Special Event – Open source and an open world: What are the EU prospects on global multilateral governance after the coronavirus pandemic?

Speakers: Rodríguez Ramos Maria Soraya, Renda Andrea, Purdy Andy, Llewellyn Henry, Castaldo Fabio Massimo
Moderator: Baker Jennifer

In mid October, PubAffairs Bruxelles organised an evening of discussion on the EU and global prospects regarding multilateral governance after the coronavirus pandemic with our distinguished speakers Ms Maria-Soraya Rodriguez-Ramos MEP, Chair of the Delegation for relations with the Pan-African Parliament and AFET Committee Member, Professor Andrea Renda, Head of Global Governance, Regulation, Innovation and the Digital Economy (GRID), CEPS, Mr Andy Purdy, Chief Security Officer, Huawei USA and Mr Henry Llewellyn, Ad interim Chair, Brussels New Generation of young leaders (BNG).

Mr Fabio Massimo Castaldo MEP, Vice-President of the European Parliament held the introductory remarks via a video message.

The event was hosted by Jennifer Baker, senior journalist on tech policy and digital rights.

Vice-President Fabio Massimo Castaldo started his introductory speech by offering an overview of the evolution of the geopolitical landscape that occurred in recent years. More specifically, the speaker explained that the constant growth of social, political and economic uncertainties has triggered a new age of populism and nationalism worldwide. As a result, the opportunities of a fruitful global dialogue have been eroded, making international relations rebound to a state of conflict among deeply polarised geopolitical factions. Vice-President Castaldo proceeded to explain some of the reasons that led to the current situation. The rising nationalism in many countries has contributed to the creation of political uncertainty, as well as to a tendency towards protectionism.

Furthermore, major powers, such as China, the US and Russia, have increasingly opted for unilateral decisions, which have had a tangible impact on global trade and mutual trust between them, despite the fact that the crisis has also constituted an opportunity for global leaders to rediscover the value of cooperation. Indeed, the Vice-President remarked that several countries across the globe have decided to act unilaterally against the pandemic by shutting borders, disrupting or blocking the supply chain and cutting funds to international organisations. The speaker subsequently remarked that the EU, as well, initially experienced a similar situation, as the early uncoordinated response raised doubts about the bloc’s capacity to react to unforeseeable crises.

However, the ability of the EU to agree on a Recovery Plan in a relatively short time has demonstrated the value of a united European approach. Vice-President Castaldo then pointed out that multilateralism is generally viewed as weak and serving the aim of maintaining the status quo. Nevertheless, he also underscored that the current challenges are daunting, but they also offer an unprecedented opportunity to reforge multilateralism and to pave the way towards a world order based on international law and universal norms.

The speaker also referred to President Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union speech in which she called for a stronger European Health Union. Rethinking health competences, notably exclusive competence of EU Member States, the speaker concluded, is an example of the possible reforms which can enhance the quality of life of citizens, as well as the capacity of the European Union to be more effective in its collective responses.

Jennifer Baker presented the panel and asked Professor Andrea Renda for his opinion regarding the current state of multilateralism and what kind of opportunities the crisis can offer to the EU.

Professor Andrea Renda began by pointing out the importance of differentiating between the problems that have arisen as a result of the crisis and already existing ones. He explained how Covid 19 has exacerbated and uncovered several weaknesses in both several countries and the international governance. In addition, Professor Renda clarified that, before the pandemic, many of the questions that emerged with the financial crisis have not been fully solved, while several countries across the globe are still unable to converge on a clear set of actions towards climate action.

One of the main goals of multilateral cooperation, the speaker explained, is also to ensure and protect global public goods. However, the inability of major actors to agree on common strategies has further exposed the crisis that multilateralism is undergoing. Within this context, Mr Renda highlighted the necessity of distinguishing between the short and medium-term effects of the pandemic and the pre-existing problems in order to find solutions that adequately address the underlying challenges. The speaker continued his remarks by stating that the current global inability to solve common problems is fostering not only inaction regarding climate change, but also social unsustainability.

In fact, the increased polarisations of politics, inequalities and the deterioration of social cohesion have exposed the flaws inherent in prevalent economic paradigms. In addition, Mr Renda highlighted that other economic models have also shown their weaknesses as well, making it difficult to understand the way to follow in order to deal with the current global challenges. To clarify his statements, the speaker stated that, on the one hand, the US pushed towards unilateral stances and showed the fragility of its socio-economic model, especially in terms of incomes for both the middle and the working class, while, on the other hand, China has tried to take advantage of the turmoil offered by the pandemic in terms of both consolidation of internal mass-surveillance and geopolitical advantage, such as with the so-called “mask diplomacy”.

Referring to what Mr Castaldo had previously stated, Professor Renda, pointed out that the EU needs to prove its ability to act with one voice in order to be an example for the international community. To conclude his first set of statements, Mr Renda expressed his optimism regarding the attempt of EU institutions to become the leading polity of the EU action. Nevertheless, he also showed some disappointment with regard to the lack of resolution from the EU to effectively move towards an effective fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The moderator subsequently asked Mr Andy Purdy if he agreed with regard to the fact that multilateralism was already faltering before the pandemic.

Mr Andy Purdy began by stating that we are currently witnessing clear examples of geopolitics of power coming to the surface. However, he specified that multilateralism is nowadays even more essential, as this unprecedented crisis requires a clear understanding of what must be done and what can be accomplished through global cooperation. Furthermore, he added, multilateral discussions have always brought benefit to those willing to collaborate and this historical period shows that it is exactly in times of crisis that multilateral cooperation proves its real worth. The Corona crisis, he continued, has certainly contributed to consider whether the EU should have more power in the healthcare sector.

However, the speaker specified that the inadequate response to the virus everywhere around the world has revealed the weaknesses of a multilateral way of solving global crises, as well as a weak capacity of coordination at global level in general. In order to overcome this situation, Mr Purdy explained that global actors and worldwide stakeholders alike need to collaborate, for example, thought the implementation of public and private partnerships in order to establish evidence-based and collaborative policies, while taking into account past mistakes and international system failures.

The speaker subsequently highlighted as an example the interrelations between the question of multilateralism and that of cybersecurity. He explained that the norms that regulate the cyber space have been developed over more than 20 years. However, many countries are now taking considerable steps towards the full regulation of the digital space. Mr Purdy also mentioned the new Global Initiative on Data Security proposed by China and underscored that the global community must move towards common rules on cybersecurity, not only to improve digital safety, but to identify those who do not abide by the rules as well.

To achieve this aim, the speaker pointed out that independent institutions could carry out the task of improving security. With special regard to the creation of common rules, the speaker reaffirmed the iimportance of multilateralism, as the participation of several actors would allow for better collaboration, sharing of best practices and the creation of common criteria. Finally, Mr Purdy stated that stopping malicious activities in the cyber space should be one of the highest points in the global digital agenda, together with fighting those who are covering up these activities.

In a video message a member of the Brussels New Generation of young leaders (BNG), Julian Jacobitz, shared his reflection from BNG members of their expectations towards multilateral governance as members of BNG become the policy leaders of tomorrow.

For example, progression of globalization, technological progress, and actions addressing climate change used to be governed at global level. The direction of progress or even the need for progress is being questioned both by activist groups and by global leaders. Although the overall long-term goals to address climate change have been agreed in the Paris Agreement there has been limited consensus amongst superpowers including the US. The speaker also questioned the long-term goals for digital transformation and suggested that digital now threatens first order values of democracy, trust, science, and the rule of law.

Mr Jacobitz explained that Brussels is a very special place to discuss some of these questions and many of the young professionals who flock here have at least the expectation of somehow benefiting from globalisation and multilateral institutions. He challenged the expectation that multilateral institutions are inherited from one generation to the next for those with an international education and desire international careers instead of driving more inclusive discussion. The speaker questioned how multilateral governance can be effectively communicated without excluding the disenchanted that drives the backlash against multilateral governance and multilateral institutions as we have seen in the last few years.

The moderator then asked to what extent the Corona crisis has put in the spotlight the necessity for better cooperation and governance within a multilateral framework.

Ms Maria Soraya Rodriguez-Ramos began her remarks by reiterating the importance of multilateralism in the current international context. Indeed, she started her speech by reiterating that the Corona crisis has clearly shown that unilateral responses are simply not effective in the face of global challenges. The MEP also specified how the pandemic has had a heavy toll in terms of human lives and made clear the necessity for a better global governance and international solidarity.

However, Ms Rodriguez-Ramos also pointed out that multilateralism is not a goal in and of itself, but a means to reach tangible and common results, such as protecting global citizens and global public goods. In this regard, the MEP mentioned how the uncontrolled human activity and lack of environmental protection have also been a cause of the current situation. In this connection, she elaborated on the biodiversity loss and the changes in the global ecosystem, as well as on how these factors have played a major role in the spread of pandemics. For this reason, she affirmed that protecting biodiversity is also a sort of vaccine for future generations. She subsequently stated that initiatives such as the new Biodiversity Strategy and the European Climate Law will play a fundamental role in reversing the damages of the development model followed so far.

As a result, Ms Rodriguez-Ramos specified that multilateralism is a fundamental component in the achievement of the green transition, as the action of a relatively small “coalition of the willing” will not be enough. Instead, she stated, it would be necessary to establish a more effective international strategy that would reduce the negative impacts on the Earth, while allowing developing countries to participate without being further penalised.

Mr Henry Llewellyn replied by expressing his concerns for the foreseeable future. Indeed, he stated that several observers consider this period as a turning point in History. However, he also clarified that the challenges that we are currently facing already existed and that the effects the Corona crisis has exposed and exacerbated will manifest themselves fully in the time to come.

Among the several questions he pointed out, Mr Llewellyn highlighted the dangers of a generational conflict by affirming that previous generations left a precarious state of affairs with regard to many key issues, such as the environmental question, social protection and welfare systems, as well as the imbalances of the global economy as a whole. Mr Llewellyn concluded his remarks by adding that the future effects of the pandemic are likely to further threaten economic and social stability both in developing and developed countries, while reaffirming that this scenario would worsen the generational conflict already in place.

Jennifer Baker asked the participants to provide a reflection on the possible role of international organisations, such as the UN or the G20, in the rebuilding efforts after the pandemic.

Professor Renda answered the moderator’s question by stating that the current state of play of international relations is, for the moment, hindered by the contrast between the US and China. In fact, the rivalry between the two superpowers in several fields, from the fight against the pandemic to the cyberspace, has prevented attempts to reach a global cooperation on multiple important questions. This dynamic, he specified, is evident not only in the UN, but it has also tainted the G20 by making it nearly impossible to agree on fundamental questions, such as the standards for a responsible use of artificial intelligence.

The speaker subsequently highlighted the threats this dynamic poses for multilateralism, as major powers are trying to create smaller cohorts of like-minded countries, thus creating opposed factions and making cooperation particularly difficult. To exemplify this behaviour, Proessor Renda shared his experience in participating in conferences on global cooperation-related questions. On the one hand, he stated, it is possible to observe how the current US administration has tried to exclude other important players such as China and Russia, whereas, on the other hand, the latter are trying to expand their influence and marginalise the US whenever they can.

In this connection, Professor Renda quoted the paradigm “Protect, Prepare and Transform”, conceived by the EU as valuable slogan towards the path for a global sustainable recovery from the pandemic. However, he added that the current state of play of international relations makes it extremely difficult to follow such a direction, given the climate of uncertainty and the increasingly protectionist and nationalist tendencies emerging across the globe.

Mr Llewellyn replied to this question by remarking on the fact that the United Nations system has lost a large degree of public trust as a multilateral institution way before the pandemic outbreak. He continued by stating that the best way to spread norms and values through national, supranational and international institutions would be to endeavour towards the achievement of full transparency of their respective decision-making processes and operations.

To exemplify this statement, the speaker highlighted the role and practices of EU’s DG COMP as one of the most influential institutions in the world concerning competition-related matters. The reason for the relevance of this part of the European institutions lies in the fact that the EU publishes its decisions in extensive detail, he explained, particularly when it comes to matters of controversy. Given the example offered by European institutions, Mr Llewellyn stated that transparency has to be put at the forefront of global action in order to succeed in going forward with an effective multilateral model of governance.

Ms Rodriguez-Ramos MEP commented on the host’s question by highlighting that the ultimate goal of multilateralism should be the defence and promotion of human rights. Fighting climate change and protecting the environment are, according to the MEP, priorities of utmost importance that the EU, along with the other industrialised countries, should focus on. The MEP added that if one takes into consideration the latest polls of the “Eurobarometer”, this opinion is shared by a large part of EU citizens as well. Entering more into detail on the question of Sustainable Development Goals, the speaker recalled that there are still basic needs such as hunger and lack of drinking water that could be avoided and that would play a major role in giving more opportunities of growth to developing countries.

For this reason, the MEP urged international institutions not to forget the ultimate goal of multilateralism and to find an agreement on tackling these challenges, notwithstanding the rivalries that usually characterise international organisations. On the same note, she provided the example of the European Parliament, which recently approved the EU Climate Law, in her opinion a promising proof that the EU institutions have started to act according to the scientific evidence in order to ensure a sustainable future for all generations.

Mr Purdy began his reply by stressing the need, on a global scale, to set and reinforce a series of standards for cybersecurity as a primary concern for the well-being of global citizens and as an example of how global cooperation could work more effectively. Referring to Mr Timo Koster, former Dutch Ambassador at large for Security Policy and Cyber, the speaker stated that, at times, it is not relevant if the role of “guardian” is entrusted into a coalition of independent countries or an ad-hoc organisation, as long as the task is fulfilled. Mr Purdy also said that, in the domain of cybersecurity in particular, it would always be difficult to reach a multilateral agreement, as the rivalry between powers will likely prevent finding a solution that is commonly accepted by all parties.

Therefore, the creation of an independent organisation that could act as intermediary could also be a model to follow, provided that it would be entrusted with the necessary power to enforce the legislation and effectively protect the cyber space. The speaker continued by highlighting the necessity for international institutions to collaborate with the private sector to obtain the highest expertise and to be able to establish the best standards possible. Concluding his speech, Mr Purdy brought attention to the fact that, with the development of 5G, global citizens will become even more dependent on technology and, as a result, setting the standards for security and transparency is key to ensuring the digital transformation.

The moderator asked the panel how it could be possible to foster the green transition in developing countries and what kind of incentives they would need. She also asked what changes will occur, if any, in aid practices after the pandemic.

Professor Renda replied by explaining that it will be difficult to provide incentives for the transition to developing countries because of the difficult nature of the transition itself and because it is easier to commit to sustainability in times of prosperity than in times of crisis. Continuing his remarks, the speaker reiterated the necessity of achieving not only environmental, but social sustainability as well. In order to achieve these goals, countries and blocs across the world need to revise their whole economic model and strengthen the institutions and accountability.

Furthermore, it would be essential to set up a coherent global strategy that would make it possible to reach the medium-term environmental goals without necessarily compromising the growth goals. In this connection, Professor Renda regretted that international standards are still using the “GDP criteria” as the “North Star” of the progress of the economy, and not the SDGs. In addition, he stated that the European policies and their implementation in EU Member States often lack coherence regarding the green transition, an area in which the EU is willing to lead. On the same note, Professor Renda stated that the EU should first coordinate its own policies before projecting its example onto other countries.

Moreover, the EU would not be able to rely, in the short term, on transatlantic cooperation for climate change. As a result, it would be vital to establish a trusted relationship with China to achieve an alignment on climate goals and to focus on emerging economies, such as Africa and South America, in order to extend the “collation of the willing” as much as possible. With regard to aid, Mr Renda said that, despite the exemplary efforts of the EU, disruptions of the global value chain bring unavoidable consequences in developing countries, potentially further excluding them from virtuous practices.

According to the International Monetary Fund, he stated, the crisis pushed back several countries to the level of the 90s and reduced the accomplishments reached over the years. The speaker also stressed how this challenge cannot be undertaken by a superpower alone and helping developing countries will require a deep multilateral cooperation. Mr Renda subsequently remarked that providing unilateral aid to poor countries might fragment the global community even more. In fact, the Belt and Road, the Digital Silk Road initiatives and the aid offered from western powers, could become a means to extend influence rather than help. It is hence essential, the speaker concluded, that the geopolitical influence be exercised in ways that are not detrimental to developing countries.

Given the high unpredictability of the assertiveness of both US and China, Mr Llewellyn said the current breakdown of multilateralism could force the EU to look for other allies in order to get more certainty in its external action. However, he added, this could become an opportunity for the EU not only to break the current balance, but also to develop effective international norms. To achieve this aim, he continued, it would be necessary to promote transparency on a global scale, as it will help create an environment of trust and mutual understanding. Mr Llewellyn, however, expressed some further concerns regarding global cooperation.

According to the speaker, the green and digital transitions will test countries’ capacity to promote a fair growth model. In fact, while both questions will bring benefits, they also pose considerable challenges. Indeed, on the one hand, they will bring innovation that will foster economic growth and the quality of life, while, on the other hand, both transitions will require time and the fostering of new skills and will create, in the short term, social insecurity both in rich and developing countries.

Mr Purdy highlighted the opinion that the best incentive that could be provided to emerging economies is connectivity. In fact, according to the speaker, connectivity will be fundamental for both developed and developing countries when providing the latter with more opportunities to strengthen their economy and actively participate to global trade. Furthermore, the development of 5G-related technologies would also provide better instruments to fight climate change, as they allow great reduction of the carbon footprint and valuable improvements of the manufacturing process.

Continuing on the same topic, the speaker stressed the importance of global partnerships and stated that it would be useful for the international community to assist in the creation of “incubation centres” where companies can agree on how to deal with the operations in the whole supply chain. Lastly, Mr Purdy called on the international community to collaborate with the private sector at large to find an agreement on how to provide connectivity to the 3 billion people that are still excluded from the digital world.

In the conclusive part of the debate, Ms Baker asked the speakers to provide some final considerations regarding the impact that the US elections will have in the foreseeable future.

Ms Maria Soraya Rodriguez-Ramos expressed some conclusive thoughts in this regard by stating that, despite the latest developments, multilateralism and global dialogue will become ever more fundamental in the time to come. Indeed, multilateralism has been threatened by unilateral actions, such the US decision to stop financing the WHO. However, despite the increasing hostility towards global dialogue, countries across the world cannot afford to be excluded from the international decision-making process, especially when considering the scale of the challenges, such as climate change or establishing international standards for cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. Finally, the MEP stressed the fact that the EU should not fill the gap between US and China, but instead should facilitate the debate between the two parties by assuming the role of honest broker.

Mr Purdy stated that, after the elections, there would probably be a greater predictability in the US behaviour, depending on the winner. However, the speaker also expressed some concerns on the toxic political environment that permeates the country. In fact, he said, this state may endure regardless of the candidate who will be elected. Mr Purdy also called for a better evidence-based decision-making process that may be able to foster dialogue and make decision-making more effective. On a different note, the speaker highlighted the capability of the EU to be a global leader. This has been proven, in his opinion, by the European Union’s ability to reform its industrial strategy and to embark on a transition towards climate neutrality, as well as the new aim to ensure a “Europe fit for the digital age”. To conclude, Mr Purdy stressed again the importance of setting priorities and standards for cybersecurity and data protection. In this connection, he praised the GDPR and the example it has set for the global community.

Mr Llewellyn replied to the host’s question by stating that, as in the case of Brexit, predictions may often be difficult, also because the US electoral system is a complex mechanism. Mr Llewellyn then proceeded to engage on the same topic by saying that the US institutional and political system is structured in a way that allows older generations to impose their priorities on the demographically predominant younger generations. This factor, he remarked, risks further exacerbating the generational conflict in the US and, potentially, across the world. As a conclusion, the speaker referred to the possibility for Europe to become the bridge between the East and the West. However, he also pointed out that Europe should not abandon its openness and transparency-friendly approach if Europe wishes to lead in the world.

Professor Renda stated that the fragmentation of the American society constitutes the evidence of a country on the verge of social collapse. In this connection, he stressed the fact that, regardless of the winner, the US will remain a very divided society. This fact, Professor Renda said, will create challenges not only internally, but globally. Finally, Professor Renda remarked that it will be difficult for the EU to fill the gap between the US and China and concluded by stating that the EU should find new alliances with other important and like-minded actors, such as Australia or South Korea, in order to try to redirect the current trajectory of multilateral governance.

The Q&A session covered the following issues: How the UN can recover from the loss of reciprocal trust that happened during the crisis; the question of the creation of a new international polity to develop common global policies; which reforms the UN should undergo in order to make the institutions fit for the future; how Brexit will impact Europe’s influence on the UN Security Council; what will the impact of the US election be on the UN; the commonalities and differences between China’s New Infrastructure initiative and the Next Generation EU; the role of African countries in the recovery.

Want to know more about the issues discussed in this debate? Then take a look at the selected sources provided below!

State of the Union Address by President von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary, European Commission

Next Generation EU – Recovery plan for Europe, European Commission

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), United Nations

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The purpose of multilateralism
A framework for democracies in a geopolitically competitive world, Brookings

Strengthening Global Governance & Multilateralism, Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA)

A crisis like no other, International Monetary Fund (IMF) 2020 Report

COVID-19: 3 myths and 5 solutions for the future of multilateralism, World Econiomic Forum

Now is the time for a ‘great reset’ of capitalism, World Economic Forum

Is Coronavirus Widening Generational Divides, or Bridging Them? New York Times

Coronavirus crisis will be paid for by Europe’s next generation, Deutsche Welle

COVID-19 as a global challenge: towards an inclusive and sustainable future, The Lancet

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EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, European Commission

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A Europe fit for the digital age, European Commission

Cybersecurity, emerging technology and systemic risk, World Economic Forum

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Will China Control the Global Internet Via its Digital Silk Road?, Carnegie

Unpacking China’s Digital Silk Road, Cligendael Institute

China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative, Council on Foreign Relations

Public-private partnerships, Sustainable Development Goals Fund

European Industrial Strategy, European Commission