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The EU in a Post-Covid World: More Cohesive, Less Autonomous?

Read the full essay by Riccardo Alcaro and Nathalie Tocci:


The world on which Covid-19 unleashed its destructive force in early 2020 was already one where the EU and its multilateral vision of the world were ill at ease. The pandemic made things worse, accelerating pre-existing trends of disaggregation and competition. The devastating economic impact of extensive lockdowns, combined with trends exacerbated by Covid such as growing geopolitical rivalries and the declining authority of multilateral institutions, has resulted in a more power-based, competitive and eventually volatile international system. In such a ‘Covid world’, those who benefit the most from the stability of international markets and supply chains, multilateral regimes and norms are likely to find themselves among the losers. As a partly supranational entity with an inbuilt bias towards multilateral cooperation, the EU tops the list.

However, the risk that the pandemic would stretch intra-EU ties to breaking point has not materialized. On the contrary, Covid-19 spawned an ambitious integration drive. The magnitude of the economic crisis raised the costs of vetoing progress towards greater fiscal solidarity, thus tilting the intra-EU balance of power against the member states most resistant to fiscal transfers. EU institutions, most notably the Commission, seized on this to reactivate an integrationist agenda that had been discussed in the wake of the 2010-12 Eurozone crisis but not brought forward. In addition, political parties across the EU had greater leeway to reconcile electoral advantage with a pro-EU agenda than had been the case in the past.

It is therefore not unreasonable to assume that, in the otherwise horrific legacy of the pandemic, there could also be a more cohesive EU. This may result in a greater capacity of EU institutions to advance ambitious digital and climate agendas, both internally and internationally.

On the other hand, the scaling down of the foreign and defense policy components of the next EU budget lays bare the absence of a consensus on endowing the Union with the amount of resources needed to make ‘strategic autonomy’ more than an aspirational goal. A major variable affecting the trajectory of the EU is, as it has been for 70 years, the state of the transatlantic relationship. A US administration led by such an old-fashioned Atlanticist as Joe Biden may be a mixed blessing, because Europeans are tempted to interpret America’s reinvestment in the transatlantic bond as a return to a leader-follower relationship.

This pattern may still apply to certain – indeed fundamental – dimensions, beginning with the US nuclear umbrella. But on other, increasingly pressing dimensions (including trade, technology and climate regulations), European followership has become less sustainable. In a Covid world, EU member states should seize on the greater cohesion brought about by their internal response to the pandemic to press ahead with their external autonomy agenda, cognizant of the fact that, far from acting to the detriment of the transatlantic relationship, they would actually reinforce it.

Keywords: EU Integration, EU Foreign Policy, Covid-19, Transatlantic Relations


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