Corona Conversations #2: Perspectives on Europe in the Era of Pandemic

Moderator:   Dr Julie Newton


Dr David Cadier

Prof Charles Kupchan

 Dr Sergey Utkin


Listen to the audio recording here



Julie Newton opened the debate with following questions: What are the implications of the pandemic for the EU relations with, and policies towards, Russia, China, and the United States in the short and medium terms? In what ways has this pandemic affected the structure of international relations? To what extent has it accelerated and magnified trends towards a more bipolar international order centred around a US-China rivalry?

David Cadier agreed that COVID accelerates change in the international order. One of these trends is increasing US-China competition, if not confrontation. The key question is how the EU will navigate this environment.

He said that the discourse on and perceptions of China changed significantly during the pandemic as a result of China’s lack of transparency regarding the origins of the virus, its aggressive mask policies, its behaviour within the WHO, etc.

He also agreed that growing competition between China and the US during the pandemic has accelerated shifts towards a more bipolar international order. But there is no consensus in Europe, he stressed, about what the European role in this new order should look like. Moreover, the Trump Administration´s handling of the coronavirus crisis has not reassured US allies about American commitment to rules and principles of the multilateral world order. Joseph Borell urged the EU to adopt the “Sinatra doctrine”: finding its own way not constrained by the rivalry between others. In this sense, Cadier continued, the pandemic encourages what President Macron has been trying to achieve vis-à-vis Russia. Macron´s “Russia initiative” was inspired by similar thinking: not to allow existing conflicts and other actors to limit European ability to define its own options and choices.

He added that the European foreign-policy ‘software’ was out of sync with the operational system of the international order long before the current crisis. The model of the EU, which aims to shape its neighbourhood via norms, values and economic attractiveness, is under growing pressure in the international system in which geopolitics and coercive hard power have regained greater currency.

Finally, he warned not to misunderstand recent EU calls for the “geopoliticisation of Europe” because it sounds as if Europe was never geopolitical, which is not the case. Even as “normative power” the EU has a geopolitical element in its foreign policy; the difference is that new circumstances forces it to gain greater sovereignty as a geopolitical actor.

Sergey Utkin agreed that US-China rivalry is changing the international order and that Russia, too, is looking for its place and role in this new, fast-changing balance.

As for the EU and pandemic, he said, from Russian perspective, most European countries responded quite effectively to the first wave of the pandemic. After the initial shock and crisis in northern Italy, the EU came together and realized quite quickly what could be done. As a result, the EU gained the image of a surprisingly resilient actor.

At the same time, there remains a lot of uncertainty about the strategic future of the EU. There is, at the same time, a lot of appeal to deepening the integration, as well as a lot of scepticism. The pandemic even emphasized this dilemma: it reminded the member states that they may wish to keep enough capacity and sovereignty to act independently in case of crisis; but at the same time, it showed advantages and opportunities of a coordinated action.

Nevertheless, he said, the most important question for Russia regarding the EU and the pandemic is the time-frame for the reopening of borders. There is a very mobile minority in Russian society for which this is a really important topic, he said.  It reflects the fact that for many Russians, Europe is a tourist destination, rather than a geopolitical entity or political problem, despite mutual sanctions. In this same way, he stressed that the Russian public remains uninterested in Russian media accounts of European debates vis-à-vis EU´s future or its problematic relations with Trump administration.

Charles Kupchan added that Europeans feel increasingly disaffected from the United States – feelings that have deepened as a consequence of Trump´s response to the pandemic. This is not only because of the uncontrolled spread of the disease in the US, but also due to White House steps including unilateral ban on travel from Europe. He recalled Merkel´s frustration with Trump: she even declined to travel to the G7 meeting in person, to which Trump retaliated with plans to remove troops from Germany. As a result, the US is not the kind of reliable friend as before in the eyes of many Europeans, which pushes them to look east to Russia and China rather than west.

This trend will continue if Trump is re-elected, but if Biden wins, Europeans will enthusiastically hope for the US to become a team player again. Trans-Atlantic renewal would be facilitated by the fact that China and Russia have not invested energy in wooing the European Union. Domestic developments and foreign policies in both China and Russia make it difficult for Europeans to argue for deepening cooperation. As a result, any eastward drift of Europe will depend quite a lot on the outcome of the American elections.

That said, Kupchan continued, the relationship between Europe and Russia could evolve, especially after Merkel is gone. But for Europe to embrace Macron-like initiatives, we would need change in Donbas and/or other difficult issues.

Julie Newton asked speakers to explore the impact of the pandemic on European drive and capacity to gain greater strategic sovereignty and geopolitical influence. She also asked whether there is a risk that a more geopolitical EU mind-set might fuel the kind of zero-sum mentality that the EU was designed to overcome.

David Cadier replied that Macron has several ideas for building greater EU strategic interdependence; the “Russia initiative” is one of them. At this stage, however, Macron remains in discussion with his European partners to bring them on board. He emphasized that Macron’s Russian initiative focuses on reducing of the level of mistrust. As the sanctions remain unsuccessful (they have not reversed Russia’s annexation of Crimea or led to significant change in Russian behaviour towards Ukraine), Macron has been trying to find other paths towards more cooperative relations with Russia, starting with dialogue. He continued that the Russia initiative is often misunderstood by some member states which reject the very idea of dialogue with Russia out of distrust. He said that this division among European states undermines Russian motivation to respond to Macron’s initiative in any significant way.

He added that although the concept of “Europe as geopolitical actor” is a traditional French idea, current pleas for a “geopolitical Europe” come mostly from the EU Commission, which, by definition, should be the least geopolitical actor of all. The Commission’s conceptual evolution is understandable, Cadier explained, if we define geopolitics more broadly to include geoeconomics and structural power. In this sense, the EU has been a geopolitical actor for quite some time. So the discussion, he concluded, is not about whether Europe is a geopolitical actor or not, but rather what kind of geopolitical actor it should be. The pandemic, he added, brought the issue of sovereignty into the discussion, particularly at the economic level. While the crisis definitely boosted some nationalist forces, it also made many Europeans realize that, on certain economic issues, there is a need for greater European unity. This is not necessarily in the sense of giving up state sovereignty but rather bringing some sovereignty back to European level, by, for example, bringing some strategic businesses back to the EU from China.

Charles Kupchan said that he is generally optimistic about the European project in the wake of the pandemic; the EU recovery project led by Merkel was a big step forward. Reversing very negative trends at the beginning of the pandemic, the EU has now (June 2020) become an outstanding example of transnational cooperation when it comes to fighting the virus.

That said, Kupchan cautioned that the pandemic would deplete resources necessary for building EU strategic autonomy, particularly stronger defence and military capacities. He said that Merkel had been “asleep at the wheel” for several years; even Macron´s “rousing speeches” about the importance of Europe a couple years ago had got no response from Germany. But the pandemic appears to have awakened Merkel, given that the future of Europe suddenly appeared in danger. The trouble, he stressed, is that the political will in Europe or even Germany required for deeper European integration remains insufficient. So in his view the “jury is still out” to say whether the pandemic’s EU unity moment is some sort of a turning point for the European project.

Sergey Utkin said that from a Russian perspective, the pandemic has not had any unifying effect on Russia’s relations with Europe, nor offered any chance to overcome major roadblocks in EU-Russian relations. As a result, there is not much space for progress. Moreover, EU-Russia relations cannot be the basis for strengthening Europe’s capacity as a geopolitical actor, due to Europe’s internal divisions about Russia.  Those EU member states, who are among the harshest critics of Russia, resist any change in EU´s position,; while more moderate member states towards Russia are unable to overcome resistance from the other side.

In contrast to Charles Kupchan, however, Utkin thinks, there is quite a lot the EU can do in terms of defence and security. While the EU will certainly face greater financial limitations due to the pandemic, it will also have to grapple more with the question about how to protect the EU during the coming US-China geopolitical rivalry if Europe is incapable of any independent action. He added that some areas where the EU can prove its capacity to act are the Sahel or Libya; these may be less complicated issues, but the EU can demonstrate its unity and ability to act there.

A major EU impediment, however, remains the tension between transnational and national levels of European foreign and defence policy. Defence-related issues are so far mostly not coordinated at the European level. That, of course, undermines attempts for a common European defence policy, not only from the EU perspective, but also in the eyes of observing external actors.

Striking an EU-wide approach to China will be of crucial importance. There is significant tension between the EU’s growing suspicions towards China and the realization that pushing China away from the European market will not only mean loss of profits, but also loss of the only leverage the EU has over China relationship. Finding the right balance here will be very important for European geostrategic position.

Julie Newton asked David Cadier, whether he thinks the EU might be facing a “Hamiltonian”, or federalist, moment – not just because of the changing international situation, but also as a result of the pandemic which enhanced fiscal cohesion and other intra-European developments as a result of the pandemic.

David Cadier said that in March or April it would have been difficult to be optimistic about the EU, given the initial lack of European solidarity in helping the worst-hit member states. At the beginning of the crisis, Euro-sceptic ideas, stressing the sanctity of nation-state borders, made a strong comeback. But then, as as Charles Kupchan said before, the European idea bounced back.

The EU recovery plan is indeed substantial and signalled a big change in German attitude. Whether this plan represents a one-time solution to this crisis, or signifies a broader vision of more integrated future, it is too early to say. The latter may apply to Macron, at least, who has sought renewed cooperation with Germany throughout his presidency. For him, the recovery plan might be the first sign that “the Franco-German engine of integration” is reviving. Last, he added, with Brexit, countries sceptical of deeper integration lost a big and powerful ally. Britain’s absence may, for example, allow for creation of Europe-wide welfare policies; this was always opposed by the UK, but now, with the pandemic, the issue has a new chance without the UK at the table.

Charles Kupchan said that from his point of view, this is not the EU’s Hamiltonian moment, because Merkel is not Hamilton or Jefferson. She is a cautious player, and despite crossing some red lines with the rescue package to keep the EU together, she probably did not step into a new paradigm completely. It may also depend, he said, a lot on what happens in the US elections in November. In case of Trump´s victory, the uncertainty he creates may push Merkel into building a more independent Europe; but if Biden wins, she would probably gladly stay in her comfort zone.

Sergey Utkin added that while internal European politics matters a lot, the external context will definitely play a significant role, too. Apart from the US-China rivalry, there is a long-term crumbling of old international structures including strategic stability treaties. As a result, Europe – Trump or no Trump – may want to rely more on its own power in the future, but it cannot afford to lose American support, even if Trump is re-elected.

Julie Newton turned to the concept of security. Will the pandemic lead to more globalist approach to solving of international issues, or will it harden the opposite trends of bilateralism and nationalism?

Charles Kupchan said that the pandemic should encourage more globalist approach, but it is not likely to do so. While the pandemic is a truly global crisis and touches almost everyone personally, we don’t see a coordinated global response. On the positive side, however, the crisis is not fuelling right-wing populism, which has proved incapable of effectively eliminating the pandemic, so electorates have rallied around centrist politicians. But whether this remains is unclear, since this crisis will take months to end, with no clear siren to mark the end, even if we have a vaccine.

David Cadier said that Europe is not the key actor in answering this question. Conceptual change of this type can come only from the major powers which sustain the existing order and its rules. Those powers are the US and possibly its challenger, China.

Sergei Utkin said that this crisis naturally brings topics of human security and health security to mind, but it will not lead to a qualitative change in our understanding of security. He added that more attention to non-military aspects of security would probably boost the concept of sustainable development, which has been getting increased prominence in and outside “the West”. The global nature of the pandemic may be seen as kind of a test for fighting other global challenges, including climate change. In addition, digital security and data security are further examples of truly global security topics that will require coordinated action in the future.

Finally, turning to domestic affairs, Julie Newton asked to what extent the aftermath of the current crisis would reinforce the concept of national sovereignty--in both “old” EU member states and “new” EU member states.

David Cadier said that, so far, we don’t see any significant impact of the pandemic on support for pro- or anti-European parties within the member states, but that may change as a result of the economic crisis which will follow. Even then, the local context within each member state will determine which way electoral support will swing.

He added that the pandemic, nevertheless, had strengthened political practices favoured by populists – such as, questioning scientific expertise, fomenting lack of trust in traditional media, etc. Undermining popular faith in traditional institutions and experts may lead to increasing support for populism in the future.

Charles Kupchan agreed that a lot will depend on the depth of the subsequent economic crisis. If it is deep, it may lead to populism, nativism and nationalism. But he believes the economic hit will not be that strong, and it will also not be strong enough to change the nature of the global economic system. He says that predictions of the end of globalization, or decoupling from China, are probably premature, though the pandemic may reinforce anti-immigration sentiments in some countries.