COVID-19 and the Search for European Strategic Autonomy
A virus has redefined power politics. On the big stage, the European Union needs not only to prop up the multilateral order, but also to promote a multipolar order and develop into a power among powers.
For governments, it is useful to know whether a health danger is coming their way, to learn from approaches taken elsewhere and, if necessary, to offer or request help. But COVID-19 sharpens one dimension of such standard diplomatic traffic in an emergency: power politics. Unlike an earthquake or other classic natural disaster, a disease that is spread by human movement presents a great opportunity to put other players in a bad light, to weaken or manipulate them. Whose fault is it? Who is failing to get the thing under control? Who is helping? Who has a convincing story?
In the medical-political maelstrom of spring 2020, four insights, each of them revealing and at the same time perplexing, were gained by the beleaguered European public.
First, in this disaster, Europe was not going to be the world’s Red Cross, but the pitiful victim. Second, in combating the pandemic the United States, the great ally that has taken the lead in all international crises since 1945, was absent, even feckless. Third, it was the distant, strange and, by most Europeans, misunderstood or underestimated China that was able to fly in with tonnes of medical supplies. Fourth, to make the humiliation complete, the European public discovered that the dividing line between emergency aid and power politics is thin – and a benefactor can make demands.
This series of experiences threw into disarray Europe’s sense of its geography and history. On the world map of emotions, sympathy and respect swapped places. The pandemic forced Europe into a post-colonial view of the People’s Republic of China, a post-Atlanticist view of the United States of America, and a new definition of its own position and identity.
“Face-mask diplomacy” is the phenomenon that sums up the shifts most effectively. Italy, hit hard by the virus precisely because of the links between Lombardian industry and Chinese production centres such as Wuhan, was the first to be affected by the rescue efforts.
On 12 March 2020, amid great media attention, a Chinese Red Cross plane arrived in Rome – not Milan, the centre of the epidemic, thereby underlining the diplomatic character of the mission. Foreign minister Luigi Di Maio extolled the solidarity between the two countries.
At the same time, the Italian government ordered medical equipment worth more than 200 million euros. Yet more flights with relief supplies followed, some from regional and local governments, and on three occasions they were accompanied by medical staff. Even some large Chinese businesses and organisations, such as the Jack Ma Foundation, came to Italy’s aid. Nor were the dockland industries of Genoa and Trieste forgotten by their Chinese partners.
Ever since the 1950s the government in Beijing has had good knowledge of and strong links with many of the former communist “brother peoples” in central and eastern Europe.
Serbia was another stop on the new silk road of sickness and health. In mid-March, President Aleksander Vučić came to the airport in Belgrade in person to receive a shipment of face masks. “European solidarity is a fairy tale for children,” he said on that occasion. “I believe in my brother; I believe in Xi Jinping.” In Prague, President Miloš Zeman made it known in late March that China was the only country to have helped the Czech Republic. This drove home the fact that ever since the 1950s the government in Beijing has had good knowledge of and strong links with many of the former communist “brother peoples” in central and eastern Europe.
It is a different matter for countries in western and southern Europe, which, as an extension of Marshall Aid and NATO protection, have enjoyed American support ever since the Second World War.
Chinese face-mask diplomacy therefore raised eyebrows in the Netherlands. As a token of thanks for the aid that Schiphol Airport and KLM Airlines provided to China with discreet emergency flights in January and February, three Chinese airlines donated medical supplies to KLM a month later. In April, Health Minister Martin Van Rijn went to Schiphol in person to welcome a donation sent by Alibaba and Huawei. The Netherlands, never a beacon of diplomatic finesse, haughtily rejected as substandard a shipment of 600,000 masks it had purchased, an incident that the Chinese ambassador struggled to smooth over.
In the battle to look good, Europe put itself at a disadvantage. The tonnes of emergency supplies that had travelled in the opposite direction earlier in 2020, from Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and elsewhere, had been delivered without flag waving or drumbeats at the request of the Chinese. The country tolerates no loss of face. On 6 April, the European Commission laid out the bare facts and figures in a press release – for the record, because for the theatre it was too late.
Meanwhile, the leadership in Beijing was eager to shine its light on the full breadth of the stage. To achieve that, all means were permitted. In Paris, the Chinese ambassador hit out at French COVID-19 failures so hard that his efforts rebounded. Beijing does not yet command the subtle European codes of verbal exchange between the authorities and the public.
In Berlin, parliamentarians were shocked by a newspaper report that Chinese diplomats had urged the German government to put a positive spin on Xi’s management of the crisis. The federal government told the Bundestag that it had declined to comply with the request. An alert commentator observed that not the foreign ministry, but the interior ministry was responsible for such channels of communication. “What it signals is that China has become domestic politics for Germany. This points to the new reality of our relationship with China.”
The pandemic not only gave considerable scope to a self-conscious China, but it also revealed that China has a Europe policy that is not matched by any European China policy. Public unease began to take shape.
The offensive Chinese response was illuminated even more starkly by a cynical display of American inaction. In the first ten months of 2020 more citizens, in absolute terms, died of the disease in the US than in any other country. Time and again President Donald Trump played down the danger (“a kind of flu”) and paid little attention to experts and advisers.
The pandemic not only gave considerable scope to a self-conscious China, but it also revealed that China has a Europe policy that is not matched by any European China policy.
Of course, the dark side of the American dream does not come entirely as news to Europe: outbursts of racial violence, glaring social inequality, dispiriting interventionist wars, an opioid crisis, political polarization. Yet until the coronavirus pandemic, the brighter side dominated: democratic freedom, love of innovation, dynamism, and faith in the future. An apposite piece appeared in The Irish Times. “Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the US until now: pity.”
Domestic failure undermined America’s claim to moral exceptionalism and global leadership. At the start of the pandemic President Trump was still behaving according to the familiar script. Referring to South Korea, he said, “They have a lot of people that are infected, we don’t. All I say is, “Be calm.” … The world is relying on us.” That was soon over, not just because in his own country the pandemic encouraged him to play America First in the worldwide battle for medicines to treat COVID-19 but also – and the two things were closely connected – because Trump subordinated every foreign policy performance to the question of coronavirus guilt and to rivalry with China.
A rhetorical duel between two geopolitical adversaries filled the world’s auditoria. Pushed into a corner as the superspreader of the virus, Beijing chided the “Leader of the Infected World” for his paltry COVID-19 response. When America’s State Department declared in late May that the Chinese government was “breaking its promise to the people of Hong Kong” with a new security law, the riposte by its Chinese counterpart on Twitter was a simple “I can’t breathe”, the final words of George Floyd, whose brutal death had stirred furious Black Lives Matter protests in all the states of America and beyond. American society became caught up in a double fight over bodies; in election year 2020, politics crept under the skin.
In this geopolitical battle of narratives, the Europeans are trapped. Both great powers were demanding to write their own version of the great coronavirus story. Xi Jinping wanted gratitude for the face masks provided; that meant not probing the Wuhan market or how the virus could have been stopped sooner. Donald Trump preferred not to hear about failures at home and demanded fidelity from his vassals, in a geopolitical conflict that was presented in Washington as a new Cold War between freedom and tyranny.
A revealing incident shows how these forces made themselves felt as far away as backstage Brussels.
The EU department for combatting disinformation (set up in response to Russian propaganda activities, it has since 2019 also investigated China) wrote in April 2020 in a preliminary version of a coronavirus report that Beijing was engaged in a “global disinformation campaign” to avoid carrying the can for the outbreak. The text was leaked to the press, which led to fears that China would hit back by withholding medical supplies.
After pressure on EU diplomats in Beijing, in which the word “repercussions” was used, the passage was watered down. According to The New York Times, an advisor to EU chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, intervened to postpone publication of the report. Criticism from the other side of the battlefield promptly followed. America’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Pete Hoekstra, eagerly tweeted about Chinese intimidation, “Real friends don’t do that.” In his response, in front of the European Parliament, Borrell described such fine tuning as “the daily bread of diplomacy” and said his department never succumbed to pressure.
Indeed, as Borrell observed, diplomatic work involves being, well, diplomatic. Drafts of difficult letters are often rather more cutting than the version the addressee gets to read. That does not necessarily mean you have sold your soul to the devil, merely that you have taken account of sensitivities, consequences, interests. Sticking firmly to principles in relation to the Chinese Communist Party may look valiant, but with too few face masks to protect your citizens you will soon start to feel short of breath.
So, Europe drew its first conclusions from the dislocating experiences of the spring and summer of 2020. If it wanted to escape being squeezed between the People’s Republic and the United States with their geo-medical divide-and-rule politics, then the Union would have to get its own production (or distribution) of medical and pharmaceutical supplies in order. Without strategic autonomy, no narrative sovereignty.
The pandemic of 2020 caused a China shock in the EU, which heightened public awareness of the People’s Republic’s geopolitical power and assertiveness. This time it went far beyond informed or interested circles (which had become intensely aware since the 2008 financial crisis and a series of high-profile take-overs in the German tech sector from 2016) but was felt right at the heart of European public life. This time, after all, Europe’s own medical vulnerability was in the spotlight.
These changed relationships were immediately expressed in the allocation of political responsibility: China became a Chefsache. Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, the summit of all 27 EU government leaders with President Xi that Chancellor Angela Merkel had arranged for September 2020 in Leipzig had not gone ahead. In early October, presidents and prime ministers unanimously endorsed the aim of “strategic autonomy”. A remarkable conceptual breakthrough, since the notion had for years met resistance from member countries that, in a defence context, considered it anti-Atlanticist. Now the medical vulnerability and pharmaceutical dependency revealed by the pandemic prompted calls for an escape from the Chinese-American squeeze. Suddenly an independent foreign policy emerged as a public matter.
In the American imagination, the People’s Liberation Army is conclusively the strategic and narrative successor to the Russian Red Army.
In the great imperial duel, Europe’s own metamorphosis became all the more urgent. Sticking to the text, as in rules-based politics, is not sufficient to see off assertive opponents and major global turbulence. This lesson from the foregoing decade of crises is true a fortiori of the political world stage. So, with regard to both the People’s Republic and the United States, the European Union would henceforth have to engage in events-politics, as a player with skin in the game, with power and a narrative. In respect of both, this was an historic turning point.
The rise of China clearly upsets American-European relations. For Washington it represents a geopolitical challenge that puts everything else in the shade. Already under president Barack Obama, the US started its “pivot to Asia”, an orientation towards the Pacific. The European theatre is being relegated to the side-stage of world politics, perhaps for the first time in centuries. Under President Trump, the deterioration in the relationship between the US and China accelerated, with trade wars and pressure on allies to isolate China, for instance on technology, from early in his term. As sketched above, during the 2020 pandemic, this rivalry permeated all the way to the main podium of global public life, with a furious narrative battle, a geo-medical vaccine race and a tug of war in the WHO. At home it was the American Secretary of Defense who dotted the “i”s. Shortly before the 2020 presidential election, he decreed that from 2021 onwards, military academies must devote half their lessons to China. In the American imagination, the People’s Liberation Army is conclusively the strategic and narrative successor to the Russian Red Army.
Confronted with the Trumpian China legacy, in 2021, the new President Joe Biden opted for both continuity and rupture. He could not avoid further pursuing a confrontational course with Xi Jinping (it would make him look meek), but he is breaking with the policy of inconveniencing and weakening allies and international organisations. Instead, he is positioning the US once again as the self-conscious leader of the free world. All the same, it will be harder for Biden than for his post-war predecessors – all those from Truman to Clinton who built the global Pax Americana – to make self-interest and global interests credibly coincide, because of both the reluctance of his voters and the relative decline of America’s power.
In Washington, the narrative of a new Cold War is developing, in which the power struggle with Beijing is amplified into a battle between Good and Evil.
Seen like this, rupture and continuity have the same origin. Because of the mounting geopolitical conflict with China, Biden is playing the familiar card of American imperialism: “Our power is your freedom”. The US realizes that against this challenger it cannot win on its own. In early 2019 Biden’s current secretary of state Antony Blinken was already making a start, with a plea for a “league of democracies” (a proposal he made along with neoconservative Robert Kagan). Biden announced a “Summit of Democracies” to be held during his first year in office. In Washington, the narrative of a new Cold War is developing, in which the power struggle with Beijing is amplified into a battle between Good and Evil. The European democracies, naturally, are on the side of the Good.
This is in stark contrast to China’s approach to Europe. Whereas Xi Jinping always talks of the relationship with the US as being between great powers, with Europe he stresses the bond between “great civilizations”. He claims that China is the oldest still extant civilization, representing “the East”, whereas the origins of Western civilization lie in Europe. Because of that historical responsibility, Xi believes, China and Europe must work together to build a world in which all states, irrespective of their political-economic systems, have equal standing.
Times of Pluralism
The initial reflex of governments and EU institutions after the 2020 American presidential election was to reach out a hand to Joe Biden in relief, almost before he had stretched out a hand to them. Yet a number of crucial differences between this and the previous Cold War should give us pause.
The degree of global economic interdependence is new, which has changed the stakes of the geopolitical conflict. The US and the Soviet Union engaged in an ideological and territorial battle, with famous flashpoints, including Berlin, Cuba and Vietnam. Economic links between the capitalist West and the Eastern Bloc were minimal, however, and as a consequence it cost Western Europe little to restrict trade and transactions with the communist bloc. How different the situation is now. The rapid global spread of the coronavirus has revealed how immensely branched and interwoven worldwide supply chains have become. To disentangle them in a process of decoupling, as American hardliners advocate, would be economically disastrous for Europe – leaving aside the question of whether it is possible at all.
Furthermore, America’s disconcerting COVID-19 response reveals how weakened and divided the country is, and indeed how self-conscious and resolute the onward march of China. At its height, the Soviet Union achieved 60 per cent of American prosperity, whereas now China might well catch up with the US in the foreseeable future, not just economically but technologically and militarily. Whereas immediately after the Second World War the US accounted for around half of the world’s prosperity, it currently accounts for just one seventh. The days of global supremacy are now out of reach to both China and the US. This creates a need for forms of power balance and coexistence – and hence thinking in terms of pluralism.
EU on the World Stage
The European Union derives part of its self-confidence and sense of mission from the notion of a universal, neutral and power-free international podium. With the pandemic and the resulting politicisation of the WHO and UN by Beijing and Washington, that promise has been shattered. The EU therefore needs not only to prop up the multilateral order (impossible without the bedrock of American power) but also to promote a multipolar order. This means the EU must first develop the ambition to be a relevant pole itself, a power among powers. Only then will Europe be taken seriously by the US and China as a fellow player on the world stage.
The Biden presidency is a historic gift – not to be wasted by pretending that everything in EU-US relations can go back to normal.
Such a geopolitical aspiration requires – this much is made clear by the American example and the Chinese counterexample – a strategic capacity to prioritize, buttressed by a public will to operate as a unified Europe, to act, to claim a certain space. To that end Europe must free itself from the role of a prompt that invisibly declaims universal values or the agreements of rules-politics. A player on the stage accepts being absorbed into the stream of events and into a battle for soil, technology, access, influence and prestige – and must speak the language of fellow players: the language of power.
In this respect, the Biden presidency is a historic gift – not to be wasted by pretending that everything in EU-US relations can go back to normal (as some European politicians irresponsibly suggested), but to be seen as a most welcome interlude and breathing space, for Europe to prepare for events to come.
Pandemonium: Saving Europe
This analysis is adapted from excerpts from Luuk van Middelaar’s forthcoming book: Pandemonium: Saving Europe, Agenda Publishing, October 2021.
The last decade has seen the EU beset by crisis: the eurozone storm, the refugee tragedy and the Brexit debacle. The pandemic presented yet another threat to its existence. Luuk van Middelaar’s incisive analysis of Europe’s resilience demonstrates just how far the EU has come in its development from a regulatory body to a political entity and how it has been shaped by the politics of crisis. If the EU is to thrive and to protect its citizens, it must learn now to be a geopolitical actor and anticipate the action rather than simply react to it.