Thursday

3rd Dec 2020

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Post-Covid is a different world - EU needs to secure a role

  • MEPs call for the European Union to strengthen its foreign policy presence to be able to defend its interests in the new geopolitical era, or else. (Photo: Renew Europe)

The Covid-19 crisis shook up the world profoundly, and we haven't found the politics to cope with it yet. That is the harsh but undeniable conclusion of a new parliamentary report by MEP Hilde Vautmans (Open Vld/Renew Europe) agreed by the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee (AFET) earlier this week.

Many EU countries are so overwhelmed by the latest wave of Covid-19 cases that the immediate medical and economic impact understandably takes precedence. But the geopolitical effects of the crisis could also haunt us for decades to come.

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The coronavirus is 'a game changer', the report argues, altering the context of foreign affairs and global security issues, adding to socio-economic as well as political risks.

It changes the relationship between the world's biggest players, and undermines some of the values the EU has been trying to promote for decades.

MEPs note a lack of global leadership and cooperation in the initial phases of the coronavirus response. The US opted for an outright isolationist stance, which could dangerously undermine not only relations with other partners – notably China – but also the multilateral system as such.

The decision to withdraw funding from the World Health Organization sets an awful precedent.

China, on the other hand, has refused to be transparent about its measures to handle the pandemic, while some of them clearly risk exacerbating the human rights situation within the country.

The impact of China's renewed diplomatic efforts notably in Africa are also uncertain. The Vautmans reports signals a fear that Africa's debt and dependance could be a source of instability later.

Yet China is not the only country using the fight against Covid-19 as an excuse to crack down on the civil liberties of its own population and as an opportunity to destabilise liberal democracy in other countries. Russia's spreading of false information and political paranoia comes in for specific scrutiny.

In light of such disturbing trends, the EU response has been slow and disjointed.

The global race for pharmaceuticals highlighted yet another example of Europe being unable to make its size count when it really matters.

The Foreign Affairs committee calls on European leaders, and in particular high representative Josep Borrell, to make the best possible use of the foreign policy tools it has to tighten bonds with allies. This implies establishing a more relevant presence in Africa and offering a more realistic membership perspective for the Western Balkans. It also means building up a number of new tools, notably sufficient and credible military capacities, such as the European Peace Facility, to beef up its presence in the neighbourhood.

Better digital and communication strategies are needed to be more resilient to new and hybrid threats and technologies, and to counter disinformation.

MEPs underline that the ending the unanimity rule in foreign affairs would help make the EU more of an active player, as the case of sanctions has recently shown.

"The European Union has still to position itself in the new world order, and it is a weakness for both the EU and for multilateralism," MEP Vautmans summarises the report's findings.

"A unified and determined European presence on the world stage could serve to rebuild the global rules-based order after the damage done in recent years, and it is an absolute necessity for Europeans to defend their interests internationally."

The report concludes with an appeal for the Conference on the Future of Europe to start soon, as it would provide the proper platform to discuss the merits and limitations of Europe's foreign affairs policies.

Author bio

Hilde Vautmans is a Belgian MEP, where she has served since 2014. She is the Renew Europe coordinator on Foreign Affairs and the European Parliament standing rapporteur on China. Previously, she was group leader for the Flemish liberal-democrats Open Vld in the Belgian Chamber of Representatives.

Disclaimer

This article is sponsored by a third party. All opinions in this article reflect the views of the author and not of EUobserver.

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