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The Lethal Threat of COVID-19 Isolationism

The pandemic has revealed a vacuum in global leadership that now threatens us all. With the US and China stirring up geopolitical resentment, Europe must embrace its responsibility and reinvent itself on the global stage.

BERLIN – Under President Donald Trump, the United States is not actively seeking cooperation with other countries in combating COVID-19, leaving the global fight against the coronavirus fractured. Far more than the US-European dispute over the role of NATO, the silence surrounding the pandemic between the two sides shows that one can hardly speak of a transatlantic community.

Even worse, the US is resorting to conspiracy theories. Just as China claims that the coronavirus was developed in US military laboratories and serves to damage China’s rise, the Trump administration calls COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” stirring up geopolitical resentment.

At the same time, China is trying to make its mark in the crisis by providing aid to hard-hit countries. It is not the US or Europe that is currently providing the most support to Italy, Spain, or Africa; it is China, which has sent medical teams and supplies. Seldom has it been possible to observe so clearly how China is replacing Western global leadership.

During the Great Recession that followed the 2008 global financial crisis, China was not so strong, and the US was not so self-centered. Shortly after the financial-market jugglers had led themselves and the rest of the world into the abyss, the finance ministers of the world’s top 20 economies met to discuss joint responses. So far, despite a recent virtual summit, the G20 has not played a similar role.

Even before the appearance of COVID-19, the antagonism between the US and China was central to resolving Europe’s global role. It is clear that Europe would be marginalized in a G2 world, in which the US and China dominate, even though Europe’s prosperity is directly linked to the openness of global markets.

But Europe’s global role will also be determined by how it deals with the COVID-19 crisis, and the pandemic is weakening its unity, almost to the point of despair. The European Union has failed miserably so far. Only the independent European Central Bank has acted. As in the euro crisis nearly a decade ago, the ECB’s “whatever it takes” policy has kept the currency stable and provided member states with the liquidity they need. Until now, neither the European Commission nor the European Council has engaged in anything comparable. On the contrary, Italians probably will never forget that, when people in Lombardy were already dying en masse, Germany imposed an export ban on medical supplies to Italy.

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We are currently witnessing the consequences of fair-weather multilateralism: European and international cooperation is easy when it costs nothing. German politicians in particular want “Europe à la carte”: they want Germany to be an export champion in good times, benefiting from open borders and frictionless trade, but then turn inward in times of crisis. That is why the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers could not agree recently on joint aid for Italy and Spain.

Simply put, COVID-19 is not the only contagion threatening Europe: While Italy and Spain struggle to contain the pandemic, the Eurogroup succumbed to the same “my-country-first” virus that infected the Greek debt crisis a few years ago. The idea that aid to affected eurozone members should be approved only if they implement major reform programs is incomprehensible political stupidity. One can only hope that heads of government will be smarter than their finance ministers – as leaders were in 2015. It is noteworthy that all German economists, even those who have traditionally opposed debt mutualization, now recommend the opposite. After all, Italy and Spain cannot shoulder the necessary financial burden to fight the virus and stabilize their economies. They need all eurozone states to share the necessary loans; whether one calls them Euro bonds or corona bonds is irrelevant.

There is still time to change course in Europe – and internationally. But perhaps the most dangerous consequence of the COVID-19 crisis is that citizens’ only protection is the nation-state. As a result, the coronavirus threatens not only people, but also international unification projects, including the European Union, which was established and painstakingly built to end centuries of war on the continent.

Whether Europe can overcome the crisis, maintain its unity, and play a meaningful global role will depend on whether it offers a viable alternative to the “save yourself if you can” sensibility. We can find out only if everyone takes responsibility for Europe’s future. Only then will our societies be able to move in the right direction.

Of course, this also means moving into the unknown, which requires courage. We cannot answer every question conclusively, but, in attempting to overcome the COVID-19 crisis, Europe has an opportunity to reinvent itself. We must not squander it.

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