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In covid19 era, Singapore and the EU should build their "finest hour"

It is becoming a cliche to say the world is changing fundamentally amid a covid19 driven "mother of all crisis"

By: EBR - Posted: Thursday, April 30, 2020

You can’t look at Europe these days and wonder what were they thinking initially, to face Covid19 unprepared; the whole continent looked like ravaged by a medieval pandemic. However, these extraordinary conditions that make us unhappy but keep us safe are forcing Europeans to reconsider certain positions of their foreign relations and their global leadership.
You can’t look at Europe these days and wonder what were they thinking initially, to face Covid19 unprepared; the whole continent looked like ravaged by a medieval pandemic. However, these extraordinary conditions that make us unhappy but keep us safe are forcing Europeans to reconsider certain positions of their foreign relations and their global leadership.

by Radu Magdin*

It is becoming a cliche to say the world is changing fundamentally amid a covid19 driven "mother of all crisis". But the question is less how much we can dramatize and more about what we as individuals, countries and global partners will do about it. Further down, some possible steps for EU Singapore cooperation, and reasons why this cocktail of crisis could help Brussels and Asia’s leading financial City build their "finest hour".

Security goes comprehensive: the incidents during this last month from health crises to hard security and the ensuing global economic recession, will again start being considered in an integrated fashion. The days of strong neoliberalism, during which economics, war, and human security were kept apart, are behind us. This gives a new meaning to the refrain "it’s a small world" (Disney) - as we are finally interconnected enough to feel directly other countries’ decision have consequences upon us. While many economists say that it would be a calamity for the world economy, many security specialists think a "great decoupling" is unavoidable. And while technologists are discretely keeping out of it, everyone is, however, working on isolating their vertical integration and supply chains from outside interference. We are yet to theorise, however, what this will mean for humanity as a whole, when everything will again be isolated based on which narrative a country listens to. During the Cold War, even with countries taking hard lines about the Western and Communist sides, the two camps were still cooperating, communication lines were still (mostly) open, and there is a substantial group of non-aligned countries, who benefited from having the ear of both camps. Now things will be more difficult and less relative: it will no longer be only about hard security, but about food security, biochemical agents, pollution exports, water access, etc. Both Singapore and the EU are trading Hubs respectively Clubs and will need to partner further in a global atmosphere of crisis and great power competition. In this context, Brussels and Asean’s top financial City should start exploring doing foresight together.

Europe awakens despite being slow in start: You can’t look at Europe these days and wonder what were they thinking initially, to face Covid19 unprepared; the whole continent looked like ravaged by a medieval pandemic. However, these extraordinary conditions that make us unhappy but keep us safe are forcing Europeans to reconsider certain positions of their foreign relations and their global leadership. Europe, for a long time, tried to avoid relapsing into great power politics, which meant it did not have the strongest voice around the world, while it had an abundant soft power due to its aid and trade arms; It didn’t invest much in security, and many individual member states tried to go it alone, taking a profit out of asymmetric conditions and exposures to the international environment. This will stop now: Global Europe and "strategic autonomy" will be on fast forward mode under von den Leyen’s geopolitical Commission. It doesn’t mean that Europe will finally speak with one voice or that it will no longer have internal tensions. But it does mean that the level of apprehension regarding certain phenomena happening in the world have brought Europeans on the same page regarding what needs to be done next. What the US has not succeeded doing - giving Europe a common strategic culture - Covid19 succeeded - by giving Europe a common reading about the risks of the world. China should prepare for losing some EU investments (but not as many as touted since companies have financial logic beyond geopolitics) in a regional reorganization of supply chains in the next year. For Singapore, less a supply chain hub and more a financial and trading one, this is an opportunity. If the US downgrades Hong Kong (a step likely despite a tactical pause in great power competition during the health emergency), Europeans will need not only a trusted financial platform to Asean but also to China, and Singapore is best positioned for this. Shanghai and Shenzen get massive boosts from Beijing but the West will want a gateway which is neutral and safe, playing by existing rules, an Asian Switzerland. Brand Singapore is strong in Europe, remember Merkel’s soundbite for post-Brexit UK, namely Singapore on Thames.

A new normal: "a new beginning" has already begun. While the world is still dealing with the pandemic, decisions being made in the realm of economics show that the world has already shifted - we just haven’t become conscious of it yet. Europe, for one, will further consolidate its Single Market, with corporate networks finally irrigating the margins of the EU economy, creating an even more efficient market and connecting local and national innovation to the centres of power that can best wield such innovation, to the finances that are desperately looking for places to invest - and this time it is not so much about the safety of investments, but about the leadership for the future. Investment screening will complete this picture, from a geopolitical perspective. Also, holding each other more accountable for our actions and how we spend our money in the EU is tightening the traditional looseness of the intergovernmentalism many countries in Europe still preferred. Europe now, more than before Covid19, will be starting to feel like a Union, despite infodemic narratives claiming EU doom. In "the world after Covid", Europe is no longer looking to be accepted in the quarrel of the great powers, because it gained its own goals that it wants to address. This will come with renewed cooperation with countries that are alike Europe in their ambition to drive innovation, health standards, technology, and who have the capacity to already stand on their own feet. Look for example at how much the EU Japan relation ramped up in the past three years. What for many, before, was just a narrative about values, now will become a main feature of our EU foreign policy, and a comprehensive security paradigm will stand at the core of all our international cooperations. Here as well there is room for increased cooperation between the EU and Singapore. At the last Shangri La meeting, Prime Minister Lee outlined a strategic autonomy vision on great power competition by asking the US and China not to force countries to start choosing. Europe loves the US, hoping the US would love it more (Biden might reciprocate, but for Trump even a second mandate is too late to patch transatlantic relations), while it wants to trade with China, being nonetheless wary about any crisis buying spree and Beijing snooping too much into EU affairs and decision making. Singapore has its own regional and global affinities and the current crisis could strengthen it even more as Asia’s top global gateway. Our grand strategy alignment should also further our cooperation in 2020 and beyond. But for this to happen, we need a renewed and enthusiastic future-oriented brainstorming in 2020.

*CEO, Smartlink Communications

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