“Strength has to start at home”: Interview with Borrell on the EU’s response to the coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic started as a health crisis, but it will have long-term political, economic, and social implications. In an exclusive interview with the head of ECFR’s Madrid office, José Ignacio Torreblanca, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell assesses the European response to the crisis, its geopolitical consequences, and its effects on conflicts in Europe’s neighbourhood.

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What is confinement like for you in Brussels? What’s the situation on the street?

Here, it is less strict than in Spain. You can go for a walk near your house. The park near me is full of people sunbathing without having to walk a dog or find an excuse. Yesterday, the Soignes was packed with people on bicycles. But there are some rules to follow. The Commission’s offices are empty. I go almost every day to do conferences there, because we have more facilities. But we all hope that the confinement will end soon.

I want to talk about your recent article “Tomorrow’s world is already here” in which you share your view and analysis of what we can expect in a post-covid-19 world. Tell us a bit about your reflections in this article please.

The point of the title is that the world afterwards will only be the result of an acceleration of tendencies that were already here before. Big events only accelerate the pace of history; they do not turn it 360 degrees. Before the coronavirus crisis, globalisation was already being questioned; democratic systems were being confronted by other systems in a struggle to see which were best or more effective; we already had ongoing issues regarding the functioning of the European Union … This crisis is going to speed up, reinforce, exacerbate that – and we will surely find that tomorrow’s world will be like today’s, only worse.


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Those of us who closely followed the process of your European Parliament hearing and approval for your current position know that what you are fundamentally concerned with today – covid-19 – was not among the long list of items that you presented and debated. The best-laid plans crumble in the face of events. What is it like to live through this unexpected crisis, given that the vision and plans you had were so concrete and different when you entered the Commission? Suddenly you find yourself up against something completely different and unscripted. How has that reality check been?

It has been a Copernican clash of priorities. A little over a month ago – a month and a half – we were immersed in the Middle East peace process, in the conference on Libya and the situation in Syria, plus Venezuela. All of these issues have now faded into the background. I do not mean that we have abandoned them, but it is true that the response to the coronavirus crisis has preoccupied, and occupied, us a great deal. So far, we have been busy on two fronts. The first is trying to find answers to what is now an economic crisis erupting in Europe – the Commission has to present a plan within 15 days giving shape to the Council’s demand for a plan to relaunch the European economy. The second front is the international dimension of the crisis, on how to help our neighbours, our partners – especially Africa – and try to bring back those 500,000 European tourists stranded around the world who have suddenly found their journeys cancelled. This was an arduous task of coordination with all member states, which has paid off and seems to be coming to an end.

So, what is going to take up most of our time from now on is the economic response: to see how we can organise solidarity among Europeans. Unfortunately, so far, it is being considered along the same lines as in the euro crisis. Again, we have the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, this debate between the affected and unaffected, the prudent and imprudent – with the difference that, now, no one can be accused of any responsibility or conduct contrary to the rules, as was the case with Greece and budgetary discipline. This is a symmetrical shock in origin in that it affects everyone, but it does not affect everyone alike in its consequences. In other words, it is symmetrical in its causes but asymmetrical in its consequences. It is clear that the economies of Spain, Italy, and even France are much more impacted than those of Finland or Denmark.

But it is not a strict division between north and south either, because Greece is in the south and, fortunately, they are not experiencing too bad a public health crisis at the moment, due to the measures taken to face the crisis. Just like here, they’ve paralysed their economy. On the other hand, the economic paralysis of northern countries has been less severe. Now, we have to see how we will organise our solidarity. Up to now, European solidarity has been applied in terms of helping someone get into debt. In other words, when a state has a problem, the others help by facilitating indebtedness. If you have a problem, you have to become indebted, and we’ll help you to do so, acting as an intermediary in the financial market, as does the Stability Mechanism, the ESM, or MEDE – or as the SURE mechanism that we invented in the Commission to help finance unemployment costs will do. Some thought this marked the arrival of European unemployment insurance. No, unfortunately not.

For now, it’s nothing more than, “I’m going to give you a loan so that you can pay your bill”. But it’s a loan, and loans must be paid back – and, on top of that, they charge you interest. Now, what is being considered is not giving loans, but rather providing aid at a sunk cost. The phrase being coined in Brussels is “from loans to grants. Put better, we could say that we will shift from a focus on debt emission to the mission that this debt will accomplish. Perhaps from loans to grants is more explicit. In other words, until now, credit was given to help [countries] get into debt, and now we are talking about really helping and sharing the cost of the crisis. That has put the original debate on debt mutualisation on the backburner. In the end, debt issuance is nothing more than a way to obtain resources. But, what to do with these resources? Until now, the answer was back-to-back credits: I get credit in the market and, with that, I give credit to the countries that need it. Back-to-back credits. I go into debt to get you into debt. Now, we’re going into debt not so that the state gets into debt, but so that the state receives a non-refundable, non-repayable transfer at the end of it all. This is a qualitative leap in European solidarity – so, it is not surprising that some controversy has arisen, as we have seen.

At the beginning of her mandate, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that this was going to be a geopolitical Commission, focused on the world and foreign relations. Aren’t you concerned that this crisis, by bringing to the fore not only an existential question for the European Union but also its north-south divisions, could send Europe back into its shell for years, unable to respond to the external needs and urgencies that we so wished to tackle?

The president named the group of commissioners who work with me at the Commission “Stronger Europe in the World” – But a Europe that is stronger in the world … strength has to start at home. You can hardly expect to be strong in the world if you are not internally, and you can hardly preach solidarity, unity, and coordinated responses if you do not practice them at home. It is clear that the initial response given by the member states was divergent, as each one sought what was best for them. Still, it has to be said that health is a competence of the member states and not of the European Commission.

What is clear, however, is that differences on how to deal with the crisis at home weaken us when looking for solutions at the G20 level, for example. We are still a long way from effective coordination at the G20. If Europe wants to have its voice heard there, it will have to resolve its internal problems beforehand. They complicate our work because they eat into the time we have to engage with the outside world. And, secondly, as long as we do not know how to provide a coordinated, efficient and supportive internal response, it’s harder to seek one out with the rest of the world.

I wanted us to look at two different geographic scenarios or questions. Firstly, the United States and China. This seems to have given extra impetus to their competition and divergences, leaving the European Union somewhat stuck in the middle of that rivalry, as always. I also wanted us to talk about something with a slightly more vertical dimension – and that’s the African and Latin American dimensions. But let’s start with the United States and China. We have seen a further spike in geopolitical tensions between these two countries, with the European Union pretty much stuck in the middle or a collateral victim of it all, right?

A few days ago I was talking to United Nations’ secretary-general – because, the one good thing [to come] out of all this amongst all the bad, is that you have to speak with everyone, with all the heads of international institutions and countries. My friend, the secretary-general, António Guterres, and I agreed during this conversation that we won’t get out of this crisis without very strong coordinated action between China, the United States, and Europe – the European Union. But, so far, the Sino-American relationship has not improved with the crisis, despite the fact that the two countries did achieve a great level of collaboration in other pandemics (which I explain in my article). But, this time, it is not the case.

Now, the US is closed in on itself, and its president does not seek global leadership, but domestic solutions. In contrast, China is playing a leading role, presenting itself as a country with capacities that it is using to help others. This is welcome, and we are grateful for it. But these are evidently two very different and dissonant roles. And this places an opportunity before us Europeans, as well as a challenge, because it will depend on the extent to which others perceive us as a genuine partner. The other day, Ethiopia’s prime minister said this to me: “so, now you are going to have a chance to prove you are Africa’s best partner”. We went to Addis Ababa to solemnly tell them this, and now we have the chance to show them it. We are currently doing things there, but perhaps not everything possible. Putting export controls on healthcare material is something that impacts African countries because Europe is their primary source of supplies and products. Not so much so for Latin America, whose primary source is the United States – but, yes, for Africa. At the same time, we have restructured all the aid that we were sending to African countries to put it under the umbrella of combating coronavirus. €20 billion in European funds has been reallocated to prioritise the fight against the coronavirus.

I do not want to deceive anyone, especially not you or the listeners. This is not fresh money that we have found at the bottom of the community budget’s drawer; there is no such idle €20 billion. It is money that was already allocated and is now reallocated. This is very important because there are things that can wait for tomorrow, but others need to be done urgently today. We have put together €15 billion – €5 billion from the European Investment Bank, and member states are going to contribute another €5 or €7 billion – with the objective of helping to strengthen the capacity of African health systems. It is a fact, however, that much more resources would be needed to bring them up to the level of what we have in Europe. It is impossible to imagine that Africa’s shortfalls can be compensated for in the short term. Our international task is now to contain the pandemic. I do not think it is the time for blame games or mutual reproach, saying: “no, it originated here; you didn’t stop it there…” This is the rhetoric we are somewhat hearing in the United States, calling the virus “Chinese”, or the “Wuhan virus”.I don’t think it is the moment to reproach anybody but instead to join forces against a problem that is everyone’s. If we don’t solve it everywhere, we won’t solve it anywhere.

Looking at conflicts in what is sometimes called the “circle of fire” in our neighbourhood, stretching from Libya and Syria to Ukraine, does the crisis freeze or postpone these conflicts, opening the door to the opportunity for truces? The European Union has approved a mission in Libya. How is the crisis going to affect those conflicts that were in full swing and those in our neighbourhood? How do you think all this will impact them?

Some are hotter than before, and others have cooled off. In Libya, the fighting has not stopped; on the contrary, it has flared up again. First from Haftar’s side, and now on the part of Serraj, who has launched a major offensive. In Libya, there has been no improvement in the situation – on the contrary. In Syria, there is a precarious ceasefire and an equally precarious humanitarian situation. In Yemen, there has been a ceasefire and an exchange of prisoners. In Afghanistan, too, there have been some prisoner exchanges. In Ukraine and on the eastern border, there is a tense calm, but calm. Some places have heeded the secretary-general’s call for a “God’s truce” – as was done in the Middle Ages when there was a pandemic – but many have not [heeded this]. The majority have not.

We continue to monitor the situation, concerned that, by the time summer arrives, we may not have resolved some of the problems at the root of migratory surges. We are concerned about the situation in Syria. The other day, the director of the World Food Programme told me that the breaks in supply lines caused by border closures, the stoppages in transport, exports – all the disruption to logistic systems – would prevent the delivery of supplies to all those people who are now going to need them much more. He said he feared more deaths would result from the breakdown of aid chains than from the disease itself.

If the Plague in the 14th century did not stop globalisation, hopefully this pandemic will not stop or reverse it either.

It is not going to make it disappear overnight, but I think this is a wake-up call about some of the assumptions made by we who have experienced this globalisation. Reality has undermined some of those hypotheses, such as the premise that, at any time and place, we will get what we need because the market will supply it though it is produced on the other side of the world – with very long value chains and with production concentrated in certain territories completely removed from others. We thought that trade flows were sufficiently efficient to ensure that everything would come to us when we needed it.

Then, we have a crisis like this and we suddenly realise that, in Europe, we do not make a single gram of paracetamol and that China produces 80 percent of the world’s antibiotics. This is when you realise that the flows are seizing up – and that, perhaps, it would have been better to have precautionary stocks, just as we keep oil stocks. We have strategic energy stocks. Health has now become an essential part of the security system.

Josep Borrell, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-president of the European Commission, discusses the European response to Covid-19 with José Ignacio Torreblanca, Head of the Madrid Office and Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) as part of ECFR’s series “Spain and Europe in times of crisis”.

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


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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