Covid-19, Critical Juncture or Missed Opportunity for the EU?

Dr. Roberta Guerrina, Professor, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol and Dr Maxine David, Lecturer in European Studies at Leiden University and Research Fellow at the Global Europe Centre, University of Kent, UK

COVID-19 is the crisis that we should all have been expecting but were unprepared for. This is a statement both in terms of the EU’s readiness to manage a global public health crisis, as well as the deeper crisis of social cohesion that Covid-19 has laid bare. Quarantine and lockdowns, and, for a time, the daily litany of statistics on hospital admissions and deaths, delivered indisputable evidence of the inequalities in health outcomes that themselves reflect wider socio-economic hierarchies. As a result, the mainstream media seem to have discovered both gender and race as defining social cleavages, finally giving traditionally marginalised groups a voice to express dissatisfaction with hegemonic structures.

As with other crises, Covid-19 constitutes a critical juncture. In this case, however, the nature and the scale of the crisis is unprecedented. It is therefore imperative to examine forensically those issues rendered more visible by the crisis. The manner in which the EU seizes (or not) the opportunity to problematise and imagine solutions will have a significant and enduring impact on its identity and its position in the imaginary of European citizens. As the EU moves from crisis management to recovery mode, it is important to assess which vision of the EU’s future will be built into its programmes. Before any credible claim to the integration of the principles of equality and social justice into the recovery plan can be made, we need to ask who is included in this vision of Europe.

Less than 12 months before the onset of the Covid-19 public health emergencies, European institutions looked set to embrace a more gender inclusive agenda. Gender equality goes to the heart of an inclusive Union and its institutions need to represent the citizens of Europe. It therefore follows that, as a starting (and therefore not end) point, there must be gender parity at all levels of the organisation. 2019 saw the appointment of the first woman as chair of the European Central Bank, the first woman president of the European Commission, and the first gender-balanced Commission. Von der Leyen set out her vision for a gender equal Union in her manifesto, focusing specifically on the need for women to be represented in key decision-making bodies. This is a significant step forward in relation to linking gender parity to democratic governance and the legitimacy of decision-making processes. However, her vision is based on an idea of equality that homogenises women’s experience and is blind to the racialised nature of the EU’s role as a gender actor. It is a routine response rather than a crisis response, evidencing, at best, a lack of creativity and, at worst, a lack of understanding.

As von der Leyen explains, “Equality goes beyond gender equality. Women and men, old and young, East and West, North and South, our various and cultural identities are the patchwork of our identity”. This is a vision of equality and inclusion that reflects the “Brussels bubble” where diversity is a signifier of the heterogeneity of the member states vis-à-vis each other but not the heterogeneity of the peoples within those states. This is indeed a type of diversity, and an important element of regional cooperation. However, it reaffirms an idea of nation, of a Europe and European citizenship rooted in whiteness and binaries.

This analysis matters now more than ever because Covid-19 has highlighted the impact of racialised inequalities in Europe: clear racial and intersectional disparities in health outcomes across Europe should be a cause of great concern. Specifically, it should force the institutions to build a recovery plan that sees and mitigates the impact of intersectional inequalities on social cohesion and social justice.

In July 2020, the European Council agreed the EU’s budget and recovery plan to tackle the economic and political crisis generated by Covid-19. The Roadmap for Recovery centres solidarity, cohesion and inclusion. It is an unambiguously ambitious plan that is political in nature. It links European Commission recovery funding to pre-existing priorities, specifically the development of a green economy and good governance at the national level. Ten billion EUR are ringfenced for a “Just Transition”. The Council Conclusions reassert the EU’s commitment to gender mainstreaming and ensuring the principle of equality does not fall further victim to the Covid-19 crisis. Indeed, “social cohesion, resilience and values” are included in the Multi-Annual Framework (2021-2024).

There are, however, significant limitations in the EU’s reckoning with the socio-economic challenges brought to light by Covid-19. The Conclusions explicitly state: “Equality between women and men, as well as rights and equal opportunities for all, and the mainstreaming of these objectives should be taken into account and promoted throughout the preparation, implementation and monitoring of relevant programmes”. The specificity regarding gender and the lack of it in respect of race suggest the EU’s approach to recovery remains blind to the racialised nature of the challenge facing Europe as it emerges from Covid-19. Perversely, considering the multiple voice opportunities that are supposed to be inherent in liberalism, the EU’s approach to equality limits its ability to embed and advance an intersectional understanding of inequalities and how they affect the citizens of Europe. Race and intersectional inequalities thus become invisible in both the Council Conclusions and the EU’s vision of recovery.

Von der Leyen’s statements to hold a “structured debate” about racism in Europe thus feel empty, particularly when her gender balanced College of Commissioners does not include a single black, brown or minority ethnic individual. It is therefore difficult to see how the EU’s approach to equality, rooted in equal access to the labour market for men and women, can be inclusive of the broader principle of intersectionality. This shift will require the EU to recognise the heterogenous nature of women’s (and men’s) experience and the impact of Europe’s colonial history and neo-colonial approach to external affairs on reproducing an idea of Europe that is rooted in whiteness and that ultimately plays to the hand of radical right and Eurosceptic parties in the Member States.

This analysis points to the need for the EU to seize this moment of reckoning on issues of social cohesion and social justice. The way forward is clear. The senior leadership of the EU institutions must open a space for what is a difficult and therefore all the more necessary discussion about the role of social justice and equity in underpinning good governance. So long criticised for its technocratic approach, the EU’s Recovery plan reintroduced solidarity to the heart of European institutions. To whom the solidarity was offered, however, remains an open question and the answer lies entirely in what you deem to be the problem. Intersectionality offers us the lens required for understanding the complexity and co-dependencies inherent in this debate. Perhaps more importantly, it highlights the limitations of current approaches and the risks of reifying an idea of Europe constructed along racialised lines.

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