column on matters important for Europe’s Futures

Geopolitical Europe in times of Covid-19

By Mark Leonard,
21 September 2020

Forced through by the pandemic, new factors and trends in politics are shaping novel futures for Europe. In Tryptich Europa, a series of texts, our Europe's Futures project partnered with prominent European thinkers Milica Delevic, Olivier Fillieule and Mark Leonard in attempting to capture some of the immediate changes to the political landscape. As international relations shift from rules to power and the USA’s focus pivots toward Asia, the foundations of the European values-based conception of order are being challenged. Opening the Tryptich Europa, Mark Leonard analyses options that could help Europe strengthen its position, prosper and maintain its sovereignty in a COVID19-world of geopolitical competition.

“Men occasionally stumble over the truth”, Churchill once opined, “but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened”. The Covid-19 pandemic is one of those moments when uncomfortable truths become impossible to avoid. The global financial crisis, the refugee crisis, and now Covid-19 all, in their own ways, left national governments exposed existential threats. Through them, Europeans maintained a hope that they could develop co-operative, global solutions to help nation states to cope with these low-probability, high impact scenarios. But if previous crises were stumbles that allowed the EU to maintain its pleasant fictions, it will no longer be possible after this one. The Covid-19 pandemic has forced the European Union to confront the fact that the system which guarantees its security and prosperity is breaking.

After the Cold War, Europeans believed they were creating a world of rules with their continent at the centre. And now in the time of Covid-19 they find themselves challenged on both of these dimensions. The way that China and America have weaponized the pandemic and global institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) to compete with one another rather than to solve global problems demonstrates the shift from the dream of a rule-based order to the reality of great power competition. But an even bigger challenge comes from the fact that the central front for global geopolitics is now in Asia, while Europe has been relegated to the periphery, with its members squeezed between two poles. As the USA and China focus on control of the Indo-Pacific, they are less likely to take European interests into account. It is not simply that Europeans will find themselves increasingly “home alone”, they could also see their interests traded off in a bigger play for global power.

Crises of interdependence take on an entirely new form in an era of Great Power competition that is not focused on the European continent. In place of a rule-based order, Europeans are surrounded by a quadrangle of chaos as the USA, China, Russia, and Turkey each undermine the foundations of the system. Europe’s closest economic and security partners are now also “systemic disruptors”. At both the global and regional level, Europeans find their world disrupted by a mix of ideological rivals and allies gone rogue. Rather than seeing global and regional order as mutually reinforcing, the two will increasingly be in conflict – representing a “double bind” for Europe’s elites.

The road to this geopolitical awakening has been a long one, but Covid-19 has forced EU governments to confront a double shock to their world view, a philosophical crisis which arguably began at the turn of the century, overlaid by a geographical one that crystallised with Donald Trump’s election in 2016. The audacious size of the European recovery plan – with countries such as Germany willing to confront their taboos – shows that Europeans feel the world is changing, and that they need to change with it. The challenge now facing European leaders is that it is much easier to spend money than it is to confront one’s core ideas about the shape of the world.

In Europe, the major geopolitical questions are always German questions in disguise. For the last 30 years the EU has been held together by German glue and Berlin has been the biggest supporter of the status-quo, even as it was gradually undermined by other powers. The logic of the “Wirtschaftswunder” is that if you build good machines, the market will take care of the rest. And Germany, which has relinquished national military options, now finds itself doubly overwhelmed by philosophical and geopolitical crises. The Federal Republic built its economic and political revival as well as its security on a move from the jungle to law, and it's deep relations with the United States. But paradoxically, it is Germany’s exposure to the current global pandemic that could actually equip the country to provide an answer for Europe.


Photo credits: @Agencia Gazeta and