It’s the yearning for a return to normal. The ability to travel. For children to return to school. To visit parents and grandparents. To see friends. To hear and see live music and theater. To wander through museums. To eat out. To attend sports events.
Most European countries are now slowly emerging from the lockdowns imposed to contain the new coronavirus. It has been an extraordinary period during which the state dug deep into people’s lives by imposing a battery of restrictions unknown in peacetime for democratic countries. Even more extraordinary was the way in which citizens accepted such intrusions.
The lockdowns also accelerated a major geostrategic shift. It involves the United States and China. Both are engaged in a dangerous duel, just as they had been before January 2020 when the coronavirus swept from Wuhan across the world.
This competition, however, is no longer just about trade practices or tariffs. It’s about the influence and dominance of both political systems. This stand-off and outcome will have a major impact on Europe.
It’s not about Europe having to dance between the United States and China or decide which to support. European values are incompatible with China’s one-party Communist rule. And the way China has dealt with the pandemic and with critics and the way it is trying to crush Hong Kong’s autonomy have damaged its influence in Europe. If Europeans harbored any innocent or wishful thinking about China, such sentiments have evaporated.
Indeed, it’s about Europe coming to terms, strategically, with the post-coronavirus order. This means having a coherent policy toward China while at the same time discarding any sense of schadenfreude about what is taking place in the United States.
There, the way U.S. President Donald Trump has handled the coronavirus and his reaction to demonstrators protesting against the murder by a police officer of George Floyd have shaken America’s reputation and standing domestically and internationally. No doubt China and Russia will relish America’s perceived weakness. Europeans should be deeply worried. America’s economic and political woes affect the durability of the West.
Economically, the EU—and particularly Germany—can to some extent insulate itself from what is happening in the United States. The Europeans have put in place major rescue packages so that the bloc can recover from the pandemic that slashed growth and had a devastating impact on many sectors.
The rate of recovery will be crucial for the bloc’s political and social stability. But economic recovery alone is not sufficient. In the post-coronavirus world, Europe will have to decide once and for all how it is going to defend itself.
Unless there is a radical deterioration between the United States and its NATO allies, Washington will continue to provide its security guarantee to Europe. And if there are some European voices that are so anti-American that they don’t want that security guarantee, the idea of Europe pursuing a policy of strategic autonomy—a term in vogue in 2019—is a nonstarter. The term itself was in any case a contradiction in terms: Europe does not act strategically and, in addition, lacks the military and political means for such autonomy.
First, what Europe can do in terms of its defense in the post-coronavirus world is to upgrade its resilience, especially in the areas of cybersecurity, energy, and infrastructure and—above all—in being prepared for the next epidemic virus. This means investing in health security inside and outside Europe.
Second, it must protect its strategic assets, particularly its logistics centers, pharmaceutical industry, and telecommunications networks. The latter is what the controversy over Huawei is about.
The Chinese telecoms giant has lobbied European governments incessantly to be involved in the development of 5G mobile networks. But China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, its undisguised disinformation campaigns in Europe, and Trump’s warning to the Europeans not to allow Huawei such a foothold in critical infrastructure is forcing a major rethink among European governments of their security.
That is one of the consequences of the pandemic. It is changing the definition of security and indeed the definition of soft power.
Europe should be in a position to improve its resilience and deal with these new security issues. But what the post-coronavirus world will not change is—with few exceptions—the Europeans’ reluctance to embrace hard power.
The conflicts happening just outside the EU, to the east and to the south—just consider Libya, the Sahel, and the forgotten war in Syria—will have immense security implications for Europe. The refugee crisis, another forgotten topic during the pandemic, will return to an unprepared Europe.