As the world deals with the health and economic crises brought about by the COVID- 19 pandemic, political tensions and challenges abound for the EU on the international stage David McAllister, Chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs (AFET) Committee, suggests, “The Coronavirus pandemic has been a catalyst for existing challenges to the international order, such as isolationism, authoritarian tendencies, instability and violent conflict. The past few months have highlighted a lack of global leadership.”
McAllister also warned that China is looking to take advantage of the situation to strengthen its geopolitical position.
The German deputy fears that the current crisis has “the potential to reverse decades of growth and socioeconomic development across the world, which could push many people back into deep poverty.”
Early on, the EU faced criticism for failing to come up with a coordinated plan to deal with the pandemic and the associated economic fallout.
But McAllister believes that, “the EU has now been taking decisive political steps in reaction to this crisis, be it internally or externally.”
Though he admits there were some “initial stumbles”, he says that a new political model based on increased solidarity and a more resolute support of a rules-based global order is emerging in the EU. He believes, “The crisis made clear that our strength is in our joint action.”
“The pandemic has been a catalyst for existing challenges to the international order. The past months have highlighted a lack of global leadership”
McAllister is not the only EU policymaker anxious about China’s willingness to throw its weight around on the international stage.
In a recent AFET Committee debate, members raised concerns with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell that the European External Action Service (EEAS) “toned down” allegations made against China as part of a report into state-led fake news campaigns, following heavy pressure from Beijing.
Though Borrell denied the report had been changed, McAllister admits, “It is regrettable that China has resorted to an aggressive disinformation campaign previously taken from Soviet and Russian playbooks.”
He stresses the Committee took the allegations about Chinese pressure to change the report very seriously. “We immediately held a meeting, where Borrell personally provided explanations and answered all of our members’ questions.”
While he credited Borrell for taking questions from MEPs, given the “sensitivity” of the issue, he points out, “AFET members made clear that the EU must stay free of undue political and economic external influence. The EEAS has a key role to play in this respect, and AFET will continue to make sure that it acts as a genuinely European diplomatic service.”
Despite differences over the EEAS report, an EU-China summit is still scheduled to go ahead in Leipzig, Germany in September. McAllister says although he regrets the recent actions by China, he nonetheless believes that there are many positive aspects to the strategic partnership.
But he warns, “China is also a strategic competitor to the EU in many ways. We should not be naive about the scale of Chinese interference into our internal affairs and must be prepared to rebuff these efforts resolutely together with our like-minded partners.”
He wants to see the EU begin re-thinking its economic dependence on China. “The planned summit could come as a watershed, in providing more clear-eyed and pragmatic relations with China, based on mutual respect and understanding without compromising our European values such as democracy, human rights and rule of law.”
The AFET Committee will be looking into the consequences of COVID-19 on EU foreign policy in the next few months.
“Global cooperation is vital to fight the pandemic and potential future crises. It is essential that all countries work closely together on limiting the spread of the virus and developing a vaccine”
To tackle the Coronavirus outbreak effectively, McAllister says, “Global cooperation is vital to fight the pandemic and potential future crises. It is essential that all countries work closely together on limiting the spread of the virus and developing a vaccine, and also on the post-pandemic recovery. This virus knows no borders, neither should our response.”
Unfortunately, the recent war of words between US President Donald Trump and Beijing makes global cooperation very unlikely.
Trump has often referred to COVID-19 as “the Chinese Virus”, complaining about lack of transparency from Beijing after the pandemic broke out in Wuhan, and has suspended aid to the World Health Organisation (WHO), accusing it of being “China-centric.”
In response, Beijing officials have accused the Trump administration of wilful ignorance, dangerous mismanagement and even attempted “blackmail.”
McAllister accepts that the ongoing battle of narratives is definitely not helpful in curbing the virus’ spread. “The current situation requires that we resist the urge to look inwards and instead step up our joint efforts to combat this pandemic to the benefit of all.”
But on the positive side, he believes the EU is now emerging as a global leader, pointing out its support for a multilateral response by raising €20bn to help the most vulnerable countries.
“I hope that the current crisis will see a more visionary and coherent foreign policy emerge, focused on promoting peace and sustainable development around the world”
With Germany taking over the presidency of the EU Council from Croatia in July, McAllister believes that the German presidency could initiate some long-overdue structural reforms that would help to make the EU’s foreign policy more effective.
One of the changes it may propose is to extend qualified majority voting in the Europe Council to certain areas of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. “Personally, I hope that the current crisis will see a more visionary and coherent foreign policy emerge, focused on promoting peace and sustainable development around the world.”
The German Presidency will also play a key role in finalising negotiations on the new EU multiannual financial framework (MFF) for 2021-2027.
According to McAllister, this will have a positive impact on the EU’s ability to act on the international stage. “It is crucial for our future foreign policy to be well-funded, allowing the EU to address challenges such as international development and support for democracy and human rights. The European Parliament will continue to play a vital role in the ongoing negotiations on the MFF as a whole.”
Despite the huge challenges the EU faces in helping Europe recover from the pandemic, McAllister says he is keen to stress the importance of making progress on enhancing relations with those countries on its borders.
Especially those that are part of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.
He explains, “Through its political, cultural and economic investment in the Eastern Partnership countries, the EU invests in the security and stability of the region and of our continent as a whole.”
He adds, “A more prosperous, democratic and resilient Eastern neighbourhood is in our own interest.” A special Eastern Partnership summit in June is expected to endorse an updated EU ‘vision’ for the region beyond 2020.
The AFET Committee will also be writing a report on the new ‘vision’, with Parliament expected to vote shortly afterwards. However, in contrast to its EaP strategy, EU enlargement policy in the Western Balkans has stalled.
In October 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron blocked the start of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.
McAllister admits, “While the delay in the opening of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia was regrettable, the impasse triggered a much-needed debate on the future of the EU’s enlargement policy leading to a revision of the accession methodology.”
The recent Zagreb summit in May, hosted by the Croatian EU Presidency, reinforced the EU’s support for developing closer relations in the Western Balkans, which, according to McAllister, was a big success for Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković.
“The European Union still needs an ambitious and credible stance on enlargement,” he explains, although admits that the pace of the reform process in all Western Balkan countries to meet accession criteria “leaves room for improvement.”
He suggests that “Flaws in the rule of law and democratic political culture remain the biggest cause of concern to us and must be addressed without further delay.”
“We should not be naive about the scale of Chinese interference into our internal affairs and must be prepared to rebuff these efforts resolutely together with our like-minded partners”
This year will prove crucial for EUUS relations. President Trump, who has never tried to hide his criticism of Brussels, faces elections in November.
When asked if a US led by President Trump is still a partner that Europe can rely on, and whether the partnership will be tested even more in the coming months, McAllister is adamant that the US will, and must, remain a strategic partner for the EU.
“This is not only down to the pragmatic reasons of contributing to the mutual defence of most EU countries that are also NATO members, and the sheer volume of trade, but also because we do share many common values and interests.”
He admits, however, that there are also currently big differences between Washington and Brussels. “I cannot deny mounting divergences on many fronts, such as multilateral solutions to global issues, including nuclear disarmament as well as climate change, and, most recently, the handling of the pandemic crisis and withdrawal of funding to the WHO.”
McAllister also now believes that the EU needs to start looking beyond the Transatlantic Partnership to its own priorities. “While being a strong believer in the future of transatlantic cooperation, the EU now has to be prepared to strive for higher strategic autonomy, be it in foreign and security policy or the economic domain.”
Closer to home, the lack of progress in the Brexit negotiations with the UK is also providing challenges for Brussels. Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator, warned that progress is needed during the fourth round of trade deal talks in June to avoid stalemate.
However, McAllister, taking a more optimistic view, believes that there is still hope that the EU and the UK will manage to agree on an ambitious and comprehensive deal.
But he criticised London’s attitude to the talks, saying, “The UK government’s piecemeal approach involving potentially several sectorial deals is not acceptable for the EU. A level playing field needs to be ensured. Our objective is to have open and fair competition to the benefit of people and businesses on both sides.”