Every year Crisis Group publishes two additional Watch List editions that complement its annual Watch List for the EU, most recently published in January 2020. These publications identify major crises and conflict situations where the European Union and its member states can generate stronger prospects for peace. The Spring Edition of the Watch List 2020 includes entries on Côte d’Ivoire, Myanmar, northern Syria, Yemen and Venezuela.
This is the first of two updates to Crisis Group’s 2020 EU Watch List. It identifies conflicts or crises where stronger European engagement could help prevent, mitigate or end violent conflict and strengthen prospects for peace.
We published January’s EU Watch List in what in many ways seems like another world. In early 2020, few imagined that only weeks later a pandemic would force many leaders to impose lockdowns, throw lives and livelihoods into turmoil, and leave people the world over anxiously eyeing a looming economic storm. Our January Watch List portrayed a continent struggling to find its voice and buffeted by jostling among major powers, with the U.S., China and Russia all prone to ignore, bypass, divide or strongarm Europe for their own ends. Yet it also illustrated the significant role that European diplomacy, aid and advice can play in calming or averting conflicts across the globe and the urgency of Europe’s efforts to assert itself – diplomatically, financially and even militarily – independent of other powers.
That was then. Today, Europe is among the regions hardest hit by COVID-19. Even the largest disruptions of the past few decades – 9/11, the Iraq war, the financial and Eurozone crises, chaos across parts of the Middle East, spates of terrorist attacks and the migration crisis – pale alongside the pandemic, at least in their immediate and global impact. But while the virus itself represents a massive transformation, its implications may well accelerate and deepen more than dramatically shift pre-existing trends.
That is true for the challenges the EU is facing. Anger at Brussels that predated the coronavirus has been mounting among people in states worst affected by it, as they call for greater financial burden sharing. It is unclear how far the Franco-German compromise recovery deal will go to mollify such sentiment. Although the pandemic – global by its very nature – ought to summon a collective response and bolster pan-European solidarity, it risks prompting more nationalistic, nativist reflexes as countries face sharp economic downturns. With fewer resources to go around, migration debates could get still bitterer. Abroad, the crisis has reinforced President Donald Trump’s hostility to multilateralism and multilateral institutions – instincts that almost certainly will sharpen as U.S. elections come closer. It also has sent U.S.-China relations into an even sharper downward spin, complicating Europe’s efforts to navigate a rivalry between a historical ally and a rising power the continent cannot afford to alienate. Thus far, the pandemic has forced the EU to look mostly inward in an attempt to coordinate among European capitals. It may well downsize the new Commission’s ambition to take on a more forceful geopolitical role.
Yet, even as internationalism faces adverse winds, Europe has sought to put up a fight. Several European leaders are striving to help poor and conflict-affected states shield themselves from the pandemic’s worst ravages. European foreign ministers unanimously endorsed the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire. In the UN Security Council, Europeans have tried, albeit in vain, to work around U.S.-China tensions to push through a resolution backing the Secretary-General’s initiative and engineer some sort of multilateral response to the pandemic. EU High Representative Josep Borrell has called for an international effort to increase humanitarian aid to fight the virus. The Commission launched a humanitarian air bridge to deliver urgent aid, starting with a first flight to the Central African Republic. Perhaps most significantly, on 8 April Brussels launched Team Europe, an initiative aimed at combating the pandemic worldwide. Though it does not commit new resources, it redirects some 20 billion euros from member states, the EU and its agencies to tackle the pandemic’s impact. Such support could prove a lifeline to developing countries trying to stave off public health emergencies or mitigate what is likely to be brutal economic downturn.
As the crises in the five countries featured in this month’s Watch List illustrate, more will be needed. Thus far, much of the global south has avoided outbreaks on the scale that overwhelmed parts of Europe. Why that is the case – and for how long – remain unanswered questions. Younger populations seem to be less vulnerable to COVID-19; some believe that warmer climates might hinder its transmission; and many governments, particularly in Africa, informed by their experience with past epidemics, acted quickly to stem the virus’s spread. But any complacency would be misplaced. Data remains unreliable, and the toll could be higher than reported; too, more and more countries – from Mexico to Pakistan, Yemen to South Sudan – show worrying rises in infection rates. Should the pandemic hit hard, these and other middle- and low-income countries will be particularly poorly equipped to cope.
Worldwide, leaders already face hard choices in how to ease lockdowns and get the economy moving without provoking further spikes. Those dilemmas are even more acute across parts of the global south, where many people survive on a day-to-day basis, food security is precarious and cities are overcrowded. In reality, many poor countries’ health systems can never keep pace, however much governments flatten the curve.
All these dangers are magnified in conflict-afflicted countries. The disease may prey on the vulnerable, the displaced or those whose lives have otherwise been torn apart by war or crises. Yemen, in the throes of the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, is cause for particular concern, as are parts of Syria, notably rebel-held areas and camps for the displaced, overcrowded camps housing displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh, where cases are already reported, and Venezuelans sheltering from their country’s humanitarian disaster across the border in Colombia. Maintaining European aid to these areas is critical.
At the same time, many leaders confront what are certain to be contentious decisions: how and when to impose lockdowns, lift or reimpose them, declare states of emergency, curtail travel to some areas or amend election timelines or procedures. The potential for some to seek to exploit the situation is clear. But in reality, few options are good and even sensible or well-meaning decisions could provoke political or popular fury and widen fault lines between leaders and opposition, civilians and military, elites and the street. Europe can usefully encourage leaders to take such decisions only after as broad consultation with their rivals as is feasible.
Amid a broadly gloomy picture, the pandemic may present opportunities to diminish violence or dampen conflict; the EU and European leaders should help seize any that arise. True, despite the UN Secretary-General’s global ceasefire call, no major war has seen a lull in fighting due to the virus; some, such as Libya and Afghanistan, have suffered upticks in violence (notwithstanding, in the latter, the Taliban’s and government’s announcement of a ceasefire over the three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday). But as fear mounts of a major health crisis, as conflict parties need humanitarian or medical workers to enjoy safe access to areas under their control, or as rival political actors need to reach compromise to persuade international donors to lend their country a hand, they may come to see changing behaviour as serving their interests. Europe should be ready to support UN or other efforts to take advantage of opportunities as they appear.
Most importantly, Europe should balance the imperative of caring for its own citizens and economies with remaining engaged abroad. The world requires a strong global response in its search for a vaccine but also in efforts to protect the most vulnerable and prevent the pandemic from upsetting fragile politics and provoking further instability and suffering. Europe’s voice in support for such a global response is as vital as ever.
Robert Malley, President & CEO of Crisis Group.