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Mark Leonard Says More…

This week, PS talks with Mark Leonard, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Project Syndicate: You have indicated how European integration “could serve as a backstop for national sovereignty, rather than posing a threat to it.” You suggest that a similar approach is needed beyond the European Union, with today’s multilateral frameworks being “brought back into the service of national sovereignty.” How might this be achieved?

Mark Leonard: As I discuss in my forthcoming book Age of Unpeace (forthcoming in May 2021), the big story of the twenty-first century has been that many of the things that were supposed to bring us together have actually been driving us apart. Global trade, migration, and the Internet were expected to create wealth and opportunities for all. But, to whatever extent they fulfilled that promise, they have also led to escalating trade wars, skyrocketing inequality, and cyberattacks.

In the past, multilateral institutions have taken a neoliberalism-infused approach to managing globalization. They sought to reduce the role of national governments and left ordinary citizens at the mercy of powerful entities, unable fully to govern their own lives. As inequality has surged, a growing number of people have gotten the sense that globalization has spiraled out of control. This has produced a far-reaching political crisis, fueled by the desire to “take back control.”

For multilateral institutions to regain legitimacy, they must show that they can empower citizens, rather than disenfranchise them. This means developing an effective global tax regime that forces multinationals to pay their fair share. It means giving national governments more say over how to govern their own economies. And it means ensuring that citizens have control over their data.

PS: In the EU, you have noted, anxiety about “being left alone” has fueled a “new desire for joint action,” which the €750 billion ($884 billion) COVID-19 recovery fund exemplifies. Yet, in your view, this anxiety does “not reflect an appetite for institution-building.” Assuming that institutional development is essential to create a “more powerful and unified Europe,” how could leaders increase the public’s appetite for it?

ML: The EU needs to revolutionize the way it thinks about sovereignty, and demonstrate to the public the benefits of its new approach.

For decades, the main goal of European integration was to tame national sovereignty, which had led to the devastating wars of the twentieth century. By pooling sovereignty over the coal and steel industries – which had produced the weapons of those wars – the EU showed how binding countries together could support peace.

But, in the twenty-first century, the biggest threats to European security are no longer rooted in competition among European nation-states. They come, instead, from outside, and include everything from climate change and pandemics to cyberwar and geopolitical conflicts between great powers like the United States, Russia, and China. Taming national sovereignty will not protect Europe from these threats.

Today, Europe must focus on reclaiming sovereignty from transnational forces and competing hyper-powers. EU leaders must show that, by working together, states can take back control not only from great powers, but also from digital giants like Google, Facebook, and Huawei. This would transform popular perceptions: far from an enemy of national sovereignty, the EU would be viewed as its greatest amplifier. Only then would institution-building become feasible.

PS: In describing the shift in the EU’s strategic calculus vis-à-vis China, you predict that it will soon start “turning the talk of ‘diversification’ into action.” Where is this process likely to start? What other changes to the EU’s China policy will become possible if it succeeds in reducing its dependence on Chinese trade and investment?

ML: The COVID-19 crisis has fueled a heightened sense of vulnerability in European capitals. The struggle to procure basic medical equipment – ventilators, face masks, drugs – showed just how risky it is to rely on a single producer, especially one that is willing to attach political conditions to the supply of vital equipment.

What will begin in the health-care sector is likely to extend to other critical sectors, including technology, food, and other basic supplies. The merging of pandemic-related fears with longer-term concerns around climate change and digital sovereignty could lead to nothing less than a wholesale remodeling of globalization.

PS: The EU is also rethinking its relationship with the United States. “Unlike their predecessors,” you wrote in March, Europe’s current leaders “see America – or at least [Donald] Trump’s America – more as of a source of problems than of solutions.” But you also note that the transatlantic relationship had become strained well before Trump, thanks to the “disastrous” US-led war in Iraq and the made-in-America global financial crisis. If, after the US presidential election in November, Europe gets an opportunity to repair some of the damage of the last few years, where should it focus its efforts, and which parts of the relationship are unsalvageable?

ML: Trump’s America is seen by many as a broken hegemon. His poor treatment of US allies and unpredictable policies have raised questions about the country’s reliability as a partner. And his spectacularly botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the country’s credibility as a global leader.

The election in November have the potential to be a game-changer, in terms of the philosophy shaping decision-making in the White House. A victory for Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, would create an opportunity to reinvent the transatlantic alliance. On the US side, this may include a re-commitment to NATO, to the Paris climate agreement, and possibly even to a modified version of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal). One can also imagine a new China policy that does not demand a complete decoupling and leaves room for diplomacy.

But the election of a new president will not reverse the long-term geographical shift in US priorities or sever the American public’s attachment to national sovereignty. The public’s fear that the US is overextending itself will remain very much alive. As such, its leaders will increasingly expect Europeans to take responsibility for their own regional security, while following America’s lead on how to engage with China.

A Biden administration would still need to balance Europe’s interests and perspectives with other priorities, including the needs and goals of key partners in the Indo-Pacific, such as Japan, India, and Australia. This means that, whatever the outcome in November, Europeans could find themselves in the role of policy-takers, rather than policymakers, in many areas that are central to their future security and economic wellbeing.

BY THE WAY . . .

PS: In a recent New Yorker commentary, you are quoted as saying that the US “has traditionally had an ability to reinvent itself,” not least because the “brutality of the American political system – where entire elites get kicked out whenever there is a change of party at the top – has historically led to resilience.” What changed?

ML: The upcoming presidential election shows that there is still everything to play for. Nonetheless, addressing America’s problems has become more difficult, because many of them have become baked into the country’s economic, social, and political structure. Inequality, for example, is now deeply entrenched in education, asset ownership, the labor market, voting districts, policing and the justice system, and even social media. This makes structural reform exceedingly difficult. It doesn’t help that the US Constitution makes it very difficult to marshal the necessary political power to root out the problem.

PS: While recent protests against racism and police violence in the US are changing European perceptions of America, they are also spilling back across the Atlantic, exemplified by similar demonstrations in France and Germany. As European societies become increasingly multiracial and multicultural, are they facing a reckoning of their own?

ML: Europe’s demography has been changing for decades as a result of its imperial entanglements, its adapting economy, and integration. Every European country has developed its own model for defining and managing its identity and citizenship, from the United Kingdom’s laissez-faire approach to the economically-driven integration of the Gastarbeiter system in Germany to the political integration of the French republican model. All of these systems have been put under political pressure in recent years. Today’s demonstrations are as much about recognizing the limits of domestic integration as they are about protesting police brutality.

PS: A “hard” Brexit delayed may not be a hard Brexit denied. The UK’s post-EU transition period is set to end on January 1; Prime Minister Boris Johnson remains determined to leave the single market, customs union, and the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction by that date; and the two sides remain far from agreement on the terms of their new relationship. What would a no-deal dénouement mean for the UK and Europe now, especially amid the COVID-19 crisis?

ML: The economic costs could be huge, though the full scale of them may be obscured by the COVID-19 crisis. In any case, the bigger costs will be human and political. The UK and the EU are bound together by centuries of common history. Moreover, we face many of the same future challenges, from climate change to grappling with powerful entities, from Trump’s America to Facebook.

Millions of Brits live in the EU, and millions of EU citizens keep Britain’s hospitals, care homes, universities, supermarkets, farms, and factories functioning. To turn these cooperative relationships into a zero-sum battle for sovereignty is going to do serious damage to both the UK and the EU, at a time when we need each other to survive.

PS: A recent European Council on Foreign Relations report indicates that the pandemic has increased Europeans’ sensitivity to future shocks, including climate change. With the global economy facing an unprecedented recession, how hopeful are you that such shifts in political opinion will be translated into effective action?

ML: I am very hopeful that politics will be reinvented in the twenty-first century. As I discuss in my forthcoming book, the tools and forces of integration – from multilateral institutions to trade to the digital realm – have become weapons that we use to fight each other in “connectivity wars.” But once we face up to the way that connectivity changes our societies, our politics, and, indeed, our very nature, we can develop strategies to live differently.

As the report suggests, people are learning from experience, and mindsets are shifting. This is the first step toward such a transformation.

We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Leonard’s picks:

Is It Tomorrow, Yet? Learning to Live with the Unthinkable -by Ivan Krastev

This essay shines a light on the paradoxes evident in COVID-19’s impact on European politics. Krastev shows how European elites risk getting the pandemic wrong, because they are looking at it through the lens of the refugee crisis, the euro crisis, and the global “War on Terror.” If Europe’s leaders read the COVID-19 crisis correctly, however, it can bring about a “European moment.”

Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present -by Frank M. Snowden

This sweeping account of past pandemics reveals their social, economic, and political consequences. Written before the COVID-19 crisis began, Snowden’s book has done more to help me make sense of the outbreak’s progression than hours spent reading the latest updates on the Internet or watching the news.

Normal People -by Sally Rooney

Social-distancing protocols during the pandemic have spurred many of us to reflect on the connections that are central to our lives. This touching coming-of-age novel explores the shifting power dynamics in human relationships.

From 2018

Leonard explains how, using a combination of carrots and sticks, Europe can save the Iran nuclear deal. Read more.

From 2017

Leonard showed how the German and French governments could avoid past mistakes and cooperate effectively. Read more.

In this European Council on Foreign Relations policy brief, Leonard identifies three ways the pandemic is changing UK politics. Read the brief.

In his podcast, World in 30 Minutes, Leonard presents the newest edition of the ECFR’s Coalition explorer, and together with policy fellows Ulrike Franke and Pawel Zerka, analyzes the collected data. Listen to the discussion.

The Struggle for Belarus

To the Brink with China
Aug 13, 2020 RICHARD HAASS

Latin America’s Triple Sudden Stop
Aug 12, 2020 ERIC PARRADO

America’s Dual Recession

The Cracks in Belarus’s Regime Are Multiplying

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