As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently made clear, multilateralism is in danger. It has been for quite some time. The escalating US-China conflict is now threatening to make multilateralism even more fragile in an era where Trump's US is 'America first' and China is making a big move to portray itself as the true protector of multilateralism. But that is not the end of it. In Europe, the EU has also had a long rough patch with certain members questioning the ideas of European integration that birthed the EU. Once again, a big-ticket event like Brexit only served to highlight the cracks that already existed in the European dream. Now at a time when everything from pandemics to ongoing trade wars are threatening to spell the beginning of the end for multilateralism, renewed efforts must be made to identify why multilateralism fails when it does and what can be done to strengthen it so that it remains a viable and continuing future for the world.
It is in such a context that one must view European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's annual State of the Union address that she delivered recently at the European Parliament. While her 80-minute speech did cover many practical points to charting the way forward for the EU and the world as a whole, she started with an aspirational note, stating that this was the moment for Europe. The moment when Europe leads the world out of such abject uncertainty and confront the many crises it now faces head-on. It was also noted that a large part of her speech involved goals that she had already laid down before the period when COVID-19 became a full-fledged pandemic. Indeed, Leyen insisted that following these goals was the key to long term economic and political survival of the European experiment.
The primary thrust of the plan revolved around making Europe the world's first climate-neutral continent by 2050 and shoring up the slow and often ineffective foreign policies of its member nations and the EU as a whole. The climate goals were clearly laid out in her speech, to make Europe cut its greenhouse emissions by at least 55 per cent by 2030 as opposed to the existing goal of 40 per cent. She based her 55 per cent goal on analysis done by the European Commission that confirmed that the 55 per cent cut was, in fact, financially viable. This by no means indicates that it will be easy to reach the goal or indeed convince nations to make the initial investment in switching over to a climate-neutral industry model, a switch that will have significant startup costs involved. In fact, a new report released by the Energy Transitions Commission recently stated that achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century would cost the world an additional USD 1-2 trillion every year. The report however also noted that global warming has cost the US and the EU at least USD 4 trillion in lost revenues since the year 2000.
Leyen too acknowledged the dividing nature of laying down such a goal but insisted that the drive to transition to greener practices would create employment opportunities for millions, besides doing the necessary work of preventing the planet from further heating up. She also touched upon what role the 750 billion euro Coronavirus recovery package would play with 37 per cent of the package being earmarked for projects that will help European industries to de-carbonise. She also further stated her expectation that 30 per cent of the recovery package should be raised through the use of 'green bonds'.
It is unfortunate to note that the failure of multilateralism becomes particularly clear in matters of climate change where agreements are rare and often non-binding. If the EU succeeds in its current endeavour, it will likely open the way up for realistic conversations on climate change at the world stage.