The European Union and the future of post-Covid multilateralism

The novel coronavirus pandemic has already sparked much speculation on how the international order as we know it will undergo profound changes, with suggestions that it will forever be divided between what happened BC (before coronavirus) and AC (after coronavirus). If some lament, others cheer and others are not yet willing to accept the end of the liberal international order, yet few would neglect that a return to the past is unlikely. The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing dynamics from protectionism and nationalism to great power politics and ideological competition. While this definitely means that the health crisis has highlighted the deep flaws of our current multilateral system, it has simultaneously exposed the world’s tremendous need for an international system of collective problem solving, of which, this article argues, the EU should be at the forefront. 

The old is dying and the new cannot be born

The COVID-19 pandemic will further undermine a multilateralism already debilitated by rising nationalist-populism, trade protectionism, the US’ turn away from globalism and developing countries’ frustration with existing international agreements. With the Trump presidency, we are not only witnessing a US no longer willing and able to sustain the international order, but an administration that appears to tangibly despise it. The US’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal are clear examples of this. Spotting the leadership gap created by the US, China is creating a number of initiatives, most notably the Belt and Road Initiative, as an alternative to a multilateral order in which its voice and interests are frustrated. 

The pandemic is likely to fuel this skepticism for interdependence and cooperation; the US has decided to withdraw from the World Health Organization and borders have quickly hardened even in the borderless Schengen Area. Above all, it shows how “the world has rediscovered realpolitik”, eclipsing the global necessity to cooperate to overcome a pandemic which can only be dealt with together. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has revealed the limits of a multilateral global governance architecture that monitors and advises but fails to implement. However, multilateralism can still survive if it transforms. Efforts should be made to reshape a multilateral order that is less normative but more inclusive (with illiberal and liberal values coexisting), less institutionalized but more flexible when it comes to the interaction between state and non-state actors, less stable but hopefully more resilient. 

And who would be better to lead this transformation than the European Union? For the European project, the demise of multilateralism is both conceptually and strategically dangerous. Not only does the European Union constitute “the most radical form of multilateralism”, whose credibility rests upon broader norms of international cooperation, but the EU depends on multilateral institutions to preserve and extend their interests and leverage. Multilateralism’s survival is key for the European Union, and its rescue presents the EU with a unique challenge which, if successful, could further invigorate the European project. 

Rescuing multilateralism

  1. Strengthening internal cohesiveness

In the EU, COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing differences between EU Member States in economic and social terms, as well as with regard to the state of their health services. Having learned that solidarity is not a given, the EU should also receive a wake-up call and understand that a sense of togetherness is what is needed to grow stronger as a Union in the forthcoming years. Internal cohesiveness will be key to the EU if it aims to be one of the three strategic global powers alongside China and the United States shaping the future world order. 

  1. From bilateral to multilateral

To support multilateralism, the EU should systematically transform its bilateral or interregional arrangements into multilateral agreements. This means bringing a multilateral agenda to its bilateral and regional relationship. For instance, having established trade policies with Canada, MERCOSUR and Japan, the EU can spur the creation of a coalition to reform the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Leading from the “alliance for multilateralism” launched by the French and German Foreign Ministers in 2019, the European Union needs to forge partnerships not only with like-minded established democracies such as Canada and Japan, but also – perhaps more importantly – with rising powers, such as China in particular, and non-state actors.

  1. More pragmatic and flexible

Lastly, the European Union needs to put forward a more pragmatic approach to global governance, in which ad hoc frameworks and voluntary commitments are privileged. Indeed, to make “multilateral solutions to common problems” more effective, the European Union should promote a more flexible system, allowing shifting coalitions to form around shared interests to complement and reinvigorate formal international organizations. 

Conclusion

If the liberal order as we knew it is gone, what comes next does not have to be a Hobbesian struggle between great powers. On the contrary, the pandemic has shown us that the world is interconnected and mutually dependent and that the only way to deal effectively with global issues is to embrace cooperation. COVID-19 does not have to be “the final nail in the coffin of a multilateral international order”, rather it should give birth to a new multilateral order, one that could be more inclusive, flexible and resilient than the former. The EU, as a living example of how unity makes us stronger, should be at the forefront of reforming and rescuing multilateralism. If able to recast the comfortable but no longer viable order created in the past, we could witness a multilateral order rising from its ashes.

Virginia Izzo

Virginia is a third year International Relations student at King’s College London and a working group member for European Affairs.

The featured (top) image is ‘European flags at the European parliament’ from 2009. It is by TPCOM and is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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