By Shada Islam*
Adjusting to life in a Covid-19 world is difficult. Daily disruptions impair thinking beyond today. Last week was history, yesterday another country. Tomorrow is unknown, the day-after, unknowable.
Yet the outlines of three possible global governance scenarios can be discerned. They illustrate our options and confirm the need for the right decisions today in order to secure better outcomes tomorrow.
The choice is between the worst, the middling and the best scenarios. What follows is neither comprehensive nor science-based. But, here are some educated guesses:
First, the worst. No surprises, it’s a slippery slope, fast-tracked downwards from the chaotic present.
As the pandemic rages and more and more countries go into complete lockdown, true leadership and good governance remain in short supply; confusion, competition and confrontation trump cooperation and collaboration; conspiracy theories and misinformation abound.
Already worsening US-China tensions plunge to new depths, with the war of words between Washington and Beijing turning more toxic and venomous. Transatlantic relations are frosty. Russia and Turkey remain outliers.
European solidarity, already fragilised by discord over migration, faces ever-stronger daily tests. Years of efforts to build the single market and the Schengen border-free area receive fatal blows. Trust between member states erodes further, intra-EU protectionism and restrictions become rife.
Brexit negotiations remain in limbo, Europe goes into recession, unemployment and inequality rise. Europe’s populists become louder, using the crisis to further marginalise refugees and migrants.
The second ‘muddle through’ scenario isn’t as wretched as the above but terrible nonetheless.
International cooperation – including the collaborative hunt for a Covid-19 vaccine – is sporadic and erratic. There are some brave attempts at global consultation through a video meeting of the G7 club of industrialised countries and efforts to revive the larger and more diverse G20. South Asian leaders hold a first-ever video conference on Covid-19, encouraging hopes of a revival of the region’s quasi-comatose efforts at cooperation.
The European Commission springs to life as it sets rules for border closures, urges an end to intra-EU export controls for vital medical supplies and walks the talk on international cooperation. The ECB also awakens, providing EU states with leeway to spend more money and – although their actions are uncoordinated – EU governments unveil their own financial rescue plans. Brexit talks resume but with no sense of urgency. It’s still every nation on its own.
It doesn’t have to be like that. Scenario three is proof that there are other, better, options leading to more uplifting outcomes.
As Javier Solana, the EU’s former foreign policy chief, currently recovering from Covid-19, posted in a recent tweet: “This pandemic should make us think how interdependent we are and make us act accordingly every day.”
It’s not idealistic to expect international cooperation in times of crisis. It has been done. Joined up global responses went into full gear during the 2008-2009 financial crisis, with leaders of all the world’s major economies playing a role in helping to tackle the problem.
The first G20 summit was organised in Washington, bringing together the leaders of China, India and other large emerging markets. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank announced over $1 trillion in finance for emerging markets and low-income countries. Coordinated action on trade was taken, with countries vowing not to put up trade and investment barriers.
“We sink or swim together,” former European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso underlined at a meeting of Asia-Europe leaders in Beijing in October 2008.
What a difference 12 years – and a new breed of “my country first” politicians – make. To deal with Covid-19 and its aftermath will require an end to US-China trade and tech wars and mutual recriminations. Since this is unlikely in the immediate future (or even a less immediate one), Europe will have to step into the breach.
It can. With its unprecedented focus on the climate crisis and an expanding global conversation on the ethics and rules for IT and AI, the EU has already started placing the building blocks of a new global order.
Here are three other actions that the EU – despite current divisions – must take:
– Given their references to an ongoing war against Covid-19, European leaders like Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, joined by the three ‘EU presidents’ must do what wise leaders did as the Second World War was ending: organise another ‘Bretton Woods moment’ devoted to building a revised and more inclusive system of global economic governance .
– Start working now on building a more powerful global partnership on health which gives the World Health Organisation (WHO) much-needed powers to impose and monitor government health policies and ensure greater global exchange of information on health emergencies, epidemics and pandemics.
– Spearhead a much-needed global financial-humanitarian rescue plan to help countries which do not have the national capacity, the money or the medical personnel to deal with Covid-19 and/or other health emergencies. Industrialised nations need to help workers in the gig economy. In developing countries it’s the daily wage earners who are being hardest and will continue to suffer for years to come.
Finally, Europe’s more responsible leaders – and there are still a few – must tell the world it’s time to end blame-games and start learning from each other. The massive disruption caused by Covid-19 demands a true transformation of global governance. The world will not bounce back to business as usual.
We’re in this for the long-haul. The way we act today will determine our post-Covid-19 future.
*Shada Islam, Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe, a Brussels-based think tank.