Global Cooperation

Can the EU assume the mantle of global leadership?

European Union flags fly outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, February 19, 2020.

Angela Merkel's tenure as President of the EU has begun at an opportune time Image: REUTERS/Yves Herman

Kishore Mahbubani
Distinguished Fellow, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
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Global Governance

  • Angela Merkel's assumption of the EU presidency could help deliver the strong global leadership the world needs today.
  • Here are two steps that would put Europe on the right path.

Future historians may well marvel at the fortuitousness of one event in 2020: the ascension of Angela Merkel to the Presidency of the European Union (EU) on 1 July. It was the pure result of an alphabetical accident - yet Merkel’s leadership of the EU could not have come at a better moment.

The world is crying out for global leadership, yet the very term 'European leadership' is often seen as an oxymoron. Kissinger famously asked which telephone number to call in Europe. Over a decade ago, Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times that “since 1945, Europe has become increasingly prosperous, peaceful and comfortable – and irrelevant”. To be fair, he cited me, too. And he concluded his article with an apparently damning statement: “Europe has become a giant Switzerland,” implying it had become staid and boring.

Yet dull leadership is exactly what the world is yearning for today. At a time when the world is struggling with pressing global issues, like global warming and COVID-19, we need some boring common sense to deal with these challenges - and no leader today is as full of common sense as Merkel.

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Fortunately, Merkel does not need to reinvent the wheel to fix the world. There are two simple steps that could be taken, especially in cooperation with the French president, Emmanuel Macron. They all revolve around Macron’s favourite word: multilateralism.

The first step may be the hardest to take, but it can be taken behind closed doors, away from public view. Europe should admit privately that it was a mistake over the past few decades to have been a silent accomplice of successive American administrations that have progressively tried to weaken multilateral organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO). The US and the EU weakened the WHO by depriving it of secure long-term funding that can only come from mandatory assessed contributions. Professor Kelley Lee has documented how mandatory contributions to the WHO fell from 62% in 1970/71 to 28% in 2006/7, while voluntary contributions went up from 18% to 72%. No organization can make credible long-term plans based on voluntary contributions, which naturally fluctuate.

Fortunately, this is an easy reversal to make. The current US administration – which announced in May that it would cut its ties with the WHO funding - may not agree, but a successor may well heed the advice of Bill Clinton, who said that it was in America’s long-term interest to “create a world with rules and partnerships and habits of behaviour” in which Americans would be more comfortable to live when their country is no longer the dominant world power.

The EU has led the way in funding the response to COVID-19. Can it do so elsewhere?
The EU has led the way in funding the response to COVID-19. Can it do so elsewhere? Image: Statista

The second – and simple – step is to launch a pilot project to revive and strengthen key multilateral organizations. In a world still struggling with the shocks of COVID-19, the two most critical multilateral organizations to revive on a pilot project are the WHO and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Let’s be clear about one thing: it would serve Europe’s long-term interests to revive them - and the vast majority of the world's 7.8 billion people are also yearning for stronger global institutions.

I fully understand the reason Europeans are reluctant to disagree publicly with the US; but all they need to do is strongly reaffirm their support for WHO and WTO, both in words and deeds.

Finally, there is one step Merkel shouldn’t take. Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO, has recommended that NATO be expanded to include non-European states. Few Asian or African countries will support this. As we move into a multipolar world, the solution is to strengthen globally legitimate multilateral organizations, not Western-centric ones, to deal with global challenges. This, too, is common sense. Fortunately, Merkel is the global master in this area.

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Global CooperationGeographies in DepthGeo-Economics and Politics
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