Reconnected: How the EU can assert its sovereignty after the pandemic

As the crisis exacts a devastating cost from society and prompts a major battle of narratives, the EU needs to find its new “coal and steel” moment.  

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European lack of preparedness for the covid-19 pandemic, even as its emergence in China became clear, holds many important lessons about the vulnerability of an open society in the age of connectivity. For the European Union, though, one of the main takeaways is that we need to reform its usual mechanics of  decision-making, which are often slow, reactive, and based on lowest common denominator. The world is changing, and we must change as well.

For the EU – a community that has grown comfortably dependent on processes, procedures, and predictability – this is a serious matter. The usual Brussels-bubble manoeuvrings articulated in the arcane language of insiders will be of little help: we need hands-on leadership and bold decisions for Europe to rise to the challenge. As the crisis exacts a devastating cost from society and prompts a major battle of narratives, the EU needs to find its new “coal and steel” moment – and a renewed sense of purpose. There are three pieces to this puzzle: connectivity, common security, and strategic sovereignty.

Firstly, ‘connectivity’ is a term trending in foreign policy circles concerning geostrategic investment in hard and soft infrastructure at the global scale.  Since connectivity is not value-neutral it is at the same time an investment in global governance, which become an increasingly important concept ever since China launched its flagship Belt and Road connectivity strategy proving to be an effective tool for China to grow its global reach. Other states have, at varying speeds, realised that there is a huge new need for infrastructure in low- and middle-income countries. Indeed, according to a conservative estimate by the World Bank, meeting this need will cost around $2 trillion per year. Whoever leads such investment will eventually lead the world. And no power can do it all alone.

For years, the EU – frequently referred to as a payer rather than a player, even by its own leaders – has often failed to gain a political dividend despite its massive contributions. To illustrate: in its current seven-year budget cycle, the EU and its member states have donated around €414 billion in aid globally. This compares to aid of just €173 billion from the United States, and (not necessarily concessional) loans of around €460 billion from China. The EU is the source of 38 percent of global foreign direct investment stocks, compared with 21 percent for the US and just 6 percent for China.

Such disparities were a big topic in EU policy circles before the covid-19 crisis – and have become even more important since we realised our problems are worse than just the lack of proportionate global influence. Waking to find ourselves in a pandemic without key basic supplies, we understood ourselves to be dangerously overdependent on external entities, and that our exclusively profit-based approach to connectivity can easily transform from a blessing into a curse.

This brings us to the second piece of the puzzle. If there is one central element of Europe’s post-pandemic coal and steel moment, it is common security. The EU must step up its game and become a security union – not only in papers and speeches, nor just in the sense of military security. It must become capable of addressing the true challenges of our time: economic security, digital security, health security, biological and environmental security, resource security, and communications security. Battles have changed in recent years, increasingly emphasising dependency on value chains, monopolies on rare earths and materials, fake news and disinformation, and hollow charm offensives. The greatest risks to Europe’s security are simultaneously complex; relevant to economic, digital, energy, and other systems; and focused on manipulation of the emotions and integrity of individual human beings through fake news and propaganda.

The EU must become a security union – not only in papers and speeches, nor just in the sense of military security

The third piece of the puzzle is that, to exert influence abroad and protect the well-being of its citizens, the EU has to be willing and able to act as a sovereign . European strategic sovereignty is nothing more than the EU’s capacity and will to make choices that protect and promote our collective interests and values. The post-covid 19 world needs a sovereign EU, not only for the sake of ensuring a stable union but for the sake of healthy multilateral governance. The world needs an EU that is not only rich and has progressive values, but has the political stamina and credibility to effect global change. The bloc cannot achieve this through the usual process of manoeuvring and accommodation within the confines of various actors’ limited self-interest. It can only do so by acting together in tough times with courage, common sense of purpose, and resolve.

To provide connectivity, common security, and, consequently, strategic sovereignty, the EU should:

  • Immediately take stock of its dependence on global value chains – particularly those for critical supplies such as medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, rare materials, and other strategic goods – and then diversify these as much as possible. The EU can do this by both investing in its own manufacturing capacity and that of countries in its immediate neighbourhood and regions that can, share our values of sustainability and level playing field: from  the Western Balkans to central Asia, from Latin America to south and south-east Asia, to name the few.
  • Protect strategically important domestic industry, in line with the EU directive on screening foreign investments. One member state has made a good start in this area: Germany recently allowed the review of foreign acquisitions in the case of “likely harm” rather than an “actual threat” to public security.
  • Massively invest in “Made in the EU” communications systems and other parts of the digital economy, which has proven to be one of the fundamental lifelines for the systems Europe relies on.
  • Pour similarly significant levels of investment into research and development, while supporting global standards and protections in this area. Where we cannot address value chain dependency for certain critical products, we must work to create the new generation of commodities, from 6G to alternative materials.
  • In the economic recovery that will follow the Covid-19 crisis, provide incentives for European businesses to invest in critical infrastructure in low- and middle-income countries, promoting norms and standards to ensure sustainability. This should support the green agenda and global economic growth, stability, and resilience. In this, we have to overcome the EU’s granularity, which limits our collective impact: we need one central platform to support European external investment and connectivity needs, projects, private investment, and financial instruments.
  • Fiercely defend democracy and the rule of law, freedom of speech, and transparency – be it within the EU, our immediate neighbourhood, or further afield. Protecting these basic democratic values literally saves lives, including European ones.

The European Union was created out of the tragedy of the second world war; we are no strangers to crisis and, if anything, we know how to persevere. In the words of our Italian friends, with love: insieme, senza paura. 

Ambassador Romana Vlahutin is the Ambassador at Large for Connectivity in the European External Action Service. Views and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily represent or reflect the official position of the institution.​

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

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