Deadly Coronavirus, Domineering China and Divided America: What the New Geopolitics Means for Europe

Written by | Wednesday, January 20th, 2021

Donald Trump’s four years in power, COVID-19 and China’s seemingly inexorable rise have all shaken the geopolitical kaleidoscope – in ways that challenge the West and the liberal values it espouses. Can the arrival of Joe Biden as US president, and renewed momentum for European integration, restore the self-confidence of the Western democracies?

In order to make their liberal, democratic model more appealing, both the US and the EU should start by sorting out their internal problems. The US needs to overcome its culture wars and return to being a predictable and principled country. The EU needs to bring together its east and its west, without betraying its values. It must come up with a better system for handling immigrants – and a more effective neighbourhood policy. It should not be beyond the wit of Biden and European leaders to make the Western model more appealing than Chinese authoritarianism.

A few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tony Blair gave one of the most powerful speeches of his career to the Labour Party’s annual conference. “The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux, soon they will settle again,” he said. “Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.” That shake of the kaleidoscope led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with profound geopolitical consequences. The kaleidoscope was further shaken by the financial crisis of 2008-10. Now the global order is once again being stirred, as a consequence of four years of President Donald Trump and the COVID-19 pandemic.

This double whammy – like the earlier shake-ups – is strengthening an increasingly self-confident China but creating profound problems for the US and Europe. With the liberal democratic values they espouse, and their role in international institutions, being challenged, these are 12 geopolitical trends that will affect Europe in 2021 and beyond:

1. The damage caused to America’s standing by Trump’s erratic behaviour and his mismanagement of the pandemic will persist for many years. Nevertheless, Biden will improve the US’s image by not being Trump and by taking allies and international institutions seriously.

2. Every global crisis appears to strengthen China’s self-confidence. But its increasingly assertive foreign policy will produce a hostile reaction: democracies will club together in organisations that exclude China.

3. The worse the geostrategic rivalry between China and the US, the harder it will be for Europe to navigate between them. It will remain strategically aligned with the US, but be reluctant to forego close economic ties to China.

4. Russia and Turkey will continue to slide away from the West. Without Trump’s sympathy for Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, their countries’ relations with the US are set to worsen. Neither of those leaders is seeking to rebuild bridges to the US or the EU.

5. Trump’s defeat has not killed Trumpism, in either the US or Europe. Right-wing populists will draw strength from a resurgence of global migration, concerns that measures to tackle climate change will make people poorer and the worsening inequalities bequeathed by the pandemic.

6. Britain will take several years to recover from Brexit and a worse-than-average COVID-19 experience. It will be in permanent negotiation with the EU to improve the quality of their initially thin relationship. Yet if the country can overcome its Brexit culture wars, it has the potential to develop a successful global brand.

7. In many respects, globalisation will not go into reverse. Some governments, keen to ensure security of supply for key products and commodities, will emphasise the need to ‘on-shore’ supply chains. But many companies, wishing to keep down costs and access cutting-edge technology, will continue to invest overseas and manage international supply chains.

8. COVID-19 has increased the wealth and power of Big Tech. Both European and American regulators will take steps to constrain tech giants from abusing their monopolistic positions – but since the firms concerned are mostly American, the European moves will provoke transatlantic tensions.

9. The EU is likely to integrate further in the area of economic governance, where the creation of the recovery fund marks a step change. But efforts to harmonise the way the member states handle asylum-seekers and irregular migrants are proving divisive. And the chances of more integrated foreign policies look bleak, at least in the near future.

10. The rift between the majority of member states and some of the Central Europeans will persist. Many West European governments and the European Commission are increasingly frustrated by the lack of respect for the rule of law in Poland, Hungary and sometimes other countries. The recent row over the Polish-Hungarian veto of the EU budget reflects deeper cultural divides, for example over attitudes to immigration and modern liberal values.

11. France and Germany will dominate the EU even more than usual, but for the next few years, with Germany distracted by Angela Merkel’s departure, France is likely to be pre-eminent. Italy and Spain will be held back by their economic problems and Poland by its rows with other member states. The Netherlands is becoming a more influential country.

12. European leaders will talk a lot about ‘strategic autonomy’, the idea that the EU should be able to do and say what it wants, without being constrained by other powers – not only in defence but also in areas like technology and energy. President Emmanuel Macron may succeed in persuading his fellow EU leaders to take the concept seriously, so long as he can convince Central Europeans and Germans that it is not designed to loosen the transatlantic bond.

‚Deadly Coronavirus, Domineering China and Divided America: What the New Geopolitics Means for Europe‘ – Essay by Charles Grant – Centre for European Reform / CER.

The Essay can be downloaded here

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