Greater solidarity key to EU’s post-pandemic survival
The question is being asked: Could the coronavirus pandemic infect the European body politic? Will the symptoms be mild, severe or even terminal? After all, the patient already had acute underlying problems.
Even before the pandemic, the EU — bruised and battered from the 2008 global economic crisis — faced massive threats. Nationalism’s appeal, including even racist far-right parties and authoritarian politics, had skyrocketed. Anti-immigration attitudes fueled the far right. Separatists in Spain and elsewhere challenged existing state structures. Brexit deprived the bloc of one of its most important and richest members, although the UK was always a half-hearted participant.
This great multinational liberal enterprise of a united Europe is being challenged as never before. The cracks are legion and deep; from north to south, east to west, and from rich to poor. Resentment is on the rise. Dyed-in-the-wool Euroskeptics are no longer a fringe grouping.
Much will depend on how the EU exits the pandemic. Europe, according to the World Health Organization, has been the center of the virus outbreak since March 13. At the time of writing, it had suffered more than 1.8 million cases and about 170,000 deaths. But remember that official figures do not all stack up. In Italy, for example, the largest social security and welfare institute said in a new study that the official death figures were not “reliable.”
The continent was not hit equally and did not react equally. Some regions have fared better due to wise preparation, bold decision-making or just plain luck. Italy was unfortunate to have a concentrated outbreak in one area of the north that overwhelmed its health care system. Sweden and the UK adopted different approaches from the majority, which opted for variants on a containment approach. Eastern European states rushed into draconian lockdown regimes, aware their dilapidated health systems would not cope. It is hard to imagine a more disunited continental approach.
As the pandemic eases in the region, the response is equally uncoordinated. Lockdowns are being lifted at differing speeds and at some risk. Schools, workplaces and even sports events are returning in one way or another. Public transport systems are filling up. Families and friends are reconnecting in the physical world. All of this may be understandable, but watch out for a second wave, perhaps as soon as next month.
To be fair, this poses unenviable questions for leaders. Save lives or save the economy? Trashing the economy will also lead to lost lives. These are fine judgments, but European leaders are gearing up to make these decisions — and the economy is at the top of the agenda.
The announcement that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron had agreed to a recovery plan of €500 billion ($543 billion) did surprise. Macron was energetic in making the case, but the German government historically shies away from any bailout that involves grants to poorer nations rather than loans. Merkel’s decision will not be popular domestically, although most European leaders will still be jealous of her sky-high approval ratings. But the plan is not guaranteed support across the union. Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden are hugely skeptical about so-called “coronabonds.” They fear the mutualization of member state debts. Merkel may be privately hoping that the proposal will be severely diluted before finally being agreed to.
Europe will need a dramatic stimulus package — one that will have to be far larger than this €500 billion fund. It needs to contend with both the immediate economic recession and also look to the future. Will the advocates of a low-carbon future win the argument? The harsh reality is that millions of Europeans will lose their jobs. Many who returned to homes in countries like Bulgaria will not be able to return to their better-paid jobs in richer countries. Many countries are hugely indebted, not least Italy, whose public debt is 135 percent of gross domestic product.
The very vision of Europe as an idea, not just a land mass, is at stake. The poorer states look at the richer ones in the north and the west and want to know if they are all in this together. Will they agree to joint debt, for example?
Opinion polls are flaky but will not make easy reading for Europhiles. A 2019 poll showed that less than half of Italians and Czechs would vote to remain in the EU. An annual opinion poll last month showed Irish public support is at its lowest level since the survey began in 2013. The EU is the only public institution that has declining support among Germans. A recent poll showed 73 percent of Germans said the pandemic had worsened their view of the US, which was already low.
This great multinational liberal enterprise of a united Europe is being challenged as never before.
The EU has to show it can pull countries together to their advantage and bridge the gaping inequalities. Italy, Greece and Spain ask why they are left to host incoming migrants with little support and why Rome and Madrid got so little EU support when the pandemic hit them so hard. Their citizens understand that, when the chips are down, the fabled EU solidarity vanishes. The failure to take action against Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s pandemic power grab also challenges any claim that the EU is a truly democratic project.
The EU has a wider meaning for the rest of the world. If this 63-year-old project fails, what would it say about the future of international cooperation and collaboration? Do nations have to fend for themselves and make the national interest paramount? Will it not just be “America First,” but also France first, Germany first and Greece first?
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech