How the coronavirus threatens a geopolitical Europe

After the crisis, the EU will face the same geopolitical problems it did before. But, this time, it might need to tackle them with less internal solidarity and external credibility.  

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The fallout from the coronavirus risks burying the initial leitmotif of Ursula von der Leyen’s European Commission and Josep Borell’s mandate as EU high representative for foreign and security policy – that of a more geopolitical Europe. Yet, as countries everywhere draw lessons from the crisis and adapt their institutions to an environment in which a disease can lock more people inside their homes than a war, it is important to remember that the coronavirus is neither the end of the world nor the end of history. The world will certainly change, but geopolitics isn’t likely to fall victim to a virus. So, for all the urgency of rebuilding a ‘healthcare Europe’ and an ‘economic Europe’, there is still a need for a more geopolitical Europe.

The coronavirus crisis creates risks for the foreign policy of the European Union on several fronts.

Of course, there is now a widely perceived crisis of solidarity between Italy and other EU member states. Many member states feel fragile and alone in this crisis – in not just their short-term lack of masks or ventilators, but also their sense that the tough austerity measures of the last decade might have starved southern European healthcare systems of the resources they need in a crisis such as this one. Regardless of whether this is true, such a perception undermines European solidarity.

This crisis of solidarity also casts a shadow on the EU’s attempts to build up its strategically autonomous security and defence capabilities. If member states cannot rely on one another for help in fighting a virus, how can they do so in fighting an aggressive external power? And European countries will have the same doubts about the United States, of course. But being dumped into the same category of trustworthiness as President Donald Trump should be of little comfort to the EU and its bigger member states.

The EU’s soft power has also taken a huge hit. There is much less talk of the staggering €750bn economic stimulus for the European economy announced by the European Central Bank than about Russian or Chinese aid to Italy, which hit a raw nerve. Even though such huge financial injections are sometimes referred to as the ‘big bazooka’, it is harder to photograph €750bn than Chinese medical assistance, Russian military virologists, or the aeroplanes bringing them into Italy. It almost seems as though Russian military trucks on Italians roads and Chinese cargo plane on Italian runways have been more efficient at galvanising the EU than images of desperate Italian doctors.

Powers such as the US, China, and Russia are unlikely to draw the same lessons from the coronavirus as the EU about the need for cooperation and multilateralism

In fairness to the EU, no other power has done much better. The US looks even more selfish, inconsistent, and rudderless than it did before the crisis. For all the bravado and bitter EU-bashing of Russian propaganda, and aggressive self-aggrandisement of Chinese propaganda, neither Moscow nor Beijing look good from the outside either. Russia, where the rouble lost 25 percent of its value in a matter of days, is even more stuck with its ossified leadership structure. But, this time, with historically low oil prices (of under $30 per barrel) and the Saudis poaching Russia’s traditional oil buyers with huge discounts. And the contrast between early Chinese helplessness in managing the coronavirus – the underproduction and hoarding of masks early on, followed by excessive self-promotion afterwards – might have won a few Serbian or Italian hearts, but it irked other Europeans far more. One of the biggest causes of the EU’s irritation with China is that, in January, when China received around 70 tonnes of EU medical equipment, Beijing explicitly asked for discretion. European leaders obliged. They trod carefully around Beijing’s ego and didn’t turn medical help into a public relations campaign – only to find themselves in the firing line of shameless Chinese self-promotion two months later.

But none of that should be of any comfort to the EU. There is a risk that covid-19 will reinforce the most herbivorous foreign policy instincts of EU citizens and governments alike. Of course, among the key lessons of the crisis will be that states’ healthcare systems need more resources; that their economies need stimulus measures; that the EU needs to turn a blind eye to budget deficits; and that all countries need to engage in greater international cooperation to preventing, limit, and combat pandemics.

After the crisis passes, the world is unlikely to become more cooperative. Powers such as the US, China, and Russia are unlikely to draw the same lessons from the coronavirus as the EU about the need for cooperation and multilateralism. Quite the contrary. For them, the world’s reaction to the coronavirus vindicates their Hobbesian view of the world. Thus, neither China nor Russia are likely to dramatically cut military spending, abandon their assertive foreign policies, or roll back their increasingly expensive propaganda operations to channel more money into healthcare. The leaders of corrupt and autocratic regimes in the EU won’t decide to steal less (to better fund healthcare) or be more democratic. The wars in Syria, Libya, and Ukraine might have vanished from the news, but they haven’t vanished from reality.

Despite the covid-19 pandemic, geopolitical and domestic political scheming in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East will continue unabated – in ways that affect, and often damage, European interests. In Ukraine, there are widespread fears of an opaque deal between Kiev and Moscow over Donbas. Moldova and Georgia are gearing up for possibly unfair elections in autumn. Lebanon has defaulted on its debts. Turkish soldiers continue to die in Idlib, even after the deal between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

After the crisis, the EU will face the same geopolitical problems it did before. But, this time, it might need to tackle them with less internal solidarity and external credibility than it once had. To avoid this outcome, the EU and its member states need to devote greater attention and resources to saving their economies and boosting their healthcare capacity, while preserving enough political bandwidth and capital to establish a more geopolitical Europe.

This will require continued investment in the EU as a full-spectrum power – primarily in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. And that, in turn, will depend on investment in the EU’s European military and security capabilities, as well as assistance to its neighbours in managing not just the economic and health consequences of the coronavirus but also building up their security resilience in a geopolitically volatile environment.

For instance, the EU should prevent another half dozen of its neighbours from following Lebanon into default, by throwing countries in the Balkans and other regions an economic lifeline – in the form zero-interest loans and financial aid. The EU could also establish a reserve fund to stabilise its neighbours’ economies in a post-coronavirus world. Equally, the bloc should strengthen its sanctions as a policy tool, not least by complaining less about US extraterritorial measures and looking more closely at European companies that break EU sanctions law. (The EU rarely fines European companies for breaking its sanctions regimes.) The EU should also renew its push to mitigate Russian military aggression in Donbas, and to enhance Ukraine’s security resilience. And all member states should show greater willingness to participate in France’s efforts to stabilise the Sahel.

None of these measures is charitable – they are all in the EU’s geopolitical interests. And these issues won’t go away. Ultimately, covid-19 won’t kill geopolitics. But only European leaders can ensure that the virus won’t kill the EU as a geopolitical force.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Wider Europe programme

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