The Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to a new doctrine of “health security”. In geopolitical terms, this conception has created new divisions, while at the same time feeding older, often racialised stereotypes. It has traced new global cartographies of danger, demarcating healthy and unhealthy, “risky” and “less risky” spaces and peoples. Mobility is restricted or imposed in new ways – whether in the case of migrants locked out at the EU’s borders, or vulnerable European citizens for whom isolation is not an option. Underpinning this approach is an outdated notion of sovereignty, that needs to be overcome.

Commentators have described the Covid-19 pandemic as heralding a return of geopolitics, unleashing new forms of power-political and biopolitical competition. Pandemic geopolitics has been waged across a range of sites, from global contests over vaccine procurement and “vaccine diplomacy” and national border closures, to the militarised control of urban space and the bordering of individual bodies, now differentially marked as “safe” or “unsafe”. Overall, it has been a thoroughly “unhealthy geopolitics”, to use the term coined by political geographers Jennifer Cole and Klaus Dodds.

As Achille Mbembe notes, the pandemic laid tragically bare the unequal global geographies of exposure, risk, and vulnerability, marking out “who has the right to breathe and who does not”. Access to vaccines but also oxygen and other vital medical supplies continues to be the object of international power politics, multiplying other forms of injustice through the deadly effects of the pandemic. The unhealthy geopolitics of Covid-19 is built upon existing relations of inequality and global hierarchies in production and supply networks, determining who can access health services or, to put it even more bluntly: who lives and who dies. While international programmes such as COVAX and ACT have been lauded for promoting “global health solidarity”, they remain a drop in the ocean.

So where does the European Union sit in the geopolitics of the pandemic? The von der Leyen Commission has made much of its aim to promote “health solidarity” within and beyond the borders of the Union. Under the slogan of “No one is safe until everyone is safe”, the EU has taken an active role in both the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) – Accelerator and the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX). International support has been deployed through the creation of “Team Europe”, launched by the European External Action Service (EEAS) in April 2020 as a way of pooling resources from member states, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the European Investment Bank. The Team has not only provided vaccines but also other medical supplies, delivered through a series of humanitarian air bridges. In the Commission’s words, “Team Europe is a good example of how multilateralism should deliver to the benefit of all, leaving no one behind in the joint endeavour to overcome the pandemic.”

Lofty proclamations aside, the limited scope of European assistance, as well as its geographical selectivity, throw into question the “benefit of all”. As of the end of September 2021, EU countries had shipped less than 10 per cent of the 500 million vaccines pledged, with significant differences in member states’ fulfilment of promised donations. EU countries have targeted their donations, either via COVAX or bilaterally, to “priority countries”, most frequently proximate neighbours or former colonies with which they hold close historical or present-day ties. The Commission’s continued opposition to the TRIPS waiver agreement – a proposed exception to international intellectual property rules for technologies linked to containing Covid-19 – over a year since South Africa and India called for the initiative fundamentally calls into question the EU’s global public health engagement. What is left is a performance of multilateralism, primarily geared towards sustaining Europe’s image of itself as a global actor driven by the principle of solidarity.

Health solidarity or health sovereignty?

The image of the EU as an altruistic global actor cultivated by the European institutions for over a decade clashes directly with the recent push to develop an EU “strategic sovereignty” in a number of areas, including health. This tension between competing geopolitical imaginaries and actual policy choices is crucial to understanding what role the EU will take in the world in the years to come.

Since the notion of sovereignty has come to dominate discussions regarding the EU’s capacity to act, within as well as beyond its borders, it is good to reflect briefly on the term, for it is far from innocent. While it has come to be used interchangeably with autonomy (for instance, the term “EU strategic sovereignty” is often used as a synonym for “EU strategic autonomy”), sovereignty does not simply denote autonomy of action. Sovereignty, in its classical geographical definition, is a highly normative concept that links authority, territory, and population. It presumes a sovereign that is rightfully entitled to exercise authority within a given territorial space. While claims to sovereignty do not solely entail claims to territory, we could say that all claims to sovereignty are, to one degree or another, territorial. They are claims to be authorised to govern and determine the applicable rules (and enforce them) within a certain territory and on a certain population (even though such claims are increasingly partial in a globalising world).

The attempt to delimit virologically “safe” and “unsafe” spaces and populations became a guiding strategy in the fight against Covid-19.

Several implications follow from this understanding. First, the founding division between an “inside” and an “outside” that delimits the spaces where sovereignty is exercised is based on exclusion; that is, on a territorial and ideal division between an “us” and a “them”. At the same time, the sovereign capacity to act on behalf (and presumably for the benefit) of a certain population in no way presumes a commitment to distributional equality at home, and even less abroad. Sovereignty is thus not necessarily commensurate with solidarity. Finally, since sovereignty is an ideal, it does not necessarily need to be connected to factual conditions or legal status. It is a performative fiction or more precisely, in the words of political philosopher Michael Naas, a “phantasm”, whose allure lies “precisely in this elision of a fictional origin and its real effects”.

As a political creature, the European Union is often presented as an example of shared or “pooled” sovereignty. Indeed, for the EU, claims to sovereignty are always functional in the sense that they relate to the exercise of a particular power, in a particular field or competence. Vis-à-vis its member states, the EU never makes a comprehensive claim to sovereignty in the traditional sense. But the enactment of “European sovereignty” in the Union’s external action is envisioned as something else entirely, mirroring in problematic ways the sort of exclusive and potentially exclusionary understanding of traditional, territorial notions of sovereignty. The attempts by the EU and by member states to “border” pandemic risks are a stark illustration of this conception, as boundary-making and the enforcement of territorial distinction is the most notable aspect of traditional sovereignty.

Bordering the pandemic

Historically, pandemics have provided key moments in which new borders have been enforced. The Covid-19 pandemic has been no exception. The first “gut” reaction of states to the spread of the disease in the pandemic’s early weeks and months were border closures and mobility restrictions. In the EU context, these were seen as an attempt by member states to regain sovereignty in the governance of the pandemic, presuming that territorial controls would somehow stop the progress of an airborne and mobile virus. This was based on misguided assumptions that the virus arrived from abroad, when in fact it was already circulating among national populations (which was already the case when most restrictions came into force). The attempt to delimit virologically “safe” and “unsafe” spaces and populations became a guiding strategy in the fight against Covid-19. There was a hardening not only of EU and national borders but often internal ones as well, with regional and even local administrations pushing to affirm their “territorial sovereignty” in controlling movement.

But this hardening of borders was highly differentiated, and not just in space, with certain kinds of mobility and certain populations more likely to be subject to borders than others. While goods and “essential workers” were permitted to circulate even during the strictest national lockdowns, those “out of place” in national territories (such as precarious or partially documented migrants and intra-EU migrants) became the object of border enforcement. Borders have long been selectively permeable membranes that sort and delimit mobility, of people as well as of other flows. The sorting of desirable and undesirable mobilities is indeed a fundamental aspect of borders under contemporary neoliberal capitalism, hyper-charged during the pandemic by the invocation of the new rubric of “health security” or “biosecurity”. As Kezia Barker has argued, states’ biosecurity politics always need to negotiate a balance “between too much and too little regulation”; rather than conflicting with global trade, travel, and contemporary neoliberal life more broadly, biosecurity emerged as a practice that facilitates these flows by attempting to remove their risky or negative elements. Thus, rather than simply halting circulation, biosecurity relies on policy interventions that facilitate and “optimise” the right sort of circulation.

The geopolitical visions that we invoke to imagine our place in the world matter.

When examining the border restrictions enacted during the pandemic, it is important to ask who benefited from these restrictions. Whose protection, whose security was guaranteed? The unequal impact of Covid-19 on the most vulnerable in European societies was strongly compounded by unequal forms of immobilisation, through border controls, and forced mobility. Certain populations were much more exposed to viral circulation, such as “essential workers” or those who simply could not afford to isolate. This is an important point to keep in mind when considering the claims to national as well as European sovereignty invoked to enforce new border controls, as though these were magical incantations that would protect all within the territory of the imagined sovereign “safe space” equally.

While pandemic safety was already unequally distributed within the EU, the Union’s external borders became an even more dangerous space for migrants. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the “Covid excuse” has been instrumentalised to further restrict those on the move. New forms of pushback, containment, and confinement of migrants at the EU’s borders are now justified in the name of both their own – as well as Europeans’ – “protection”. Noting the multiple instances of pushbacks and port closures in the Mediterranean (such as the declaration of the Italian and Maltese authorities in the spring of 2020 that their ports were “unsafe” for migrants to disembark at), Tazzioli and Stierl describe how border closures were enforced in the name of hygienic-sanitary protective measures, turning the EU “not merely into a hostile, but also an unsafe and risky environment, supposedly unable to take care of asylum seekers and to prevent them from being infected, as well as infecting European citizens”. What we have observed in recent years has been not only an unequal bordering of Europe’s territories and populations, but also of its “sovereign responsibility” to ensure safety.

Beyond medical nationalism

The profoundly unequal impacts of border closures and mobility restrictions during the pandemic urge caution in any further and future European appeals to sovereign governance of health (or other) risks. It is alluring to imagine the creation of a European safe space where health sovereignty can be ensured by reshoring and enhancing medical and pharmaceutical production capacity and securing critical supplies, so that EU citizens are fully covered in the event of a future health emergency. But how can we ensure that such health sovereignty at home would not adversely impact the health and wellbeing of others beyond the EU’s borders? Securing supply chains can easily become hoarding, and the EU’s common procurement strategy, lauded as a form of European solidarity, can easily translate into exclusionary market dominance.

How can the EU respond to future health crises in non-exclusionary, non-isolationist ways? If one thing has become clear from the current pandemic, isolated and isolating responses are ineffective against a global virus: they may serve to create the illusion of safety for a short time, but to take the Commission’s slogan at face value, in epidemiological terms truly “no one is safe until everyone is safe”. Medical nationalism, whether in the realm of vaccines or supplies is, as the former French minister of education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem recently argued, an “imposture”, a fiction, in its promise to guarantee health security.

How, then, to begin? The geopolitical visions that we invoke to imagine our place and role in the world matter. They matter a great deal. They are performative fictions that serve to, literally, “make worlds”, providing both a description of the sort of world that we want – and a prescription for action. Marrying Europe’s global role to an outdated notion of sovereignty is not only misplaced in today’s interconnected world; it also risks feeding an illusion of the possibility of sovereign control, privileging closure rather than collaboration, and ignoring the intertwined geographies of vulnerability that connect us all.

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