The COVID-19 crisis has started as a health crisis but, as many experts and government have already stated, has already developed into a political, economic, and social crisis as well. To learn more about the European response to the crisis and understand its effects on the European Union and its geopolitics, European Council on Foreign Relations’ (ECFR) head of the Madrid office José Ignacio Torreblanca talked with Vice-President of the European Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell about the long-term consequences of the pandemic.
The interviewer starts from Borrell’s article “Tomorrow’s World Is Already Here,” where the Commissioner expresses his views and analysis of the post-COVID-19 world. In this policy brief, Borrell focuses on three main dynamics: the future of globalization and neoliberalism, the evolution of global governance, and the resilience of the European Union and its systems. As he points out, the post-pandemic world will be the result of an acceleration of tendencies that were already there before. Globalization is a concept that has already been questioned in the recent past, democratic systems have been already confronted by other systems, and issues concerning the functioning of the European Union were already present. The crisis will not change or delete those issues, but it will speed them up, reinforce and exacerbate them: “We will surely find that tomorrow’s world will be like today’s, only worse,” said Borrell to Torreblanca.
This pandemic, states Borrell in his article, will not lead to the end of globalization, but it will definitely question its modalities and ideological assumptions (open markets, downsizing of the state, privatization). “We thought that trade flows were sufficiently efficient to ensure that everything would come to us when we needed it,” says Borrell, but the crisis proved otherwise. A solution? “Perhaps, it would have been better to have precautionary stocks, just as we keep oil stocks,” says the Vice-President, referring to the possibility of having precautionary stocks not only of oil and energy, but also healthcare products. “Health has now become an essential part of the security system,” he comments.
However, Borrell cautions is his article: “We must protect ourselves, but protecting ourselves does not mean giving way to protectionism.” While it is essential for countries to ensure the safety and security of their citizens, protectionist measures could become from temporary and limited to the healthcare sector actually permanent and lead to a global depression. What Europe needs is a new globalization that is capable of finding a balance between the important advantages of open markets and interdependence, and between the essential need for sovereignty and security of countries.
The concept of a state, which has been at the heart of the neoliberal ideology, will also change. We saw in this crisis that countries with strong social protections are better equipped to address the problems presented by the pandemic, but this does not mean that the state should take care of everything like a “nanny.” “What is needed is to restore the state’s strategic capacity to anticipate and prepare society for challenges of this kind,” states Borrell. In the end, the states that better managed the health crisis were not those with the biggest state, but those with the most organized one. This process will go along with a typically European and uneasy balancing for the coexistence of both nation states and a single market.
The next issue Borrell addresses in his article is the concept of global governance. In times of crisis, strong international coordination can be a game-changer; we are observing, however, profound disagreements and lack of interest between and among countries. We are witnessing, as Borrell described it, “a blame game between the US and China,” which only result “is eroding global leadership.” When asked about this issue during the interview, Borrell describes the situation as follows: “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.” The role of the European Union, in this context, could be the one of creating and maintaining genuine partnerships. Borrell is, however, aware of the criticisms the Union has attracted, thus in his article he underlines that, if the EU wants to set a credible example, “we have to practice at home what we preach internationally – … solidarity.” “Strength has to start at home. You can hardly expect to be strong in the world if you are not internally,” he tells Torreblanca.
Finally, in an interview to the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, a question on ongoing conflicts and how the crisis is affecting them could not be missed. Some of these conflicts cooled off, others are hotter than before. Although the focus has had to be shifted to the pandemic from all fronts, The European Union continues to monitor the situation in Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, Afghanistan, and others. “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,” says Borrell to Torreblanca. Border closures, stoppages in transport, and similar disruptions to the logistic systems are preventing the delivery of essential supplies to those who need them the most. When it comes to countries in wars, the fear is that “more deaths would result from the breakdown of aid chains than from the disease itself.”
This is, as Borrell recognized, an existential moment for the European Union. The Union’s response to the crisis “will affect the cohesion of our societies, the stability of our national political systems, and the future of European integration.” Key in this process will be promoting solidarity among the member states and, as Borrell himself recognized, there is still much to be done on that front.