Navigating a pandemic world: global disorders and Europe’s role

EU ISS/Carnegie debate

Carnegie Europe/EU Institute for Security Studies, Brussels HR/VP Josep Borrell analyses the ways in which COVID-19 is changing the international landscape and how the EU is addressing the challenges it created in terms of health, economy and security. The EU should present itself as a partner of choice, defending its model of society of democracy and solidarity.

Check against delivery

I am glad to join this global panel of eminent persons from all continents: we are all facing the same global crisis.

This crisis is far from over. In Europe we may feel the worst is behind us but we better be cautious.

This is a global crisis in every sense of the word: the epicentre has moved from Asia, to Europe to the Americas where the situation is dramatic. The numbers are up again in many countries. Until we have a reliable vaccine, no one is safe.

This is also a global crisis in another sense: it affects everything at the same time: health, economics and security.

The impact will be asymmetric. But a zero-sum logic of winners and losers is wrong, as it will only bring losers.


The crisis accelerates and magnifies. We see:

The western-led order in crisis. This US administration has mostly withdrawn from the global order that the US has built. This is the first major global crisis where the US is not in the lead.

China for its part is increasingly assertive but also nationalistic. A real factor of global power for sure, but transactional and short on genuine soft power.

We can be sure that US-China strategic rivalry will be the main axis of global politics for years to come.

We have a real crisis of multilateralism: the G7 and G20 are absent; the UN Security Council is paralysed and many ‘technical’ organisations are turned into arenas where countries compete for influence.

The result?  A world that is more multipolar than multilateral.

We see growing inequality and divergences both within Europe and globally.

In Europe, the latest growth projections presented by Commissioner Gentiloni] point to the crisis leading to a massive recession. The average figure of -8.3% for this year is dramatic but doesn’t tell the real story. While Poland will shrink by -4.6%, Italy will go down by -11.2 % and Spain by -10.9%.

At a global level we also see a massive divergence: -9.5% for Latin America, -8% for the US, -4.5% for India, -3% for Africa – and still modest growth for China, which is for China is a major problem.

As ever, what matters is the very different capacity of countries to cope with these big divergences.

Around the world, we see tensions between respect for science and evidence-based policy-making and the continued appeal of nationalism and authoritarian politics. The crisis has seen new autocrats trying to abuse the situation.

The rise in political polarisation is reflected and amplified on social media.

None of these trends is new per se. It is the combination that makes the situation so challenging.

Any diagnosis most be sober and realistic. But we must also avoid fatalism and paralysis.


As EU, we are mobilised and active on all tracks, internal and external.

The exact shape of the recovery plan and new EU budget – a total of €1,8 trillion - is now being negotiated. This is vital for the EU’s internal cohesion but also our standing in the world.

Well before the pandemic, we knew that to have a real common EU foreign policy, we need a common strategic culture, which takes time. I would add that it is also hard to have a common strategic culture without real solidarity among us.

To position ourselves, it is important to recall some basic demographic trends, published in a recent report by the European Commission.

By 2070, the EU will represent only 3.7% of the global population, while Africa will reach 27.4%. To note: India at 15% of the global population will overtake China at 12%.

Therefore, we can only engage this new world if we are more united.

We also know that as EU we need partners. Frankly, Europe feels somewhat lonely, trying to hold the ring.

The purpose of today’s debate is to discuss, from different regional perspectives, how we navigate this pandemic world together.

Let me list some areas for cooperation, grouped along three clusters: health, economic recovery and security.


First on health: ultimately, there is only one exit strategy: having a reliable vaccine. In May, the EU stepped into a ‘convener’ role and organised the Global Response Summit.

We mobilised an international coalition, public-private and raised €7,5 billion. We must treat the vaccine as a global public good.

On the WHO, our mantra is: support first, reform later. The resolution last May showed what bridge-builder role the EU can play.  

This will not be the last pandemic so let us work together to ensure better preparedness and capacity at regional and global level.

Second, on the economy: we need a globally coordinated recovery strategy. Many developing countries are hit by a massive withdrawal of capital, plus a drop in exports and tourism. The ‘fiscal space’ that developing countries have, is very limited.

It is morally right but also in our own interest to help countries cope with the pandemic and its economic aftermath. The alternative is more instability, more social misery, more migration.

So, we need to keep the global trading system open as vital lifeline.

On debt relief, we should be ready to go beyond a freeze on interest payments, also looking at the needs of middle-income countries.

As EU we do our part. We have put together a ‘Team Europe’ package of €36 billion, of EU institutions and member states working together.

This is to support partner countries, with a focus on the hardest hit to cover humanitarian plus health needs and recovery with more to come under the new EU budget.         

Everyone’s mantra, from the UN Secretary General down, is to ‘build back better’. That means linking any recovery spending with sustainable development and climate action.

Climate change remain an existential challenge. It was there before the crisis and will be with us afterwards and even intensify. And let’s remember there is no vaccine for climate change!

We are committed to climate neutrality and so do our part. However, we need the rest of the world to join us. Europe represents only 9% of global emissions so we cannot solve this alone.

As we rethink our approach to hyper-globalisation, there are also new opportunities for partnership. For instance, the debate on supply chain diversification could also give a new impetus to EU-Africa relations.  

I am absolutely convinced that the future of Africa is one of the decisive factors of the world to come, together with US-China strategic competition.

Africa’s population is set to double by 2050. Which system will they choose? One based on individual rights, sustainable development and governments that are accountable – or some other system?

We really need to invest in thinking in new ways about our partnership with Africa, putting everything on the table: investment, innovation, digital and climate.

Third, a few words on security:

There are numerous security crises brewing, with many made worse by the pandemic: Libya, Syria, Sahel, Venezuela and Afghanistan.

The list is long and sadly familiar – and the EU is engaged in all of these.

We have one motto: it is for local forces to determine their own future. This was the slogan of last week’s Syria conference, where we raised €7 billion, with three-quarters coming from the EU and member states. It is clear that, while necessary, supplying humanitarian aid is not enough: we need a political solution to the Syris crisis.  

The EU is trying to uphold international agreements where they exist: for example the JCPOA with Iran, which we are working hard to preserve, and the Minsk Agreement for Ukraine.

Sometimes we support the UN because they are best placed, for example in Syria and Libya. At other times, the EU as such is in the lead: take Serbia-Kosovo or the Eastern Mediterranean.

This week and last, I visited Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Malta to reduce tensions and rebuild trust. This weekend we will organise the first Serbia Kosovo Dialogue at leaders’ level in 18 months.

We are working hard to develop EU security and defence capacities and policies, with PESCO and the European Defence Fund.

Here too we cannot hope to solve any of these problems alone. Hence - again - the importance of partnering with the UN, NATO, OSCE, AU, ASEAN.

And we should remember that without the software of diplomacy, the hardware of peacekeeping or crisis management stands no chance.


Let me end with three concluding remarks:

  1. My main goal is to present Europe as partner of choice. Principled but not dogmatic. Open but not weak. Progressive but not naïve.

We seek to act multilaterally whenever we can and autonomously if we must.

  1. We must protect the openness of our model and the democratic nature of our system. They have been the source of our success. We are not ‘imposing’ anything on anyone. But we should not accept that our choice for democracy is derided or undermined.
  2. We have to demonstrate to our publics that ‘the system’ is able to solve problems and protect them. At the moment the results are there but not good enough. So it’s our collective responsibility to do better.

I look forward to our discussion on how to do just that.