The experience of combating COVID-19 showed that regional cooperation has turned out to be poor in meeting demand; regional cooperation mechanisms faded into the background and, rather, played the role of additional mechanisms providing mutual consultations between the countries of the region, facilitating the exchange of information and experience in combating COVID-19, accumulated by individual countries, writes Maria Lagutina, Professor at the Department of World Politics of the Saint Petersburg State University.
The global nature of the current crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has again demanded collective efforts from the world community and has become a test of strength of the established global governance institutions. However, since the very beginning of the fight against the pandemic, expectations regarding global institutions have fallen through and in most cases the nation states have chosen to fight the pandemic on their own, closing national borders as well as introducing lockdowns and a number of other restrictions. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has become a challenge, not only for global governance institutions, but also for regional ones. The ability/inability of regional structures to respond to crises and emergencies in a timely and effective manner can become a factor in overestimating their legitimacy in the eyes of the world community. The COVID-19 pandemic “provided a unique opportunity to demonstrate the importance of regionalism in crisis management”.
The most important trend in recent decades is the interdependence of the processes of globalisation and regionalisation, which were previously traditionally viewed as opposite to each other. Today, on the contrary, regionalisation is increasingly seen as a global process and regional governance as part of the global governance system. As a result, today, in practice, we have a variety of integration forms at different levels: from classical regional organisations to interregional and trans-regional ties, which are formed in regional and global contexts. In our opinion, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this trend, showing the relationship between the global and regional levels of cooperation, as well as their limitations.
At the same time, during the fight against the spread of COVID-19, most regional structures faced a crisis of solidarity within their associations, for various reasons. Thus, the crisis of intra-union solidarity at the initial stage was most clearly manifested in the European Union, where the main measures in the healthcare sector during the pandemic were mainly taken by individual member states. Germany and France limited the export of essential medicines, thereby violating the principle of free movement of goods; Austria, Slovenia and Poland unilaterally closed their national borders without prior consultation, thereby violating the principle of free movement of persons, etc. Italy was left face to face with the COVID-19 pandemic when no EU country responded to a call to activate the EU’s civil defence mechanism for the supply of medical and personal protective equipment. China and Russia provided assistance to Italy on a bilateral basis. The EU’s emergency mechanisms were belatedly operational; ultimately the EU was able to mobilise aid and funds for other countries and even organisations through interregional dialogue, but the outside assistance received by a number of EU member states caused serious reputational damage to European solidarity.
The EAEU member states also failed to unite their efforts in the fight against the spread of COVID-19, the states demonstrated different approaches to contain the new threat, and did not develop a common vaccine. Despite the “green corridor” launched by the EAEU bodies back in April 2020, disagreements emerged between the countries over restrictions on the export of antiseptics and other sanitary products.
Another region where a crisis of intraregional solidarity manifested clearly was Latin America, where integration associations turned out to be of little demand in the fight against the pandemic. COVID-19 has again demonstrated the weakness of regional and sub-regional organisations in Latin America, due to a lack of political will for integration, common interests and values, as well as a strong degree of dependence on foreign powers and the absence of a regional leader. So, the current President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro, who is already sceptical about regional cooperation and its prospects in Latin America, generally refused to recognise the threat of COVID-19 at the initial stage, which ultimately led to the fact that Brazil was among the top five countries most affected by the pandemic. Another contender for regional leadership, Argentina, immediately chose to follow its own national strategy in the fight against COVID-19. Most Latin American regional associations (the Pacific Alliance, MERCOSUR, etc.) have limited their response to the crisis only by providing information about the general situation with the pandemic and national policies pursued by the member states.
The most pronounced intra-union solidarity was demonstrated by ASEAN and the African Union. On the one hand, the ASEAN countries (in the absence of supranational structures) also made a choice in favour of individual national measures that differ greatly in their effectiveness: for example, for Vietnam it was possible to use an effective model of combating coronavirus, the measures taken in Thailand were also effective, while Indonesia and the Philippines were among the worst-affected countries. On the other hand, ASEAN organised a series of meetings dedicated to controlling the spread of COVID-19 in the region: a series of videoconferences to coordinate national strategies and exchange information and experience in the fight against coronavirus. In the case of ASEAN, the format of interregional cooperation during the pandemic turned out to be in demand — a number of online consultations with the EU were organised within the ASEAN+3 format, as well as separately with the United States and China.
Contrary to numerous forecasts that Africa would be one of the epicentres for the spread of COVID-19, the African continent has become the second least affected region in the world.
In the case of Africa, it was the regional level of cooperation within the African Union, through the African Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) that has proven to be the most effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 due to the very limited resources and ability of most countries in the region to cope with the pandemic. The African Union has successfully mobilised resources to help member states fight the pandemic. It should also be noted that the AU has inter-regional initiatives with other countries — China, Canada, South Korea, as well as with the EU, aimed at improving preparedness for healthcare emergencies.
As we can see, each of the regional integration associations responded differently to the challenge of the pandemic, reaffirming the thesis about pluralism and the diversity of modern regionalism, as well as the absence of a certain universal model of regional integration.
Thus, the situation with COVID-19 has exposed the existing problems and limitations of modern regional cooperation and the rather low ability of regional organisations to play an active role in managing global crises. On the other hand, in practice the pandemic has demonstrated, among other things, the limited capacity of both global governance institutions and individual nation states. Now the importance and necessity of improving and increasing the efficiency of regional institutions to counter such global crises as the pandemic is obvious. COVID-19 has highlighted many areas in which countries from different regions can cooperate. There is still hope that the severity of the current crisis may prompt the world community to give regionalism another chance and, finally, to make the transition from “situational” to “sustainable” regionalism.