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President Van Rompuy's opening address at the EPC Annual Conference

Herman Van Rompuy

Date: 13/11/2020
I only briefly touch upon a few reflections on geopolitical changes since the outbreak of the pandemic. 
For me there are at least two striking facts. 
The first is that China, where the virus first appeared, is also the country where the disease first disappeared. First in, first out. Looking at the recently published GDP figures by the European Commission, I see that their economy will grow by 15% between 2020 and 2022, in contrast to the Eurozone (-0.6%), Germany (+0.5%), the US (+1.6%) and the UK (-5%).

Another interesting fact is that China has become the EU's most important trading partner before the US this year. If the economy is the most important parameter for geopolitical power relations then China is catching up even faster.  
Is it a matter of regime or of policy? Not all authoritarian regimes did well in fighting the virus. Look at Russia, Brazil or Iran. So it is not a matter of regime but of policy. Populism or too much craving for popularity lead to bad policy. Waiting too long out of fear of reactions from parts of the population sets the exponential rise of the disease into motion at lightning speed. Those who do not do well internally, also play a lesser role externally. But the opposite is also true. For the latter, look at Germany in the EU! 
The second fact is the election of Joe Biden. ‘Four more years’ of pointless and dangerous adventures such as the trade wars and the leaving of the Paris Climate Agreement, have been avoided. Those elections are a geopolitical change. I read now and then that under Biden the US will continue to fold back on itself, that America has changed forever since Trump, and so on. Even after the election of Biden we would still live in a trumpism without a Trump. What a superficial analysis! Transatlantic relations, multilateral institutions such as the WTO, UNESCO, WHO, etc., the G7, the attitude of the US towards Russia will change dramatically. Dialogue instead of confrontation, values instead of money and weapons. Facts instead of ideology and lies.

Of course there are differences of opinion between the US and the EU. They have always been and will always be there. But there will be a framework and an openness to talk about them in a normal way. The EU can also work together again with the US to adopt a common attitude towards third countries, not in the role of junior partner or without falling into the trap of ‘suivisme’ as the EU has too often done in the past. Unilateralism has not brought any problem closer to a solution. 
There were geopolitical changes going on before Trump. Under President Obama, the US was already engaged in 'leading from behind'. The EU’s relationship with Russia and China already changed since 2016.  It is correct to say that Trump and Putin gave an impulse to the idea of  'strategic autonomy' or European sovereignty in a whole series of policy areas and vis-à-vis the other global actors.

We must continue along this path of autonomy even under President Biden. That does not stand in the way of dialogue with our transatlantic partners.  It has been said many times, but if the EU wants to be geopolitically relevant, the first (not the only) condition is its unity of action as in the Brexit negotiations or in the trade conflict with the US. Remember the successful negotiation between Juncker and Trump in the summer of 2018. With regard to recent problems in the Mediterranean, I have seen too little such unanimity, with all the consequences this has for the effectiveness of our role. 
To conclude, I want to say something politically incorrect: there are also positive developments. I do not suffer from euro-neurosis. We in the Union have become accustomed to a rapid succession of crises since the outbreak of the 'multiple crisis' in 2008. Each time, the EU has managed to overcome them. On 21 July, we were able to agree on a major operation of solidarity. We have avoided falling into the ills of the past. Solidarity became more important than a variant of 'I want my money back'. We also linked the Recovery Fund to the long-term objectives of ecological and digital transformation. This fact and the American elections are lights in this ‘annus horribilis’. Let us cherish them and continue to turn fear into hope.  

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