in Ukraine war efforts, EU policymakers must find the time, energy and foresight to kick-start an inclusive global conversation on the contours, rules and priorities for tomorrow's world.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. She is also the editor of the EUobserver magazine.

Disclaimer

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

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