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Covid-19 and geopolitical turmoil

Recent decades have seen the strengthening of inter- or supranational organisations such as NATO and the EU. Although large segments of the European population have been critical of the federalization of the EU, leading to the rejection of plans for a European constitution in several national referenda in the mid-2000s, the EU has continuously seen its powers grow. Similarly, NATO’s presence in Europe has expanded eastwards. While Russia is often portrayed as the aggressive party, NATO – contrary to explicit promises made by the West to then-president Gorbachev not to expand NATO eastwards – has come to include countries that were either part of the Warsaw Pact or of the Soviet Union itself, thereby entering Russia’s security zone. Russia thus claims to be encircled by the West as a result of the accession to NATO by countries bordering Russia and the strong US military presence in countries like Japan and South Korea. NATO itself considers this a myth and dedicates a special webpage to debunking it.

The global supply chains, the collapse of which now wreak havoc on the world, have grown from trade agreements such as those concluded between the EU and other countries. The CETA treaty between the EU and Canada, provisionally in force since 2017 until fully approved by all the Member States’ national parliaments, is an example. While CETA was approved last month by the Dutch lower house, it was met with the same fierce criticism that had previously been voiced in reports which concluded that CETA “does not prioritize concerns relating to the protection of the environment and health”.

The Covid-19 crisis puts all this in a different perspective and speculations about deglobalisation are in full swing. With countries fighting the virus mostly on a national level, the relative absence of the EU and NATO has been conspicuous. While the EU correctly notes that “the ability to pass laws at country level to tackle the coronavirus rests entirely with Member States” and that “the Commission does not have the right to interfere … on subjects such as health”, the perception in many EU member states is still that the EU is failing in this crisis. This has been exacerbated by images of the Russian military helping Italy and the Chinese assistance to countries such as Serbia, with which the EU has started accession negotiations. Following the statements of Serbian president Vucic, who called the European solidarity in this pandemic a ‘fairy tale’ and accused the EU of hypocrisy, the European Council on Foreign Relations has blamed Serbia for taking a cynical approach and for undermining the EU’s unity and appeal by pitting Europe against China.

Tensions are also rising between the European North and South regarding the “coronabonds” – a form of mutualized euro-zone financing. Advocated by the South and opposed by the North, some analysts feel they are part of an inevitable process: “The founders of the Euro understood that the currency would create tensions and problems leading to crises and then reforms. Ultimately, something approaching full monetary union would be achieved”. Others have explained why an agreement on coronabonds is unlikely and that the euro zone will almost certainly break up because of Covid-19.

The future is less predictable than ever and events that were unimaginable only weeks ago, are now unfolding. One of the rare bright spots is the substantial scaling down of NATO exercise Defender-Europe 20 due to the Covid-19 outbreak. While the exercise was designed with Russia in mind, commentators have noted that as NATO will have to delay its message to Russia until the pandemic has subsided, by that time, deterring Russia might be the least of the West’s worries.

Edited by: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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