The aftermath of COVID-19: the EU at a crossroads

Secuelas de la COVID-19: la UE en la encrucijada

The EU is at a critical moment for its survival as a global player in a multipolar world, dominated by the rivalry between the United States and China. According to Peter Francopan, Europe is no longer the centre of world trade and the Chinese Silk Road has grown in direct competition with the West. A global crisis - aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic - is unfolding, involving the extravagant policies of Donald Trump, China's leadership and the "dwarfing" of the European Union. The protagonists of this globalised world are the United States and China, and - to a lesser extent - Russia and the EU.

Diminished US leadership

We are witnessing the withdrawal of Europe from the United States, which began at the end of the Cold War, continued with the "pivot to Asia" of the Barack Obama Administration and has been expanded in the economic and military field by the Trump Administration, which has liquidated the draft Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement. The United States has taken on board Halford Mackinder's thesis that whoever controls Eurasia will control the world, and thus the economic protagonism has shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. As José Ignacio Torreblanca has pointed out, Europe has become a "small peninsula of Asia".

In his erratic policy, Trump has fought against multilateralism and free trade, paradoxically leaving China as the main puppet of it. The United States has left UNESCO and the WHO, weakened NATO, harassed the EU and supported Brexit. It has left the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the Nuclear Treaty with Iran. Since it is little dependent on exports and enjoys high energy security, it has lost interest in safeguarding global stability, and has returned to protectionism and the motto of "America first". According to Antonio Bonet, it has gone around the world trampling on the multilateral system in order to deal with its disputes with China for global prominence and has resorted unilaterally to imposing tariffs on imports of all kinds, from steel, aluminium or vehicles, to olives, wines or cheeses, to arbitrarily threatening to impose new tariffs, and to progressively closing its markets.

As Torreblanca pointed out, the open violation of the rules of the game and the use of trade sanctions as an instrument of coercion destroy confidence in the economic system and seriously damage the WTO. In the field of security, although the EU is still dependent on NATO for its security, there is no longer the same degree of trust and collaboration as in the past. The United States has also been withdrawing from the Middle East and the vacuum it has left has been filled by Vladimir Putin's Russia. Trump's unpredictable measures are creating chaos everywhere and the twitters with which he rules the world are almost as dangerous as the Sam missiles, as it is more difficult to protect oneself from friendly fire than from the enemy

Internally, Trump has caused the country to become divided and its citizens to confront each other, radicalizing the positions of the Republican Party and supporting the supreme WASP. After George Floyd's death, instead of calming the mood, he has added fuel to the fire with xenophobic and racist attitudes. In his July 3 speech on Mount Rushmore he spoke of the "cultural revolution of the liberals" and a new far-left fascism that is trying to undermine the eternal values of the nation. His attitude towards the coronavirus pandemic is deplorable, since, despite the fact that the country is the most adversely affected as a result of his denialist policy - with 2.7 million infections and nearly 130,000 deaths - he refuses to take the appropriate measures to deal with it, saying in a good-natured way that the virus will disappear sooner or later by art of birlibirloque, and that the main thing is to relaunch the economy. For the sake of his country and the world, let us hope that Joe Biden wins the next presidential election.

China's rise to global leadership

The Chinese Government is taking advantage of Trump's disastrous international performance to consolidate its leading role on the world stage. Thanks to its demographic power, economic progress, technological growth and military might, it has replaced Russia as the United States' main rival for global leadership, and is allowing itself the luxury of presenting itself to the public as the champion of international trade and multilateralism. This is pure fallacy because China breaches the rules of international trade, subsidises its industries, forces foreign industries to give up their technology, makes access to its domestic market difficult and is carrying out large infrastructure projects in Africa - where it has become the leading investor - bidding downwards, disregarding environmental criteria and the fight against corruption, and practising labour dumping. According to Francopan, "all roads lead to Beijing", and the cooperation links he has managed to establish in Asia, Africa and Latin America - and even in Europe - are a "demonstration of diplomatic tenacity and wise patience". Quietly, China has managed to surpass the United States' GDP.

One of the greatest dangers that China threatens with is that of controlling the Internet in the future. Last March, the Chinese government presented to the ITU a proposal for a new Internet architecture made in its image and likeness: a technologically advanced design aimed at controlling its operation and limiting freedom of expression. The proposal was supported by Russia and by the unique Saudi Arabia, which - to make itself forgive its many faults - is always ready to pull out the checkbook to finance radical Islamism, or to control the telematic networks. They estimate that cyberspace - used by 4.65 billion users and with 26 billion devices connected - must be controlled by the state and not only by the big American technology companies - like Google, Facebook or Amazon - or the Chinese state companies - like Huawei. According to the Financial Times, its objective is to replace the current protocol, conceived as a network of networks in which people and not devices interact, with a network controlled by the States.

According to Ben Peters -author of "How not to Network a Nation"-, the project aims to improve the functionality of Western technology, but to strip it of the protection of citizens, replacing the service to users with the service to the state. This would imply total control by the operators of natural and legal persons, and the control of information, which is extremely worrying. China has developed 5G technology and intends to introduce it in Europe, and has managed to get Britain to open the door to the Huawei company, which has been opposed by the United States. In the opinion of "El Mundo", the future will determine whether the new Internet will mean a war between states or whether the leadership will be exercised by the users themselves. I am afraid that the former is more likely to be the case and China is starting from an advantageous position.

American unilateralism and Chinese opportunism are seriously hampering international cooperation. What attitude can the EU adopt to this considerable loss of prominence with respect to the two superpowers? According to Sigmar Gabriel, China is the only country with a truly global geostrategy, while Europe lacks global ideas and plans. In the opinion of Francisco Sosa Wagner, while China is trying to link spectacular projects, the EU is closing in on itself, rebuilding national borders and many of its politicians are aspiring to regain the sovereignty of their nations, which has been ceded to the Union. "There is a common feeling that the world is looking to the East and that Europe is stuttering.

The EU lacks the capacity to actively intervene in this game of thrones, as it is not prepared materially, psychologically or institutionally, although it could do so if it integrated all its multiple capacities under strategies shared by its members and established clear principles. The Union should act as a third pole between the United States and China, but in order to be a global player, it would need a greater degree of integration and growing strategic autonomy. As Helle Thorning-Schmidt has pointed out, in the dynamics of confrontation between the two superpowers, the EU should seek its own path, which would not be an equidistant position, but one that would allow it to defend the space of freedom and prosperity that has defined it: compliance with the rules, the fight against climate change and respect for human rights. In the face of the American contradictions and Chinese cajolery, the Union should, in Sossa's opinion, defend democratic values and shine a powerful light from the beacon of liberal democracy and the rule of law'.

The European Union at a crossroads  

According to Carl Bildt, Europe is running out of time to be relevant in a world that has turned dangerously towards unilateralism, protectionism, nationalism and authoritarianism. In the globalised world in which we live, a brutal power struggle is being played out and if the EU fails to be a player in that game, it will become the field in which others play. For Luis Simón, the Union will have to decide, consequently, if it wants to be a subject or an object of international relations. If it wants to be an actor in this power game, it will have to consolidate its influence in Europe itself and avoid the penetration of external powers that undermine European unity and integration. 

For Mark Leonard and Jeremy Shapiro, in the face of Trump's unpredictability, Putin's assertiveness with regard to Eastern Europe and China's technological and military challenges, Europe does not have the resources to be more autonomous from Washington and is increasingly vulnerable to external pressure, which prevents it from fully exercising its sovereignty. This vulnerability threatens the security, economic health and diplomatic action of the EU and allows other powers to impose their predicaments. With Trump in the White House, Xi Jiping in Zhongnanhai and Putin in the Kremlin, European supporters of multilateralism have realised that it was best to make their own rules in order to maintain their independence. In order to do so, the Union should address economic and security challenges, without abandoning its support for a world based on Community legal rules and on the transatlantic alliance, which would involve creating a new strategic sovereignty' and acting as an autonomous geopolitical power. Only a Union confident of itself and of its future project could be attractive to the millions of citizens tempted to be carried away by populist messages. According to Josep Borrell, the European project remains key to the EU's future. In Leonard's view, if the Union were to put its important assets at the service of a broader strategic agenda, it could become a player in the multi-polar world, rather than a toy in the hands of other powers.

Not yet having responded to the chop of the Brexit and not having reached an agreement on its relations with Great Britain, the EU has suffered the serious consequences of the coronavirus. Europeans have felt a sense of uncertainty and the inadequacy of nation states to fight the pandemic on their own. With the United States in chaos and China slow to report the outbreak of the epidemic and hide data on its development, Europe is - according to Leonardo - faced with an incredible opportunity to reinvent the European project. COVID-19 has created a world of blocs in which Europe's relevance will depend on its ability to act. We are bound to each other and "if we do not find ways to work together effectively, we may end up sinking them together". The first thing would be to create the vision of a Europe capable of protecting its citizens, and to do this, each Member State would have to feel that Europe is the first line of defence against a threatening world where we face problems by working together. In the opinion of Ignacio Molina, Europe does not make itself and will not make itself if the European citizens do not demand this of their governments. The EU should exploit the economy of scale involved in working together in a world where it will become increasingly difficult for a fragmented European position to shape the management of global affairs in line with its assumptions about peacekeeping, the protection of human rights or the fight against climate change.

With his British pragmatism, Leonard believes that it would be dangerous for European leaders to advocate the creation of a United States of Europe, with strong institutions in Brussels. I do not share this short-sightedness and believe that - at least as an objective and in the knowledge that it will not be achieved easily - the ideals of the founding fathers should be upheld. As Borrell has pointed out, the EU has been an extraordinary success story in the history of Europe, having achieved peace between Europeans after two catastrophic world wars and cannot ignore its origins. "Almost nothing we can do alone; almost everything we will have to do together'.

The Recovery and Resilience Fund 

Europe is now facing a new disaster, albeit a warlike one, the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is essential that the EU respond appropriately if it is to survive. Its main objective "hic et nunc" is - apart from helping to extinguish the epidemic, which is primarily the responsibility of the Member States - to facilitate the economic recovery of the Union as a whole. The EU - including the ECB - seems to have learned from the mistakes made during the 2008 economic and financial crisis and is preparing to take a more supportive stance with the creation of the Recovery and Resilience Fund. Angela Merkel - the only leader the Union has - has taken the initiative to solve the problem, not only for philanthropic reasons, but also because she is aware that, with depressed and indebted partners in the South, Germany and the 'frugal' states in the North would be adversely affected in their economy.

That is why he has dissociated himself from the hawkish camp and has launched, together with Emmanuel Macron, a reasonable compromise proposal for the recovery of the EU, which has served as the basis for the proposal by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to create a Recovery and Resistance Fund, endowed with EUR 750 000, 500 000 of which is for non-refundable grants and a further 250 000 for long-term, low-interest loans. The basic principles of the proposal have been accepted by all states, including the "frugal" ones - Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden - which intend, however, to reverse the "ratio" between subsidies and loans and to impose strict conditions for their granting. The stakes are still high, although it is to be hoped that, thanks to the mediation of Germany - which has just taken over the rotating presidency of the Council - a compromise solution satisfactory to all will be reached.

At the centre of the debate is "conditionality", which was called for in moderation by Frau Merkel and with greater intensity by the northern falcons. The government of Pedro Sánchez - and to a lesser extent that of Giuseppe Conte - wants to exclude it and the PP and Citizens aspire to include it so that the PSOE and Podemos cannot comply with their government pact, which contains measures that are incompatible with EU economic policy. The spokesperson of the PP in the European Parliament, Dolores Montesarrat, has asked the Spanish government to adopt the necessary reforms so that the money that arrives from the EU is used to modernize the economy and not to repeal the labor reform, as Sanchez and Iglesias claim. For Esteban González Pons MEP, the millions from the EU are not for Podemos to fulfil its programme, so we must avoid national debt being used to implement Bolivarian policies in Spain. Whoever wants European money will have to justify what they want it for and, above all, what reforms they are prepared to carry out to achieve their objectives. According to Luis Garicano, MEP for Citizens' Rights, there is nothing wrong with the PP demanding that the spending of these funds be supervised, so that the competitiveness and resilience of the countries that are being helped is improved. "It's logical, positive and sensible. PSOE spokesperson Iratxe García has denounced the PP's manoeuvres to stain the reputation and damage the image of Spain at a crucial time for the EU, going beyond the interests of Spanish citizens.

EPP President Manfred Weber said his group supported the idea that solidarity should go hand in hand with responsibility, and that the money provided should be invested in the future of the country being helped, to help create job opportunities and prospects for young people. Politically incorrect, he added that "we do not want to waste money on past expenses and are not prepared to finance the false promises of Podemos". Iratxe Garcia has attacked Weber and accused him of being obsessed with a progressive Spanish government elected by the people, and said he should not be influenced by the partisan impulses of the Spanish PP, which does not understand that this is the time to unite and work together to overcome the pandemic, and not use the crisis to its advantage.

Sanchez has said that if the PP position in Brussels wins, Spain will lose out, and that the party should give up party positions and stop putting sticks in the wheel. Flaunting his usual cynicism, he has stated that his government has not voiced any criticism against the autonomous governments governed by the PP, because unity has prevailed over confrontation. The Government delegate in Madrid, José Manuel Franco, must be laughing his head off and the President of Madrid, Dolores Díaz Ayuso, is crying her eyes out. The Government spokesperson, María Jesús Montero, has urged the PP to defend that there should be no conditionality in the delivery of European funds, because that would be a sin of disloyalty, and the vice-president Pablo Iglesias - precisely him, who does not give a damn about the unity of Spain - has accused the opposition of betraying the country with their position. However, Vice-President Nadia Calviño has considered it natural that the Eurogroup should tie up the recipients of the Recovery Fund in short order, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Arancha González, has recognised that it is logical that there should be conditionality, although the important thing was what kind of conditions were required.

The "ratio" of conditionality has been convincingly explained by Elisa de la Nuez. Many Spaniards think that it is appropriate for countries providing aid to condition it on the adoption by recipients of a strict programme of structural reforms that have been pending for five years. It is undemocratic to ask for money from partners without any conditions. This is not a problem of North versus South, but rather the fact that the voters of these countries have their priorities and preferences, which their political representatives have to address. The challenge and the opportunity that Spain has is to take advantage of this exceptional occasion to put its institutions and public policies in order. Receiving money subject to certain conditions does not imply a loss of sovereignty, when the EU is based precisely on the partial cession of sovereignty by the Member States in order to achieve economic, social and institutional development objectives that would not be within the reach of many of them by their own means.

This is the context in which Nadia Calviño was nominated to chair the Eurogroup, a position for which she was originally a favourite, on account of her 'curriculum vitae', her experience in Brussels, her status as a woman and the support of the entire opposition, including Vox. She had the disadvantages of being part of a government that was not very compliant with EU rules and the opposition of the Falcons because of its support for a more integrated Union, as she pointed out in her letter of motivation, when she said that the Eurogroup should help to include the supranational dimension at national level in the analysis of the Recovery and Resilience Plans, to ensure consistency with the recommendations for the Eurozone. It was in favour of completing monetary union and considered the revision of the rules on fiscal discipline a priority. He also promised to take into account the different sensitivities and to work towards balanced agreements and to generate a unity that is more necessary than ever.

The election took place on the same day as today a month ago and, together with the Spaniard, the Irish Paschal Donohoe - who had the support of the majority of the PPE - and the Luxembourg Liberal, Pierre Gramegna - who was supported by Belgium and the Netherlands - stood for election. Calviño had the votes of the three big EU countries - Germany, France and Italy - plus Portugal, Greece and probably Finland, but he was not guaranteed success, because he needed three more votes and the election is secret and therefore conducive to the rebellion of those he has recklessly described as "very small countries with very little weight". In Garicano's opinion, the election of Calviño would be convenient for the EU and for Spain, especially for the latter, since - as González Pons has observed - it would be the best guarantee that the Sanchez government would follow the EU's guidelines.