2020 : Europe at Work in the Tumult

By Jean-Dominique Giuliani
2020 will not just have been the year of the lockdown! It may well also have been the year of a European awakening. The Union has been responsive to the challenges it has faced. It has not only responded, it has also innovated in a number of areas.
When in May Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron drew up a plan in response to the health crisis, no one could have imagined then that this initiative would give rise to the largest recovery plan ever undertaken at European level.
In July, the 27 decided to mobilise €750 billion, half of which would be used to subsidise those economies shaken by the virus.
They quickly confirmed a budget of €1,074 billion for the next 7 years. Christine Lagarde, for her part, had paved the way by introducing the Central Bank, the only true European tool that is totally federal, in its role as guarantor of last resort, capable of providing the European economy with unprecedented new loans. More than €1,200 billion will be mobilised in this way. The European response to the repercussions of the pandemic is unparalleled; it has been rapid, massive and convincing.
Faced with the health crisis, the EU did not allow itself to be caught off balance for too long. After the first surprise, the coordination of the response was better organised than expected, although health policy is not one of the common institutions’ competences. The sums mobilised for research have been considerable; moreover, the first vaccine was invented by European researchers. For the first time, Europeans have jointly purchased their own vaccines, thus guaranteeing all citizens across the continent access to what appears to be the best bulwark against the virus, but whose deployment nevertheless remains in the hands of each State…
2020 will also have been the year of Brexit, bad news for everyone, a waste, an amputation for Europe, and yet another mistake for the UK in its relations with its continental partners. Effective as of 31 January, the divorce settlement was agreed relatively easily despite 47 years of cohabitation. Future relations are to be framed by a free trade agreement negotiated in record time and adopted in extremis. The British obtained nothing, neither the division of the Union’s members, nor the exorbitant benefits of which they had daydreamed. The worst was avoided this time around, while the Europeans were unable to hold back the populist Brexiters, not imagining for a moment that the former largest maritime empire in the world would thus be able to reject what had made its fortune: being an apostle of the purest liberalism and a champion of openness to the world. We will have to deal with a neighbour who is now withdrawn, calmer on the outside than turbulent on the inside, but permanently weakened and unstable. The Europeans, thanks to Michel Barnier, have done the right thing.
They have also innovated a lot. Margrethe Vestager has led the way. Thierry Breton, a media juggernaut and man of experience, brought to the table the world’s first regulations to govern the giants who have colonised the digital sphere and largely monetised the freedoms it offers. His two draft regulations constitute an innovation from which other major powers will draw inspiration. Already, the American federal states are joining forces to pursue these monopolies and their abuses. Even the Chinese Communist Party has followed suit as it has attacked Alibaba. Europe is showing the way, as it did with the General Data Protection Regulation, which is now a world standard to be copied and envied.
In addition, Europeans have renewed their commitment to be exemplary in environmental matters, raising their emission reduction targets to aim for carbon neutrality by 2050. They have applied new disciplines in this area and introduced into their trade negotiations the obligation to meet the commitments of the Paris Agreement. This was the case for the free trade agreement with the United Kingdom. It was also on the agenda in the negotiations with China.
To establish reciprocity in terms of investment protection, intellectual property and access to public procurement markets, the Union has been able to conclude an ambitious agreement with China after seven years of discussions. It is true that the American president’s incomprehensible pas-de-deux had troubled the Asian giant, but this agreement simply reflects a reality: Europe’s internal market remains the largest in the world and the Union’s commercial power is equal to that of China. Europe is indeed a global player and it is gratifying that it has found in Josep Borrell the Minister for External Affairs it was lacking, plain-speaking, with sound common sense and a forward-looking vision, at a time when international relations are undergoing so many upheavals. A great success.
However, these assets, which are now being put to good use, will not be enough to ensure that the European Union can maintain its rightful place on the international stage. To this end, 2020 has seen further progress. Defence cooperation between the Member States has progressed. On France’s initiative, African questions are now central to European reflections, the maritime dimension of geopolitics is gradually gaining ground and European programmes (European Defence Fund, Permanent Structured Cooperation, etc.) are developing. The context and the Union’s immediate neighbourhood have played a significant part in this, likewise Donald Trump!
However, the decisions taken by the German Chancellor, whose country held the Presidency of the Council in the second half of 2020, are also to be welcomed. She did not often take the initiative, but she has always been there for Europe.
Whether it was to approve the joint institutions’ borrowing, to accommodate the US divergences in transatlantic relations, to maintain the unity of the 27, while certain governments have not been able to resist their populist tendencies, to negotiate skilful compromises and to show patience with States that expect a lot from the Union and give it little, she always favoured European choices.
The French President – perfectly assuming the role that has been his country’s responsibility from the outset: to invent, innovate, propose, provoke but anticipate when necessary – has been a steadfast and committed partner for her.
For the Union, he always stays ahead of the game and his contribution is always positive. He gets Europe moving – and Europe needs it! As for the Franco-German couple, which irritates the others so much but remains indispensable, it is never stronger than when it take into account Europe’s best interests and works, in the long term, to prepare the future of its citizens.

In this sense, 2020 has almost constituted a revolution. The European Union has proved that it is not only resilient, resistant, robust and powerful, it is also agile, responsive, attractive, ahead of its time in many policies, and its values are proving to be as modern as its glorious past: these are its best strengths for the future.