As CONCORD prepares its new four-year strategy, which will run from 2023-2026, I’ve been giving some thought as to how our external environment is changing. What does that mean for the role of the Confederation and how we may need to adapt to be able to work in that context, especially given our ambition to do more than react to an EU-set agenda?
In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic shook the world, I wrote an analysis reflecting on game changers and trends for the next decade. While many of those trends remain pertinent today, the pandemic particularly brought to light or reinforced certain changes in the international arena – including the EU’s role in that arena – while directly impacting on our ability to realise our most basic rights.
CONCORD and its members have written extensively on the impact of the pandemic on human development and inequalities – while also noting that the EU doesn’t appear to think that focusing specifically on human development is part of “building back better”. However, what we speak less about are the governance-related and civil and political rights changes that the pandemic has reinforced.
First and foremost among these is a centralisation of power the world over, but of course an even greater centralisation of power in some contexts. This increased ‘state control’ was declared to be necessary in order to control the virus, but we saw serious restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms such as the rights to movement and to expression. If our freedoms can be taken away so easily, what will happen when other events strike – as they surely will? And what does this mean for CONCORD’s calls for greater devolution of power to people, and for greater people’s participation in decision-making?
Taking another example, what will be the longer term impacts of the stronger nationalism and the polarisation which has accompanied the virus? Will global solidarity – weak at the best of times – become even more dependent on things going well? Despite getting over an early bout of competition between the Member States by forming a Team Europe approach, the race to develop – and then pre-buy supplies of – vaccines, cemented the image that the EU largely pays lip service to global solidarity. Some would call this ‘organised hypocrisy’. However, what happens when the ‘Union’ part of the European Union starts slipping away? The EU certainly won’t have the same weight on the international stage. Whether to defend its interests or to tackle global challenges which should unite us.
The role of non-state actors and especially that of the private sector has grown yet again, since governments relied on private sector actors to provide all the goods and supplies needed to respond to the pandemic. The crisis also rapidly accelerated the process of digitalisation in a way that is entrenching tech giants in their dominant market positions. Solutions proposed to contain the virus have been polemical with people, but nonetheless get accepted by governments, such as tracing apps and the mass gathering of people’s geolocation (so, even more ‘big brother’ than ever).
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, transnational corporations are seeking to cement their control of global governance, ensuring it serves the interests of business and profits rather than the well-being of humanity. This was very clearly shown by the failure of states to agree to a TRIPS waiver relating to the production of the vaccine. Yet again, multilateralism – supposed to operate in the interests of all – simply served to protect the interests of the rich over those of the poor. I’m not a private sector ‘basher’, nor (clearly) a private sector ‘apologist’: I believe in asking the difficult questions. One such question is, what should CONCORD do in the face of such state subservience to the private sector? What does this say about our so-called democracies, when we don’t vote for private sector leaders? And no one asks our opinion about things like TRIPS waivers….
All these changes mark a leap towards a future in which transformative, systemic change and the goal of a more equal world become significantly more difficult to achieve. Of course, to go from a position of observation of trends to one of creating scenarios is a leap in the shadows, if not quite the dark. But for this reason, we must draw the strands together to consider which scenarios are possible – over the years to 2026 – and what role CONCORD should play in ensuring that we can write the future of 2026, together.
I very much look forward to hearing your thoughts on these, and other, game-changing trends.