Multilateralism and Regionalism in times of a pandemic



Eduard SOLER I LECHA, team leader of the El-Hiwar project - Training and Information Course on Euro-Arab Relations, implemented by the College of Europe Development Office, and senior researcher at CIDOB - Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, reflects, in this column, on how the global pandemic will affect multilateralism and regionalism efforts around the world.

The world is changing, and the speed of change has accelerated quite a bit in the last months. Global warming, pandemics, digitalization and automation, a global power shift east and southwards, as well as the configuration of transnational protest movements are some of the most visible examples of processes that have a global reach and that quite often tend to mutually reinforce each other. How to confront these challenges? How to anticipate, adapt, mitigate or counter the negative effects that some of them may have? States and societies worldwide will have to choose between cooperative and competitive responses to these questions.

How many States have the capacities to provide national solutions to global challenges? How much are States and societies ready to sacrifice for the sake of common interest? Should they have an appetite for cooperation, will this materialize on a global scale, at regional level or only among a limited number of countries that are ideologically aligned or bound by cultural or linguistic ties? All these questions are now more relevant than ever. While some powerful international actors seem to believe that they have the means to go their own way and are even willing to further undermine the few multilateral tools that the world has to face such a crisis, others want to reinforce cooperative solutions. Moreover, the challenge goes well beyond health. COVID-19 is also about its social, economic and (geo)political consequences, some of which we cannot still foretell but which will certainly shape the world we will be living in.

The value of regional cooperation and interregional dialogue – that is, between two or more regional blocs– will be also judged based on its contribution towards fighting the pandemic as well as mitigating its effects. This will put, once again, the EU on the spot. Not only because Europe is one of the continents that was affected by COVID-19 at an early stage but even more so because the EU has so far been the most successful and advanced example of regional integration. The EU has also played a leading role in promoting interregional platforms all over the world and its involvement will be very much needed if those interregional channels are to be a tool to deal with the imminent and forthcoming challenges.

While high levels of regional integration, in the form of intra-regional mobility and trade, have contributed to the rapid spread of the pandemic in Europe, it is time for the EU to prove that cooperation and integration is also the best tool to jointly fight this threat, to generously support the territories and sectors that have been most affected or are particularly vulnerable and, above all, to rebuild and reconstruct once the pandemic is under control. The failure to do so would not only harm the viability of the European integration project but would also send a discouraging sign to other regionalist processes in Latin America, Africa or South-East Asia.

The EU is a vocal proponent of multilateralism and to achieve this goal the EU needs to actively look for allies, and other regional organisations are the most evident candidates for it. In these troubled and troubling times, it may be inspiring to go back to the European Global Strategy, adopted only 4 years ago and which announced that we were entering an era of predictable unpredictability. This document argues that in the field of global governance, the EU should lead by example, but it cannot deliver alone. In that respect, the EU is meant to “act as an agenda-shaper, a connector, coordinator and facilitator within a networked web of players”. Among those partners, the EU mentions regional organisations. In other parts of the document, the EU also fixes an ambitious goal, that of contributing to setting-up cooperative regional orders. The Strategy argues that in “a world caught between global pressures and local pushback, regional dynamics come to the fore. Voluntary forms of regional governance offer states and peoples the opportunity to better manage security concerns, reap the economic gains of globalisation, express more fully cultures and identities, and project influence in world affairs”. We could easily agree that COVID-19 has increased the need for those cooperative regional orders to exist and to deliver which, ultimately, is an effective way of contributing to building a cooperative global order too.

It would also be worth remembering that, before the spread of COVID-19, the new EU leadership insisted on the need of projecting a more geopolitical vision and that some of the diplomatic bids for 2020 were the upgrade of a continent-to-continent partnership with Africa, and a new boost to Euro-Mediterranean relations, taking advantage of the 25th anniversary of the Barcelona Process. Among the many decisions European leaders will have to make in the coming weeks is whether these plans still hold and, if yes, how to adapt them to the COVID-19 situation. These interregional dialogues with its Southern neighbours but also other frameworks connecting Europe with Latin America or South-East Asia could be instrumental to team-up with the goal that the vaccines and medication developed in the coming months are universally accessible and reasonably priced. The same way that Latin America and the EU have engaged in a fruitful dialogue on environmental issues, or that the EU and East Asia are discussing how to govern connectivity and digitalisation, now health takes centre stage. The current concern about COVID-19 should extend to the treatment of other diseases that are even more urgent for some of Europe’s global partners. Interregional dialogues can also become the launching pad to define and propose international mechanisms to better prevent similar emergency situations from recurring or at least to better foresee them and mitigate their effects.

The project I lead, managed by the College of Europe Development Office, is actively involved in this area. El-Hiwar is an initiative from the EU that started in 2013 with the aim of revamping the Euro-Arab dialogue that had been dormant for a while. The first step in order to build a deeper and wider cooperation between Europe and the Arab World and, more specifically, between the EU institutions and the League of Arab States, was to better understand their respective priorities and to apprehend the way in which intra-regional dynamics operate. Equally important, the project has built a network of intra-personal relations that is not only restricted to officials but extends to experts and civil society leaders. From different sectors and responsibilities, all of them are attached to the need to increase Euro-Arab cooperation. In the last seven years, El-Hiwar has discussed Euro-Arab relations at large but has also focused on specific challenges such as migrations, violence against women and youth employability as well as practical examples of cooperation in fields such as electoral observation, foresight or mediation. In the months and years to come, COVID-19 will figure prominently in the agenda of this project and the goal will be not only to share experiences about how both regions have been dealing with this emergency but also about the need to articulate global and multilateral solutions to this and other global challenges.

The El-Hiwar project is just one among the many examples that show that in the looming global confrontation between multilateral responses and unilateral instincts, the EU is not a neutral bystander.

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