A classic problem in international politics is how to produce public goods and take care of the global commons. Things like preserving peace and security, vaccinating the world, addressing the climate crisis, protecting bio-diversity, or fighting against tax evasion: it is easy to state that we want these things and why. But in the absence of a world government, they are hard to deliver, requiring immense efforts of cooperation and solidarity. This is even more the case today, with the Russian aggression against Ukraine deepening geopolitical divisions.
When it comes to global problems, every country clearly benefits from collective action, but there is a tendency to wait for others to take the lead and pay the costs (the so-called ‘free-rider dilemma’). Political leaders frequently say in rousing speeches that the international community must do this or that. Yet their actions show that national considerations often outweigh international requirements. This is regrettable but not surprising: national politicians are accountable to national electorates and nationalism remains a powerful political force.
For decades, scholars and diplomats have discussed how to handle this dilemma. And the best answer they have come up with, is what’s called ‘rules-based multilateralism’. It is maybe an off-putting phrase. But at heart this is about the whole system of rules, organisations and financing arrangements, among states and non-state actors, to tackle global challenges and provide global public goods. The UN and the Security Council are at the heart of this system, with many operational organisations and agencies operating alongside it: such as the WTO, WHO, IMF, FAO, UNFCCC etc.
Between 1945 and the beginning of the 21st century, we saw a significant growth in the multilateral system and it produced many results: from an increase in life expectancy and a reduction in world poverty, to rising standards of living and literacy, to the elimination of diseases like small pox or harmful chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons, CFCs, that caused the hole in the ozone layer, which is now closing again.
Of course, many other problems and crises erupted or endured in this period, including debt and financial crises or the failure to regulate the ‘dark side’ of globalisation. But by historical standards, ‘the system’ produced results: with hunger in decline and growing numbers of people, especially women, being better educated and living longer, healthier and freer lives.
Unhappily, in the past decades, the system has been increasingly struggling with the general trend towards populism at home and geo-political competition among the major players. We see more distrust, more nationalism and more free-riding than the world can afford. As I noted in my recent address to the UN Security Council, there is ‘a deficit of multilateralism’ and the price is paid in problems not solved and people left at the mercy of events.
A few concrete examples underline both the dynamics we are seeing and the need for the EU to keep investing in effective multilateralism, especially when the political trends make this difficult.
Three weeks ago, the Lancet published a major study estimating that Covid-19 vaccines prevented around 15 million deaths in the first year of their roll-out. This is a staggering number. As of mid-June, according to Our World in Data, 67% of the whole world had received at least one dose. But that figure drops to 18.6% for low-income countries and the number of prevented deaths is heavily concentrated in the developed countries that were able to vaccinate their populations. The hard truth is that COVAX, the main multilateral vehicle that the EU supported from the start and that was set up to manage the global vaccination drive in an equitable way, has not been able to deliver on its targets in 2021 (especially due to exports restrictions).
As EU, we have a better track record on vaccine exports and donations and support to vaccine multilateralism than China, Russia, India or the US. But we still need to do more with partners to ‘vaccinate the world’ as we said we would, including through greater support for production capacity in Africa, support for logistics and addressing vaccine hesitancy which remains an enduring challenge. In addition, we have to strengthen the WHO to make sure the world as a whole is better prepared to handle public health emergencies in the future.
2. Climate change.
On paper, the Paris Agreement was a true landmark: a global, legally-binding agreement to combat climate change. But implementation has been a real challenge and the latest IPCC assessment report makes for grim reading: already 3.5 billion people are highly vulnerable to climate impacts and half the world’s population suffers severe water shortages.
Crucially, carbon emissions are rising faster than the climate can afford. After the pandemic-induced reduction of CO2 of 2020, emissions rose again by 6% in 2021 and are now above 2019 levels. Without a significant increase in the global of ambition, the world will overshoot the objectives of the Paris Agreement, with all the consequences that follow, including for global security.
We have to step up our own actions as EU and we are with our Fit for 55 package, just adopted. But we must mobilise others that can do more to join us and help prepare the most climate-exposed and fragile countries to cope with the inevitable and growing fall out of the climate crisis. The COP27 in Cairo later this year will be a make or break moment, including for mobilising $100 billion for climate finance. We cannot let the urgency of the energy crisis we face now come at the expense of the permanent threat of climate change.
The threats to bio-diversity are often less known than those to the climate but the consequences are at least as damaging for the planet and our livelihoods. The UN estimates that one million plant and animal species – out of a total of 8 million – are threatened with extinction. The World Bank says that forest reserve cover (like the Amazon) has been decreasing by 5 million hectares a year, for more than ten years. Coral reefs have halved in the past 100 years, 35% of marine stocks are overfished etc..
The diagnosis is clear: what is needed, again, is more determined international action. Previous UN action plans in this field have not seen sufficient implementation of commitments. The COP 15 meeting of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will be held in Canada next December where it has to take crucial decisions on proposals to protect 30% of land and sea, cuts to chemical runoff from agriculture and restoring at least a fifth of degraded freshwater, marine and terrestrial ecosystems.
4. Tax justice.
Tax avoidance is depriving cash-strapped governments around the world with revenues of between $100-200 billion, every year. Last Summer, after lengthy negotiations, there was a landmark agreement in the framework of the G20 with over 135 countries and jurisdictions agreeing to an OECD ‘two-pillar plan to reform international taxation rules and ensure that multinational enterprises pay a fair share of tax wherever they operate.’ It was a breakthrough that was widely hailed, including by me. Both as a step towards addressing the problem of tax evasion to build a more just form of globalisation but also a much-needed example that multilateral cooperation can produce meaningful results.
It is therefore very frustrating that as EU we have not been able yet to transpose this international agreement into EU law, due to the opposition of one member state. We are shooting ourselves in the foot: our citizens want to see action on this file and all governments need revenue to address the multiple crises we face. And it is also hard to explain to our partners that a Union that prides itself on its multilateral credentials is unable to deliver on its commitment. This will only encourage those who have their own reservations to stall their ratification. It is opposite of what the world needs: instead of a boost to multilateralism we see a stalemate.
Investing in multilateral action
Each case is different, but what these issues have in common is that for each global public good, the definition of the problem exists and we have an established international framework to address it. But the system struggles to deliver results, at the scale and speed required.
Where the problem lies within the EU we really have no good argument but to deliver on our commitments. However, by definition, the EU cannot solve these problems on its own: regional organisations can contribute but not deliver global public goods. This requires everyone doing more, especially developed countries.
Obviously, the geo-political context of Russia’s war against Ukraine is complicating this task. We see a hardening of tensions spilling over into all multilateral fora. We must certainly defend our principles and uphold the core tenets of the rules-based order against revisionist challengers such as Russia and China. At the same time, we must somehow continue to work with all powers to solve global issues. This is a balancing act requiring constant fine-tuning and close coordination with like-minded partners. The G20 Foreign Ministers meeting in Indonesia is a crucial moment to do this, above all on the dramatic food and energy crisis but also on vaccines, climate and all the other public goods that our world so badly needs.
Source – EEAS