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(Post)-Pandemic Geopolitics: Together in a world apart


Dubrovnik – At the fourteenth annual international Dubrovnik Forum, HR/VP Josep Borrell gave the opening keynote speech. He presented an analysis of the current “pandemic world”, and an outlook for the post-pandemic world around three mega challenges that will determine “our future role in this post-pandemic world”.

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Dear ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,

I would like to situate our discussion today on Europe, the Western Balkans and the region into a wider context of ‘the geo-politics of post-pandemic world’, as the title of this Forum states.

While the EU is leaving the pandemic behind, the rest of the world still struggles.

After 18 months and several waves, the EU is getting out of the tunnel - even if we need to remain vigilant, because of the delta variant. 

But the pandemic is still raging in the rest of the world, notably in South America and Africa. In South America, mortality stands at 3500 deaths per day, half of which in Brazil: this is more than ten times what it is in the EU today. 

In Africa, the total number of deaths is rising at 23% per week. And Africa’s vaccination rate is still only under 3%, whereas in the EU it’s over 50% (one vaccine). Also in large parts of Asia (outside China), cases are rising fast and the situation is worsening. 

So, for the world, the pandemic will not be over until 2023. And by then, our world will look very different: less ‘Western’, more digital and much more unequal - within and between countries.

The determining factor for getting the pandemic under control is the availability of vaccines. It is impossible to overstate their importance. Where politics has often given divisions and competition, science and collaboration have given us vaccines. 

While we need to do more, it is worth pointing out that EU is still the only region to vaccinate our own population, to export half of our production and being a leading donor to COVAX. 

But, unhappily, COVAX is not yet delivering in large enough volumes – in part because India is not exporting. 

So we need to do much more. Access to vaccines is the great fault line in the world today. Vaccine inequality will drive a very unequal recovery. That means a more unequal and hence unstable world. 

We all know that China, Russia and others are playing the vaccine diplomacy card, around the world and in this region. We need to be aware of this and take action accordingly.

For instance, until today the EU has delivered 3,2 million doses in total to the Western Balkans (exports, COVAX and donations). The total figure for sub-Saharan Africa is 9,5 million. This is nowhere near enough. 

So we need to donate more in larger volumes, where we have a minimum target of 100 million donations for this year. And building up global production capacity, especially in Africa. 

The IMF calculates that, if we vaccinate the world to 40 percent this year and 60 percent by the middle of next year, we will gain $9 trillion in output between now and 2025.

And 40 percent of this gain will be for advanced economies. Plus, if we don't vaccinate people globally, we leave fertile ground for new mutations that could come back to the developed world. So solidarity and self-interest point in the same direction.

Navigating the geo-politics of the post-pandemic world

It is hard to summarise the outlook for our post-pandemic world but I will try. Essentially, I see five trends: none fully new, but all accelerated by the crisis.

  1. Unprecedented competition between states. This is a world of competitive nationalism,  power politics and zero sum games. 
  2. Our world is more multi-polar than multilateral. The strategic competition between US and China is often paralysing the UN Security Council, WTO, WHO.
  3. We have stopped travelling as individuals but globalisation is continuing. However, interdependence is more and more conflictual and soft power weaponised. Vaccines, data, technology standards are all instruments of political competition.
  4. Some countries follow ‘a logic of empires’. They argue in terms of historical rights and zones of influence, not agreed rules and local consent.
  5. The world is becoming less free and democracy is under attack, at home and abroad. We face a real battle of narratives.

Let’s face it: none of these trends is favourable to EU. We like a predictable world of rules-based multilateralism, open markets, positive sum games, solidarity, with people and countries free to shape their own lives. 

We have to treat the world as it is. Not to accept it. But to base our policy choices on a realistic assessment. So I see these five trends as a call to action. 

Now I want to mention three mega challenges that will determine our future role in this post pandemic world: 

A. How do we deal with a more ‘crowded’ neighbourhood?

B. Where do we position us in strategic triangle of US, China and EU?

C. How do we ensure we get effective action on global challenges, especially the climate crisis, but also regulating technologies?

Ad A: The contested neighbourhood

This group knows very well that our neighbourhood has become “crowded” and competitive - with Russia, Turkey and others using hybrid tactics. 

At the same time, we know that the people in the neighbourhood want more from Europe, delivered faster and better.

The European model of democracy, solidarity, freedoms and fundamental rights remains extremely powerful and attractive. So we must continue to work with anyone that shares our vision. 

That means keeping our commitments with the Western Balkans and keeping the whole region on a European path. Including by reviving the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue.

That means supporting Ukraine when it faces Russian aggression and as its reform agenda brings it closer to the EU.

That means continuing to put pressure on the regime in Belarus for the oppression of citizens.

That means supporting Libya and its new national unity government. That means doing all we can to prevent a catastrophe in Lebanon due to the political stalemate. The list goes on. 

My main message on the neighbourhood is that as EU, we need to step up, both by demanding and by offering more. The agenda is vast and I hope this Forum can come up with new ideas.

Ad B: The US-China-EU strategic triangle

This month, China marks the 100th anniversary of its Communist Party. A chance to underline the historic achievements. But we also got a defiant message from President Xi Jinping warning that foreign powers will "get their heads bashed" if they attempt to “bully or influence” the country. 

We see growing Chinese influence everywhere, built on centralisation at home and assertiveness abroad.

Cooperation with China is getting more difficult, also because of ‘issue linkage’: market access is linked to our stance on human rights. But we must cooperate on many issues and the economic potential remains: 25% of all global growth in 2021 will come from China.

Meanwhile in the US, the talk is about seeing China as partner, competitor and rival, like we do. But there is a bipartisan consensus that the dominant part is strategic competition.

For Biden this is about democracies versus authoritarian powers. This was the main framing for the G7 and NATO Summits.

US-China strategic competition will shape the world for decades to come. As EU, we need to steer a clear course. Not equidistant but using own glasses. With the US we share history and a political system. The product of Enlightenment.

We have re-launched our EU-US dialogue on China. And with the Biden team, the dialogue is real. But we must keep in mind that EU and US interests are not always the same.

A lot of EU-China work is about doing our homework: investment screening, foreign subsidies, 5G, our procurement and anti-coercion instruments. All happening. And it’s about developing our own Indo Pacific strategy.

So, the second mega challenge is how to steer our own course in US-China-EU strategic triangle – and how to mix elements of cooperation and competition into a coherent strategy.

AD C: How to revive multilateralism and make it deliver on the big issues?

No need to tell this group that there is a crisis of multilateralism. Even after the ‘return’ of the US under Biden, the supply of multilateral action is still less than the demand. 

Take the climate crisis. Last week it was 49,6 degrees - in Canada, not Baghdad! Freak weather is not something that will happen in the future, it’s already happening today. 

Global warming is happening twice as fast in the Arctic. We are moving past all sorts of ‘tipping points’. 

A world of 3 degree warming by 2100 – which is the current trajectory – is radically different from one of 2 degrees warming. 

This is a test for the multilateral system. And COP26 in Glasgow is the probably the last moment that we can still halt runaway climate change. But this will require a radical acceleration of global efforts. 

Climate change is also a geo-political issue. It will create new security threats and shifts in global power. So also for us foreign ministers to discuss. 

The second example is technology. Here too we need multilateralism to deliver: on standard setting for Artifical Intelligence, data (the oil of the 21st century), autonomous weapons, cloud services, surveillance. Who will set the rules? On what bases and values? 

Throughout history, control over technology has determined who runs the world. So Europeans need to work hard to help set the rules for the future. 

And can we continue to rely on the ‘Brussels effect’ if none of the Big Tech companies are European?


Let me stop here. I hope these reflections on the geopolitics of the post pandemic world have helped to set the stage.

I very much look forward to our discussions.

See also