The EU needs to preserve its unity, sanity and common sense
By Tonino Picula MEP, Foreign Policy Coordinator for the S&D Group, European Parliament, Brussels/Strasbourg
It is definitely not an exaggeration to say that the year 2020 will define the future of the EU and the multilateral world as we know it. When Croatian journalists asked me last year about the upcoming security challenges in 2020, I stressed the various threats, risks and issues which are complex, unpredictable and require constant action. These include the crisis of multilateralism, Brexit, terrorist threats, the issue of migration, and growing instability in the Middle East. These are just some of the multiple challenges that have not gone away but have been put aside by the biggest pandemic of our lifetime. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused an outburst to the already complex security environment and presented itself as a significant challenge for the new “geopolitical” European Commission.
The global order is put into question The year has started dramatically: we have witnessed the killing of General Soleimani, the escalation of the situation in Libya, the disaster in Idlib, Syria, the renewed migration crisis on the Turkish-Greek border, and the immediate consequence of Brexit day. The year was supposed to end with the crucial US presidential elections in November, on which the future of global security in the multilateral world will also largely depend. US citizens face a stark choice between the continuation of the current “America first” doctrine by President Donald Trump, and a certain comeback to transatlantic values and cooperation through Obama’s former Vice-President Joe Biden. However, besides these elections, the complete global order is being put into question, and it is unclear what the aftermath will be in light of the upcoming global economic crisis, which is set to be the worst since the Great Depression of 1929.
The EU needs to preserve its unity, sanity and common sense, while maintaining cooperation and dialogue with all international partners to address the pandemic. At the same time, one can see that there is an ongoing battle of narratives, disinformation wars and accusations which are shaping the global environment in unprecedented terms. Witnessing the ongoing strained relations between Washington and Beijing, there is one aspect I find particularly interesting: the politics of bluntness. While weighing words in a diplomatic surrounding goes without saying, one could not but see a complete lack of any diplomatic tact in the ongoing strained relationship and accusations between Washington and Beijing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have also called out China for its lack of transparency regarding the development of the Covid-19 pandemic, stating that Beijing has a lot of questions to answer. To clear up its image and to clarify the origins of the virus, China should therefore allow a transparent international investigation on its territory, under the auspices of the World Health Organisation.
More power through better cooperation
We should also address the increased assertiveness of certain global actors and autocratic regimes, which can only be tackled through stronger EU cooperation. The pandemic has also shown an exceptional threat of foreign interference in terms of cyber-attacks, cybercrime and disinformation operations from state and non-state actors. It essentially challenges our democratic system, our values and our security, and we need to respond by strengthening our capabilities. Early warnings of the upcoming economic crisis clearly state our need to address possible foreign takeovers of our strategic sectors, assets and technologies, which pose a great risk to our security. Our critical infrastructure needs to be protected, and screening foreign direct investment in strategic sectors can be a useful tool to protect these assets. What was supposed to be the highlight of the Croatian Presidency of the EU, unfortunately had to be undergone in the different format of video conference. Indeed, the Zagreb Summit was supposed to bring leaders together to build stronger ties with the region through an ambitious and sustainable investment plan and a strong message that enlargement remains the EU’s priority. It is of utmost importance for the EU to maintain an active and constructive role in the region as the Western Balkans are partners of crucial importance, and their EU enlargement remains a vital EU strategic and security interest. The Covid-19 pandemic has also revealed a strong need to encourage our partners to align themselves with our Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), as that will be a matter of utmost importance in the post-Covid world. The EU needs to push more actively for security cooperation with the Western Balkans, not only through assistance and joint projects, but also through additional joint actions and partnerships, especially on strategic communication, to counteract false narratives and propaganda by external actors who do not share our values or interests. The EU provides content over noise, but it needs to have a strong voice to deliver a clear message to the region. In the case of Brexit, there are still many open questions on the future relationship and it is very hard to determine at this point in time how the situation will evolve, pending the much-needed extension of the transition period. The new reality can prove to be a good turning point for even closer security cooperation with the UK, but for that it takes two. It is definitely necessary to conclude an agreement with our UK friends to continue close cooperation through our CFSP framework, as we share the same set of values and face the same immediate threats to our peace, security and stability.
A realistic approach to security and defence
It will be interesting to follow the development of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the strategic review expected this year. I believe that the already undertaken commitments could be deepened as a result of this crisis, especially in developing strategic autonomy through capabilities and readiness. Updating the PESCO framework, while addressing possible coherence and synergy with other EU defence initiatives, would build up the EU’s capability as a global security actor, to the benefit of its citizens. Despite the ongoing pandemic, the EU has addressed the increased instability in its southern neighbourhood, and in April launched a new CSDP military operation “Irini”, which replaced operation Sophia. The aim of the operation is to protect the Libyan peace process, implement the UN arms embargo and monitor illegal exports and smuggling from Libya, while training the Libyan Navy and Coast Guard to enforce law at sea. The EU needs to maintain a proactive approach to security and stability in the Mediterranean, having in mind the possible consequences of the pandemic and the economic crisis. Needless to say, results in its immediate neighbourhood are the ones that will be most felt by EU citizens. The weak health system, lack of medical staff and supplies on the African continent is very worrying and can have severe consequences on the health and security of African citizens. We have a responsibility to provide crisis management help through our CSDP instruments, and we have to prepare for a possible worsening of existing conflicts. While writing this text, our lives, lifestyle and everyday work have significantly changed. We do not know yet when all of this will end and when we will be able to return to normal life, but it is already clear that nothing will be the same. We need to learn valuable lessons from the whole situation, looking at past mistakes while planning a sustainable future and playing an active and credible role. Internally, our biggest enemies are selfishness and nationalism, and we need to fight with all forces against them. That is why the value aspect is important. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell said to EU defence ministers in May that the pandemic will very likely deteriorate the security environment in the years to come, and that would only increase the need for a stronger EU approach to security and defence, as health is now a security issue as well. Therefore, it is of utmost importance for the EU and its Member States to achieve an active role and to create a new multilateral system based on our values of peace, stability and cooperation. This is more important than ever and can only be achieved together, through common solutions and united action, to tackle the threats that affect our Union.
Europe’s role to play in global order
The EU in the post-Covid and post-Brexit world needs to make a substantial contribution in addressing global challenges and threats to global order and international law, including through a new Global Strategy. We must push for a stronger European role on the uncertain global stage, and we should not hesitate to push for the strategic autonomy of our continent. We need to use this opportunity to underline who our partners and allies are, and to strongly reassert our position on the global map. Hence, our valuable partnerships with actors such as the UN, NATO and the OSCE need to be preserved, to prevent various threats to our security. Finally, our CFSP needs to be an active part of the Conference of the Future of Europe where we need to clearly set ambitious goals for the future. The Covid-19 crisis has shown that security and defence will have a very prominent role in the future. Europe should be a frontrunner in technological change and innovation, building on the Commission’s strategy for artificial intelligence, being ethical, open and curious toward new opportunities, while ready to respond to incoming challenges through effective crisis management. I would strongly welcome the highest possible ambition to achieve these goals and to strengthen our strategic autonomy, in order to reduce our dependence on the global supply chain, as our citizens are expecting from us.