By Oliver Schmidtke, Director of the Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria
The current Covid pandemic and the unfolding economic crisis could easily be interpreted as yet another, most serious crisis to the project of European integration. Indeed much of the reaction to Covid seems to play into the hand of those political forces that have challenged the European Union in fundamental ways.
As a primary response to the pandemic, Europe has witnessed a retreat to the nation-state and its borders. In line with the logic of a sovereigntist rationale, the nation state has been widely portrayed as the only political authority that could deliver security and effective responses to the public health emergency. During the first Covid wave, borders between EU member states once again became heavily controlled and in some cases almost impenetrable for the member states’ citizens. The first political reactions to the ensuing economic hardship and rising unemployment throughout Europe accentuated the image of a European Union sidelined by national authorities in the urgent crisis response. In this perspective, at least the EU’s initial response has reinforced the popular image of the European Unions’ inability to provide decisive action in times of crisis and deep uncertainty.
Yet, the lessons that citizens will draw from the Covid crisis could also work in the EU’s favor and open new opportunities to address what many perceive as a decade-long crisis of the European integration project: The pandemic has nurtured a profound popular plea for responsive, science-driven, and compassionate government.
In spite of a situation that seems to have come straight out of the populist nationalists’ playbook, the Covid crisis has left many disillusioned with populists’ inherent tendency to put forth ad hoc, simplistic policy directions and divisive rhetoric. The key ingredients needed to combat the Corona pandemic effectively are those that the populist right is largely incapable of delivering: trustworthy and responsible political leadership. It is not by accident that countries with populist-nationalist leaders have faired rather badly in terms of the effectiveness of their Covid response (the latter regularly delivered by women rather than strongmen in politics). The evolving challenges of the global pandemic have also demonstrated that this health crisis cannot be properly tackled by individual nation-states without abandoning some of the key achievements of European integration: unconstrained cross-border mobility as well as deep international political and economic cooperation on key public policy issues.
It is against this background that the Covid crisis has provided the European Union with an unanticipated, albeit urgently needed opportunity for relaunching its core aspirations as a political union at the European scale. For instance, climate change and environmental degradation constitute a fundamental crisis, which would require responsible and science-based leadership at the regional or even global scale. In order to achieve its ambitious Green Deal, the European Union is dependent on a unifying sense of political community defined by a genuine willingness for cross-national burden sharing, solidarity, and a widely shared vision for a common future. Covid has dramatically highlighted the need for community and practiced solidarity. This experience, most immediately felt in local communities, could become a transformative force in politics also with respect to the project of European integration.
The most promising strategy to build this politically enabling sense of a meaningful political union at the European scale in the Covid era is for the EU to take leadership in public policy arenas in which a European approach is most warranted. Leadership in environmental policies is a case in point. If properly funded and implemented, the Green Deal can be more than the much needed response to a fundamental environment crisis; it could evolve into a building bloc for the EU’s political identity and the trust it commands among its citizens. Similarly, it has been critical that in its Covid recovery plan, the EU has committed almost half of the overall budget of 750 billion to be distributed across the EU as grants rather than loans to individual member states. While politically heavily contested, the EU agreed in the end on a form of pan-European solidarity, – manifest in the redistribution of considerable financial resources. The massive financial means will be borrowed jointly by the member states and paid back by the EU itself. Through these initiatives, developing a nascent framework for common fiscal policies, a European sense of cross-border responsibility and solidarity becomes tangible.
It sounds like a platitude to state that times of crisis are always also times of opportunity. Still, it is worth underlining that the political fall-out of the Covid crisis has already greatly interrupted and questioned the status quo. Fighting a deep economic crisis and mobilizing unprecedented amounts of public financial resources provide an opportunity for redefining political priorities and modes of governance. The EU needs to be selective in which fields it intends to invest its limited resources and political capital. The deep challenges to the environment, socio-economic security, and democratic governance call for political leadership also at the European level. With respect to these challenges, the Covid crisis has the potential to become the accelerator needed to push the EU and European citizens to exploring the so far widely untapped potentials of a European political community.