Since the last MCIS conference in April 2019 the world has not stood still. Lots of diverse and remarkable events have occurred. Undoubtedly at the top of this virtual list is the coronavirus pandemic, which has had and continues to have a very tangible (mostly negative) economic, social, political, scientific, and psychological impact on the entire global community. Obviously, it has also affected the international security system. In this audience, it is hardly worth wasting time speculating on where the virus came from, or calculating how many and which vaccines one has produced – we may leave this unrewarding task to our Western partners. What really matters here is that mankind has missed a historic chance to truly unite and join forces to confront a common enemy, one that is lacking ideological or political preferences and hitting all continents, drawing no distinction between poor and rich, left and right, supporters of liberal and traditional values. That is sad.
Today, many, including EU leaders, argue in hindsight, relying in vain on people's short memory, that they have been demonstrating universal solidarity since the early days of the pandemic. But we do remember how chaotic and fractured the response of this truly most advanced integration entity was during the first, most difficult months of the fight against COVID-19. Basically, it was then limited to convulsive measures at national level, uncoordinated border closures, selfishness and conflicts within the so-called "Western world".
Yet, nothing good comes from either denying mistakes made or idly sitting back. The word "crisis", written in Chinese, is known to consist of two hieroglyphs: one standing for "danger" and the other for "opportunity". As for the coronavirus danger, it is more or less clear as for now. What is important now is for the world community to learn a lesson for the future from this crisis. I do not want to sound cynical, I speak with all due respect for the memory of COVID-19 victims (almost 4 million people worldwide) and sympathy for those they left behind. But we should be well aware that we faced a virus with fatality rate of around two per cent. Let me remind you, that the history of mankind has known deadly diseases with fatality rates of over ten per cent and even up to ninety per cent. We cannot hedge against the emergence and spread of much more terrible infections in the future, but we need to be prepared much better than for the coronavirus.
The second factor I would like to focus on is the changes in the transatlantic link as seen from Brussels. Joe Biden's slogan "America is back" has been enthusiastically embraced by their partners in NATO and the EU (I will remind you, that 21 countries belong to both). These partners had suffered a lot from Donald Trump who did not consider it necessary to sugar-coat American arrogance and sense of "exceptionalism" with friendly smiles and good manners his junior allies are used to.
In a way, current events resemble those of twelve years ago – a wave of euphoria that swept through Europe and became known as "Obamamania". As a first-hand witness to both processes, I would say, however, that emotions are less intense now. Besides the post-traumatic stress after the Trump “quadrennium”, which has yet to heal, objective differences have accumulated between the EU and the US, both in the trade and economic field and on the strategic issue of relations with China – and they have not disappeared since the current Democratic administration took office. While everyone in the EU agrees, with varying extent of fervour, to be friends against Russia, things are not so straightforward with the "Celestial Empire". Last year saw China become the EU's largest trading partner for the first time in history (with a turnover of €586 billion) surpassing the US (€555 billion) – therefore, Brussels will hardly rushing to easily sacrifice its strong interests in this regard for an "alliance of democracies against autocracies". Furthermore, the new overseas partner has already alarmed European allies with its uncoordinated decision to hastily withdraw from Afghanistan and its protectionist and de facto competitive policy towards the EU in an under-the-cover struggle for global leadership in the production and distribution of coronavirus vaccines.
So, what is happening against this background to the declared "strategic autonomy" of Europe as represented by the European Union? The few things that made the EU an independent political and military player are actually being eroded by its so-called strategic partnership with NATO, with already 74 joint proposals effectively merging defence dimension of the two organisations. Most European defence initiatives are consistently becoming increasingly aligned with US and NATO military planning priorities. Three non-EU countries (US, Canada, and Norway) were recently allowed to join the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) projects. Further development of this trend is fraught with strengthening the Pentagon's already dominant position in the European defence market. Cooperation of command and control structures, including on countering "hybrid" threats, is being built up and joint cyber capabilities are being strengthened. In practical terms, this process leads to the involvement of non-NATO EU Member States (Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden) in the Alliance's efforts to deter Russia.
On a number of regional issues, including the situation in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU, while formally keeping a leading role, is at least ready to share with the US responsibility, if not the laurels (the latter still being worlds away). As far as relations with Turkey are concerned, Brussels and Washington are looking for solutions on this, frankly speaking, uneasy track in parallel, but are increasingly coordinating their efforts.
Summing up, we have to conclude that the European security situation remains in deep crisis. So far, we cannot rely on our Western partners to take real joint steps to rectify it on the basis of equality, mutual respect, the principles of indivisibility of security and not strengthening it at the expense of others. But this does not mean that work to address the current state of affairs can be stopped or postponed until better times. Just the opposite. For otherwise these better times may never come.