“Es gibt nichts Gutes. Außer man tut es.“ (“Nothing good happens unless you do it”). It was this quotation from German writer Erich Kästner which concluded Merkel’s speech at the World Economic Forum earlier this week.
Appearing via video link, the German Chancellor discussed global issues, ranging from the climate crisis, relationships with China, the importance of multilateralism, and naturally the issue on everyone’s lips: the ongoing pandemic and multiple vaccination programmes. Throughout her speech and the ensuing discussions with WEF Executive Director, Professor Klaus Schwab, there was one message which remained constant: the importance of action.
Founded as an international NGO in 1971, the World Economic Forum is most famous for its annual conference, held in the town of Davos-Klosters, nestled deep in the Swiss Alps. Whilst priding itself on its independency, impartiality, and “moral and intellectual integrity”, the WEF has not been without reproach, with some criticising it as a schmooze-fest for celebrities and big business.
In previous years, the annual conference has usually seen guest speakers from both public and private companies, as well as civil, academic and government leaders, come together to discuss the major global issues of the day. Needless to say, Chancellor Merkel was not short of material this year.
The race to vaccinate the globe
Beginning her speech with a discussion of the pandemic and its catastrophic effects, the German leader placed particular emphasis on the achievements of vaccine developers and biochemical firms across the globe. She praised Uğur Şahin, the CEO of BioNTech, a group which has now become a household name, for his foresight in adjusting the format of the company’s research programme to focus on the development of the RNA vaccine.
Underlining the superb feat of designing a safe and effective vaccine within the space of 12 months, Merkel at times bordered on the philosophical, reflecting on the immense capability of mankind working together to achieve a common goal. In political terms, this was the beginning of multiple references to the value of multilateralism in the modern world; BioNTech, for instance, was a mere start-up company, but with international cooperation and a team made up of nationals from across the globe, it has succeeded in being one of the leading coronavirus vaccine producers.
The importance of collaborative action was repeatedly addressed by Chancellor Merkel, as she warned against the dangers of countries becoming too insular in their approach to the pandemic. This is perhaps in light of the stark message from the WHO earlier this month, who warned of a “catastrophic moral failure” if wealthier countries continue to monopolise the purchase of vaccine doses at the expense of developing nations.
This concern was certainly echoed by the German leader, who encouraged first-world nations to invest in the collective COVAX fund, designed to provide low-income countries with increased supplies of the coronavirus vaccine. She warned against an overly sovereign approach to vaccine distribution, with individual countries becoming too insular and reluctant to adopt a multilateral stance on the issue. This naturally comes at a time of considerable tension between the UK and the EU over issues with the supplies and distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine, a story dominating headlines across the continent.
“There are flaws”
Merkel’s focus was not solely global, discussing weaknesses closer to home. Although grateful for her country’s commitment to research and science, a strong individual healthcare system, and solid finances, which has enabled the State to provide financial support packages and allow the national economy to tick over during the past ten months, the Chancellor did point to flaws in the system. She spoke of a need to improve preventative healthcare, eliminate excessive bureaucracy, and ensure greater digitalisation in areas such as education, which is taking a hard hit as pupils across the country try to grapple with home learning.
Man is not invincible
Beyond the economic and social weaknesses engendered by the pandemic, it has also served – according to Merkel – to expose mankind’s own vulnerability in the face of nature, confirming the vital need for continued environmental conventions.
The Chancellor was quick to add here that whilst such discussions and debates are positive moves, we must first and foremost act. Whilst the agreed goals of the Paris Agreement to see a carbon-neutral Europe by 2050 are demonstrative of immense commitment, nations need to be urgently trying “to implement them […] more resolutely and uncompromisingly”. This includes a phasing-out of carbon and a shift to hydrogen fuel.
Such proposals are ambitious, and best achieved through a combination of political and individual action in the eyes of Merkel: “If we truly hope to overcome the vulnerability caused by climate change, we must take drastic political action – with the support and input of the public rather than imposing measures on them.”
According to the Chancellor, COVID-19 has been an eye-opener for many, exposing the fragile interdependence of human and animal ecosystems more broadly. It is a lesson equally applicable to the climate crisis: the virus knows no borders, nor does climate change.
China: a delicate balancing act
In tackling such issues through multilateralism, Merkel cited the need for transparency, making a particularly pointed remark about the communication from China regarding the early stages of the crisis: “In all honesty, it must be said that at the beginning of the pandemic, there was perhaps not enough transparency with regard to the information on the outbreak of the pandemic in China and also to the sharing of this information by the World Health Organization.” She did, however, go on to express a wish to look to the future, rather than dwelling on past errors, citing the positive news that the WHO team have successfully arrived in Wuhan to begin their investigations into the origins of the pandemic.
Beyond the role played by China in helping draw lessons from the health crisis, Merkel also recognised the positive alliance represented by the EU-China investment agreement, praising the reciprocity and transparency of this with regard to Chinese state subsidies and state-of-the-art technology.
Nevertheless, this was tempered by a warning that such collaborations must also be used to ensure common standards are met, particularly with regard to the working conditions for labourers in their respective nations. As ever with Merkel, the message was one of a fine balancing act: she expressed her wariness about falling into oppositional, Cold-War style “blocs” in a 'US vs China' binary, echoing President Xi Jinping’s sentiments earlier this week, but recognised disagreements remain on how to achieve multilateralism when operating between two different economic systems.
Planning, planning, planning
Throughout all of her discussions, ranging from sustainability to vaccines, from taxing tech giants to working alongside China, Merkel’s vision remains highly forward-looking. Although lessons need to be learned from the pandemic, they are only useful if we choose to implement them going forward. During a discussion with WEF Director, Klaus Schwab, the Chancellor spoke of the need to dedicate greater investment and consideration to buffers and contingency plans for potential future threats.
The Chancellor highlighted the danger of our current systems, which are primarily founded on the presumption (and arguably also hope) that everything will function normally and efficiently all the time. Moments of crisis are therefore exacerbated by the lack of foresight and planning. For Merkel, this translates as acting when the stakes are lower – we ought to be planning before the disaster hits, not during. It is a message of pragmatism and multilateralism in a world which tests both on a daily basis.