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COVID-19 and European integration: Can the EU grasp its second chance?

by Achim Hurrelmann, Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Centre for European Studies at Carleton University

The European Union (EU) entered the third decade of the 21st century under new leadership and with the ambition to move beyond the various crises that preoccupied it for much of the preceding decade. At the centre of the work program proposed by the new European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, was the European Green Deal, an ambitious program of socio-economic transformation that seeks to make Europe a climate-neutral continent by 2050. The European Green Deal was a vision statement, not a comprehensive policy framework; nevertheless, there was hope in EU circles that it could give European integration renewed purpose and direction.

COVID-19 disrupted these plans. In the face of the pandemic, climate change all but disappeared from the political agenda. Instead, COVID resurrected many of the issues and controversies that defined EU politics between 2010 and 2019: financial solidarity between richer and poorer member states, mobility across internal borders, concerns about illiberal democracy. When the pandemic first hit, Italy and Spain were the most strongly affected; both demanded financial support from their EU partners, which richer member states were reluctant to provide. This constellation was utterly familiar from the years in which the Eurozone crisis defined EU politics. Shortly afterwards, as COVID spread across the continent, member states responded by unilaterally closing their borders, temporarily disapplying the Schengen Agreement. The result was the same disjointed response that had characterized EU policy during the refugee crisis. And when Hungary’s parliament used the pandemic to grant Prime Minister Viktor Orbán unconstrained emergency powers, long-standing concerns about the rule of law in some of the EU’s eastern member states were back in the spotlight.

Cynical observers may have been reminded of Karl Marx’s quip that history tends to happen twice – once as a tragedy and once as a farce. However, the developments that followed also invite a more optimistic reading, which views COVID-19 as a second chance for the EU, an opportunity to improve upon its previous policy solutions, to learn from earlier mistakes. Most observers would agree that the above-mentioned challenges, when they first presented themselves, were not dealt with particularly well: In the Eurozone crisis, the collapse of the Euro was avoided, but the austerity conditions imposed on emergency loans to states like Greece and Spain pushed them into deep recessions. The refugee crisis exposed sharp internal divisions; the EU’s unsuccessful attempts at redistributing refugees gave Southern member states the sense of being left alone, while Eastern member states perceived a repelled attack on their social fabric. The problem of illiberal democracy, finally, remained unaddressed, in part because of the absence of appropriate policy tools, but also because mainstream parties in Brussels and the national capitals lacked the political will to call out their illiberal allies.

COVID has given the EU a second shot at resolving these protracted challenges. The most noteworthy progress has been made on financial solidarity. A five-day summit of the European Council in mid-July agreed on a €750 billion recovery fund, labelled Next Generation EU (NGEU), along with a new seven-year Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for the years 2021-27, worth another €1,074 billion (all figures in 2018 prices). The recovery fund will support member states with a mixture of grants and loans, financed by joint debt. It represents a marked departure from the austerity paradigm that was dominant during the Eurozone crisis. The fund will give member states’ economies a much-needed boost to recover from the pandemic, but it also sends an important symbolic message, namely that the EU is a community that will support its weaker members in times of hardship. This message will be heard in states like Italy, where many have recently begun to doubt the benefits of European integration.

Progress on other issues has been less pronounced. Regarding internal borders, the European Commission has attempted in recent months to assert its coordinating function, by issuing guidelines and recommendations on lifting travel restrictions, but it remains doubtful whether member states will refrain from acting unilaterally when they perceive crucial national interests to be at risk. Illiberal democracy continues to be a problem. In the European Council, Hungary and Poland vetoed a mechanism that would have allowed the suspension of payments from the EU budget and recovery fund in the case of persistent rule of law violations. The summit conclusions do, however, contain a vague promise to establish “a regime of conditionality to protect the budget and Next Generation EU”, which could potentially be used to sanction rule of law breaches. Much will depend on how it is operationalized, and whether member states are willing to openly confront rule of law pariahs in their midst. Predictions on the future of the European Green Deal have to be similarly tentative. While the EU’s climate objectives have become less prominent in times of COVID, the European Council agreed to devote at least 30% of NGEU and MFF spending to climate-related programs. At the same time, the “Just Transition Fund”, designed to absorb the social impact of moving to carbon-neutral economic practices, was cut from the initial proposal of €40 billion to just €10 billion. Once again, it remains to be seen whether the EU and its member states can muster the political will to stick to their environmental ambitions even in challenging economic times.

If COVID has afforded European decision-makers a second chance to address long-standing problems, what can we say about the EU’s efforts to grasp it? My preliminary assessment is cautiously positive. In the worst case, the EU has developed a mechanism to enable financial solidarity across member states – if only on a temporary, crisis-response basis. In the best case, this negotiation breakthrough pushed open the door to further measures which help address the EU’s other pressing challenges, from illiberal democracy to climate change.

Achim Hurrelmann is Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Centre for European Studies (CES) at Carleton University. He is cross-appointed to the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (EURUS). Professor Hurrelmann. Professor Hurrelmann's research focuses on the politics of the European Union, with a particular emphasis on questions of democracy and legitimacy in the EU, multilevel governance, and European integration theory.


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