Europe’s Global Test

By Rosa Balfour, Director Carnegie europe, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 2020

The coronavirus pandemic could give birth to a more autonomous and strategic EU. But the bloc must resolve its internal tensions and find its place in an increasingly fragmented world.


It took a virus to bring Europe out of its recent interregnum—a time when, as Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prison Notebooks, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Post–Cold War optimism had led to a major step toward political unity in the 1992 Treaty on European Union. But the EU, unable to continue reforming, was then haunted by unfinished business throughout the crisis-ridden 2010s. It was left brittle, lame of mission, and bereft of the United Kingdom.

After the coronavirus pandemic, the continent will be different. Global instability will force Europeans to find comfort in the relative resilience of their own system, bolstered by a coronavirus recovery plan approved in late July 2020. The EU can seek opportunities from the freefall of global leadership to find new allies and a different space in the world.

But rhetoric about a “Hamiltonian moment” is misleading: European integration is not following the linear trajectory imagined by its founding fathers to become the United States of Europe. EU leaders bounced back during their summer 2020 marathon summit, but the hard-fought negotiations revealed persistent fractures. Still, the first steps toward transformation were taken.

Europe’s success will depend on its ability to reinvent its democratic processes and renew its engagement in the world.

Europe will be hard-nosed in countering its economic recession, exploiting domestic and international opportunities. In the long term, Europe’s success will depend on its ability to reinvent its democratic processes and renew its engagement in the world.


Against the backdrop of technological revolution, climate change, and democratic involution, Europe is conditioned by two major geopolitical pressures: U.S.-China competition and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Africa.

Europe is simultaneously an arena for U.S.-China rivalry and a player in the game, a status that complicates the calculus between domestic choices and foreign priorities. Few countries embrace the dualistic depiction of the world that U.S.-China competition imposes on others, especially when neither power seems fit for global leadership. Regardless of who sits in the White House, Europe remains faithful to allies but will likely steer clear of open confrontation.

Nevertheless, the pandemic unmasked the different views on globalization held in Brussels and Beijing. Keen to reduce its economic dependence on China and decouple itself from U.S.-China trade wars, Europe will start shifting its attention to alternative markets—be they elsewhere in Asia, Africa, or Latin America.

Far from sparking a new Cold War, U.S.-China rivalry is instead causing global fragmentation—heightening conflicts, blocking international cooperation, and damaging long-term stability. Global governance and multilateralism—domains where the EU sees itself holding a special mandate—are in disarray. A host of countries are struggling with dilemmas similar to Europe’s. Paradoxically, this moment of crisis could allow for new forms of international engagement. The risks of further degeneration are high, but there could be room for maneuver. Australia, Canada, India, Japan, South Korea, the UK, and others are seeking to diversify their international relations in order to avoid the straitjacket of a dichotomous and unstable world.

The EU and its member states need to find their space in this context, in part by upgrading their engagement with middle powers. With multilateralism and its institutions in tatters, the EU will have to strengthen bilateral, minilateral, and regional connections to continue global governance through other forms. The EU has pursued an ambitious and comprehensive trade agenda as well as new dialogues on health, which it unambiguously considers a global public good warranting international cooperation. As the largest world market, the EU has the ability to exercise real regulatory and standard-setting power—power it will have to wield more actively and politically.

The EU has the ability to exercise real regulatory and standard-setting power—power it will have to wield more actively and politically.
For all its historical faults, Europe remains an important global donor and trader. It has struggled to overcome postcolonial legacies, and the recent rise in immigration anxiety across the continent has led to security policies that fuel distrust in Africa and Asia. But thanks to its engagement with civil society, the EU is still seen as a partner that supports civic rights. The regional organizations it has inspired hedge against great power expansion and rivalry while fostering cooperation over shared challenges.

As the coronavirus spreads to the Southern Hemisphere, where UN agencies fear crises of “biblical proportions,” the daunting scale of the challenge becomes apparent. The progress fragile countries have made in reducing extreme poverty and hunger could quickly be wiped out by a reversal of economic growth and a freeze of remittances from emigrants, as well as political upheaval and instability. Europe will be at the forefront in helping Africa navigate the consequences of the pandemic, building on recent strategies to strengthen relations between the two continents. In the name of global pandemic solidarity, the EU has delivered emergency and humanitarian aid to support its neighbors and the poor countries hit hardest by the virus. It is also leading global efforts to support medical and epidemiological research and advocating for G7 and G20 agreements on debt relief for low-income countries.

Europe will portray itself as a promoter of multilateralism and cooperation, an alternative pole to the United States and China, and a bridge builder among diverging powers


Globally, Europe will portray itself as a promoter of multilateralism and cooperation, an alternative pole to the United States and China, and a bridge builder among diverging powers. In areas as diverse as health, climate, trade, regulation, finance, diplomacy, governance, and international development, Europe can mobilize power, partners, and ideas. Together with international allies, it can invest in research and technology to harness the energy for innovation that the pandemic has anything but subsumed.


Upgrading international diplomacy and promoting multilateralism are worthy ambitions, but they have too often been thwarted in practice. The primacy of domestic politics within member states has eroded solidarity in recent years. Internal disruptions like Brexit and democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland have done more to weaken the EU’s global role than any bloc-wide foreign policy misfires. Far from converging toward a common strategic vision, member states have grown more divided on foreign policy over the past years. Indeed, the EU does not seem to get much listening time in Washington or Beijing.

This internal volatility has stark consequences, as seen in the EU’s deteriorating relationship with Turkey and its negligible role in the conflicts in Syria and Libya. Competition for influence is heating up in Eastern Europe, North Africa, and other regions that have long been central to European foreign policy. The EU’s ambition to find space outside the U.S.-China rivalry will require vigorous action in those parts of the world where China and others are competing for influence. Europe has already seen its pandemic humanitarian support devalued by Chinese and Russian disinformation campaigns. One notorious example is Serbia, which is supposed to be en route to joining the European Union and relies heavily on EU aid, trade, and investments. But the Serbian government welcomed China’s “mask diplomacy” to prop up the widespread belief in the country that China and Russia are its most devoted international partners—a symptom of Brussels’s credibility problem.

The relationship with Turkey is also in freefall. Since the EU agreed to rely on Ankara to contain flows of refugees and migrants from Syria and Afghanistan in 2016, Turkey has followed Moscow’s adventurist playbook in Syria, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean, with deteriorating spats between Turkey and Greece, an EU member state. Ankara has been taking advantage of Europe’s current Achilles’ heel: a hostility toward immigration that is exploited by populist governments and parties. Indeed, the EU’s package on migration and asylum, blocked since 2016, has been further delayed by the coronavirus crisis.

These weaknesses so close to home point to how the nexus of domestic politics and international goals reinforces a vicious cycle: populist constraints determine international choices, which, in turn, weaken the EU and make it less capable of reaching the unity necessary to act on the world stage. The urgency of the economic downturn will further complicate Europe’s foreign policy calculus.


The EU leadership inaugurated its term in 2019 with a pledge to become more geopolitical. French President Emmanuel Macron has used the term “European sovereignty” in his push to strengthen the EU. “Strategic autonomy” in reference to defense became the buzzword in Europe’s security policy circles. In light of Europe’s divisions, foreign policy pitfalls, and limited willingness to increase defense commitments, these goals seem like empty ambitions. The EU has still not meaningfully addressed the challenges posed by U.S.-China rivalry, U.S. disengagement, or Russia’s continued aggression.

The post-pandemic recession and the uncomfortable squeeze of U.S.-China tensions may push the EU to politicize its economic tools and soft power. Geoeconomics is where the EU can wield most influence, from expanding trade relations to using the euro on international markets. The looming recession has increased pressure to centralize direction of the European economy, to see the European Commission raise its own resources, and to increase government spending on social infrastructure after decades of cuts. The emerging vision of strategic autonomy is no longer tied to building a more secure Europe on the geopolitical chessboard but rather to improving Europe’s overall resilience. It is now far broader, encompassing the promotion of European technology, a transformation toward a greener economy, and citizens’ well-being.

A more unified economic strategy would mark a significant departure from the past, when the European Commission could run the single market and international trade while member states quarreled over foreign policy. The EU has been one of the greatest players in globalization; how it shifts its approach will influence the rest of the world.

The EU cannot credibly support democratic change and engagement with civil society abroad while those values suffer at home

But the EU needs to change. At the moment, Europe’s internal failures are holding up greater autonomy. The end of representative and liberal democracy in Hungary and Poland is a loss for their own citizens but also for the EU’s constitutional principles and the global community of democracies. The EU cannot credibly support democratic change and engagement with civil society abroad while those values suffer at home. And the decline of democracy within the EU has made countries more vulnerable to foreign meddling. Russia has reportedly been financing anti-EU populist parties on the far right, which have been playing a more influential role in European politics. Meanwhile, the countries most dependent on Chinese investments are obstructing a common policy toward Beijing.

Europe’s democratic involution runs parallel to demands for greater citizen participation and more localized decisionmaking. The year 2019 was already marked by a surge in protests across Europe—calling for political freedoms, opposing corruption, and demanding a robust answer to the climate crisis. The coronavirus exposed the detrimental impacts of neoliberalism on social inequality and critical infrastructure and services. Governments of all stripes claim they want to correct this through new investments in the public sector. If they follow through on those promises, the EU will need new procedures to monitor spending and ensure accountability—especially by making it harder for states to enjoy EU funding while flouting the rule of law. Such an approach could simultaneously improve economic and democratic stability.

As long as domestic imperatives outweigh internationalist ambitions, Europe will inevitably face dilemmas. A “Europe first” policy, driven by internal demands to curb immigration or extract trade benefits, would undermine international alliances and cut against the EU’s universal principles of a rules-based world order, human rights and freedoms, and international peace. A more autonomous and geostrategically engaged EU, on the other hand, could assert itself outside great power rivalry and work with partners to lay the foundations for better governance and a more resilient, sustainable economy. The choice Europe makes will have a profound impact on the post-pandemic world.