As lights get turned on in Brussels offices and people begin to populate trains and metros, as the streets and cafeterias start to fill up, and as Europe proudly declares that more than 70% of its adults are vaccinated, one could almost think we are, finally, returning to ‘normal’. But we shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security. The speed of change continues to grow and not all the changes are for the better. It is, moreover, far from ‘back to normal’ in many countries of the world – especially those which have been denied access to COVID-19 vaccines.
As Belgian Green MEP Philippe Lamberts said the day before the State of the European Union speech, “The state of the European Union? Could have been much worse”. Indeed, it could have been a lot worse; but, so that it was ‘better’, the EU pre-bought and stockpiled vaccines, reinforced fortress Europe while gambling with migrants’ lives, and put Europe first in all its dealings with partner countries. As a result, it is much worse… elsewhere.
The speech, entitled “Strengthening the Soul of Our Union”, sets out the ambition for Europe to be “grounded in values and bold in action”. Are those values just for the benefit of Europeans? What about the bold action? I must admit that I didn’t see much of either when it comes to Europe in the world.
The speech was quite a work of art in the way it blended self-righteousness, complacency and, dare I say it, arrogance with an implicit acknowledgement that Europe has fallen behind in the “era of hyper-competitiveness”. I marvelled that Europe is still more concerned with its standing in the world than with the lot of people and what it could do to improve that. Still more extraordinary, Europe is so busy playing catch-up that it fails to have its own gameplan.
If geopolitics really is just one big competition between world powers – and, if we’re honest, it always has been (think of the Great Game back in the nineteenth century, the Cold War in the twentieth) – then one would hope that European leaders would have learnt how to play the game. This should be a game of chess, not of snakes and ladders. But the EU, in announcing its Global Gateway, does not take away China’s tempo; it rather exemplifies the EU’s lack of strategic thinking. In this “game”, China is many moves ahead. Is the EU even a pawn in China’s game? Either way, in order to balance values and bold actions, strategic thinking would be particularly important. Bold actions can only follow bold ideas. So the EU should be lauded for the intention, but actions always speak louder than words.
I wasn’t sure what shocked me more: the President of the European Commission thinking that Europe can isolate itself from a future pandemic by creating a European Health Union or the fact of admitting that “the scale of injustice and the level of urgency are obvious” in global vaccination, while all the while preventing other countries from obtaining the patents, know-how and technology to produce vaccines.
As ever, it is ordinary people who lose out.
Since CONCORD’s work is all about making sure already disadvantaged people don’t lose out even more, we should draw some lessons from the EU and its approach to the world when designing our next strategy. As every chess player knows, one has to begin with the end in mind. And then one has to design a strategy and tactics to get there. Reverse planning, in other words. We have, together, envisioned the world in 5 years’ time; now we must be courageous enough to take the leap and envision how to ensure we get there.
Like chess players.