The future on both sides of the Atlantic

Dec 27, 2020

2020 was a year most will wish to forget. Yet, we cannot do that. Too much of what has caused us so much grief and suffering, sending the world into a tailspin, will be carried forward into next year, rather like a bad balance sheet.

The spread of the relentless Covid-19 pandemic has cost 1.7 million lives and other so-called ‘acts of God’ are the mainsprings but much of the misery has been man-made. A rapidly escalating refugee crisis brought about by satanic wars in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and rising deprivation and poverty in much of Africa. Polar ice caps are melting at an unprecedented rate; noxious pollution in cities has grown; the planet is growing ever warmer. But action to combat the root causes of climate change has been flacid.

Some of the responsibility for the current state of our planet lies with individual leaders. The odious Donald Trump adopted the style of a medieval monarch gifted with modern technology. He tweeted scattergun edicts on whatever caught his limited attention span and surrounded himself with ‘courtiers’ who did his bidding until, one by one, they were fired.

Trump’s reckless refusal to take seriously the onset of the coronavirus in the United States – despite the entreaties of his medical adviser and others – led to the death of almost 320,000 Americans. Trump withdrew America from the World Health Organisation, weakened the world order and the United Nations, threatened long established alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and damaged diplomatic relations with most European capitals. He ripped up of the Iran nuclear agreement; that was just one example of actions he took that added to tensions in the Middle East.

Boris Johnson, the European leader Trump most admired, also mishandled the pandemic. The United Kingdom has by far the worst record in Europe for deaths caused by Covid-19  – just under 70,000 and rising, though this has been the result of bungling and blundering by the Johnson government, rather than indifference. Johnson’s style has been to cajole and overpromise. For instance, in mid-year he boasted of a ‘world class test, track and trace system’, which still has failed to materialise. In his public briefings he indulged in colourful similes like “we are wrestling the beast”. In November, as vaccines were being approved, he cautioned “tonight the toot of the bugle is louder but it is still some way off”. There was always the cliché of light at the end of the tunnel, although, as New Year approaches, and casualties and contagion grow, that light is receding.

The British have also been finding out what many of us already knew – that Johnson has a problem telling the truth. The former journalist who was sacked by The Times for fabricating stories, won the Brexit referendum in 2016 by purveying a string of falsehoods. He warned the British people, misleadingly, that Turkey was about to be admitted into the European Union and that, if they voted to remain, millions of Turks would be free to live and work in the UK. By leaving the EU, he declared, £350 million a day would be released to fund the National Health Service.

After the referendum a website was set up chronicling Johnson’s lies in detail but, by the time Johnson became prime minister at the end of 2019, the organisers had become too exhausted to continue. The PM continued to huff and bluff. After signing the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, he told his right-wing supporters he could walk away at any time, while simultaneously telling the public that a comprehensive trade deal with the EU was “oven ready”. Exactly 12 months later, on the verge of Christmas and after weeks of botched negotiations, trade agreement was anything but comprehensive; its content was thin and prospects for a deal with the world’s biggest single market threadbare. Meanwhile Johnson’s bold talk of a global Britain with a golden future is a mirage. His promises of great free trade deals with the United States, Australia and the rest of the world have also failed to materialise. The only one of any consequence has been with Japan, which mirrors the one the Japan already has with the EU.

The fractious relationship between Britain, the world’s sixth largest economy, and the EU has been unsettling for Europe, given that the UK is a nuclear power, the second largest contributor to NATO, and the bloc’s biggest export market. Though reluctant to admit it, the EU needs UK support, as tensions with Russia rise over Vladimir Putin’s incursions into Ukraine and his threats to the Baltic states. Like Britain and the US, mainland Europe has been the victim of repeated cyberattacks and malaware penetration, sourced to Russia.

And yet there is hope. The sigh of relief in and around the European Commission’s headquarters at Berlaymont on November 5 was risible as it became clear Donald Trump had lost the U.S. presidency. Relief turned to joy as, one by one, Republican leaders withdrew their support for Trump’s false claims of election fraud. One defining image was that of the president whining that he had been abandoned by the man he had thought of as  a friend – Rupert Murdoch.

Joe Biden’s arrival at the White House is a watershed moment for the European Union. It will do more than restore relations to where they were under the Obama administration. Biden believes a strong US-Europe alliance is the best bulwark against an unpredictable Putin, and that Berlin and Paris are the important capitals. (It is well known that Biden is no fan of Johnson). Even better for Brussels, the next U.S. secretary of state, Tony Blinken, is a confirmed Europhile who owns a house in Paris, where he first went to school. He is already well known in the chancelleries of Europe, having served as deputy to Hillary Clinton in the Obama administration, and as point man to Biden in the establishment of the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Another huge blessing for the EU will be Biden’s pledge to recommit the United States to the Paris Accord on climate change. Ursula von der Leyen, the German politician who took over as president of the European Commission a year ago, is determined that Europe should lead the world in cutting carbon emissions, and will join forces with Biden in attempting to persuade leaders of other nations to bring forward 2050 emissions targets to 2030. They will seek to put action on climate change at the top of the agenda at a range of international meetings, including G7, G20 and the United Nations summit in Glasgow in November, where Boris Johnson will be pressing for global support for a ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol-fuelled vehicles from 2030.

Achieving global unity on how best to stop the degrading of the planet will be a tough call, but Ms von der Leyen has already shown leadership qualities absent from earlier administrations, painstakingly bringing together conflicting factions within the 27 member countries. The EU has also made significant strides as a financial force, with Brussels using its collateral power for the first time to raise 750 billion euros on the world markets for a European Recovery Fund, designed to help those member countries most damaged by Covid-19 and to build new infrastructure to support a green revolution.

Will hope triumph over despair?  With both sides of the Atlantic facing the darkest of winters amidst rising Covid-19 cases, it is hard to be optimistic.  Yet medical science on both sides of the Atlantic has come up with approved vaccines in record time, with the pharmaceutical industries producing by the millions in order that as many as possible across the world can be immunised. An industry that so far has failed to find an adequate solution to another serious illness, malaria, has risen to the challenge of coronavirus.  If there is hope in the future, it is likely to be through science.

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