The State of the Union – or, where the EU was in January 2020

Dr Theofanis Exadaktylos, Reader in European Politics, University of Surrey, Co-editor, Journal of Common Market Studies Annual Review

How much is the European Union and its vision shaped by the EU’s own crises and the collective experiences of its member states? Since 2008/9, the combination of the Eurozone financial crisis, the exposure of stark divisions between winners and losers of integration, the rise of nationalism and the re-emergence of stereotypes between northern “frugal states” and southern “sluggish states”, and a recipe for financial austerity led to the turbulence the EU experienced for almost a decade.

The case of Greece, as the epitome of the financial crisis in Europe, highlighted not only the declining trust in the capacity of EU institutions, but also the fading solidarity among EU countries and the ineffectiveness of the institutional architecture of the Eurozone. Some member states have not fully recovered and still battle with rising national debts and security issues from the Mediterranean. Meanwhile the political and party systems of other member states have been brought under a complete overhaul to accommodate the presence of the right wing. There are also occasions of democratic backsliding and the questioning of fundamental principles of democracy.

As Eurosceptic voices and populism, mainly of the extreme right, swept Europe in the last decade the process of integration paused on a number of occasions, fed by rising nationalism and the refugee crisis failures. Such phenomena even led to disintegration with the departure of Britain from the EU, a process that commenced in 2016 and dramatically concluded in January 2020, albeit still with many unknowns.

Overall, by 2020, the EU found itself in a paradoxical position. On the one hand it had to brace itself for the advancement of right-wing populism, anti-EU sentiments, a looming hard Brexit and many international challenges. On the other, Euroscepticism was held back in the 2019 EP elections, the EU elected its first female Commission President, the Franco-German nexus was reinvigorated, the presence of Green parties in the European political scene was enhanced and the EU found itself ready to move on from Brexit with one voice.

The global pandemic – a watershed moment?

In the beginning of 2020, the whole world came to a standstill as a result of the imminent public health crisis of the novel coronavirus. The pandemic quickly spread from China into Europe and by the middle of March at least three EU member states (France, Italy and Spain) were experiencing excessive hospitalization and death rates. At the time of writing, EU countries accounted for more than 1.5 million cases and more than 250 thousand deaths.

The pandemic did not hit all EU countries at the same time and with the same intensity. Yet, the whole of the EU experienced lockdown measures of one mode or another, restrictions on travel that challenged the EU’s open borders and the freedom of movement, and strains on the health systems of its member states. The images of empty streets of European capitals were powerful, underscoring the importance of social relations, exposing the economy to yet another recession and heralding a ‘new normal’ that will define European societies for a long time ahead.

The first responses were quite numb. The EU as a political and institutional structure has never experienced something of this magnitude. It also lacks effective rapid response mechanisms, hence coordinated responses were almost impossible in the early days of the pandemic. That led to a number of different (and conflicting) policy responses across member states not only in terms of stringency of measures, but also in terms of legitimation and justification of government choices, as well as the necessity and intensity of some of those measures. Countries like Hungary and Poland were criticized for emergency powers delegated to their authoritarian-leaning governments; Sweden was questioned on its ‘herd immunity’ approach; Italy was calling for emergency assistance to tackle its increasing national debt; the Netherlands defended the open economy. Germany, Austria and Denmark were the first countries to come out of lockdown; while previously tagged black sheep, like Greece, were praised for managing to contain infections so successfully. Despite these differences, a common message came out of the EU, for countries to return to open borders as quickly as possible and to consult the EU’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control for any measures they would take going forward.

The first few months of the pandemic however, exposed not only the inability of the EU to handle a pan-European crisis but also the deep structural inequalities between member states and the growing divide between north and south, east and west. Due to protracted underfunding and the prevalence of austerity politics as a trans-European paradigm, public healthcare and social services provision had deteriorated, with many EU countries appearing unprepared to face the scale of infections and the increased demand for health services by their citizens. The many unknown parameters of this novel coronavirus only added uncertainty in trial-and-error approaches.

Nonetheless, the EU cannot afford not to come out stronger from this crisis. In fact, the EU leadership saw the pandemic as a unique opportunity to push ahead with more integration, especially in the context of the Franco-German cooperation. Given the desire by both Macron and Merkel to push back on the populist zeitgeist in their countries and maintain cohesion over the European ideal, the EU efforts towards a common response to the impact of the pandemic were supported by all high-profile leaders. The loan drawn by the Commission demarcating the pandemic recovery funds is a ‘first-of-its-kind’ move by the EU. Never before has the EU acted at such magnitude in the name of the Union’s peoples, propping up a wall of solidarity. Such responsiveness was not a random act; rather it was driven by European citizens who looked at the EU for solutions, also experiencing the inability of populist governments to respond to the wider complications of a pandemic. It has been a unique opportunity for pragmatic politics to showcase their potential over populist empty rhetoric.

Did this turn to the EU create another expectations/capabilities gap? The Summit where the funds were agreed upon was a difficult political moment. Four members, so-called ‘frugal four’, were objecting to the distribution of the emergency funds in the form of unconditional grants and were favoring strict conditionality. A compromise had to be struck among EU leaders to seal the agreement. Although this is common, and EU summits frequently become hardball political dramas, the return of national politics to the forefront in the past decade required very delicate handlings, as not to upset the momentum in favor of EU action. We are still unsure if this will be Europe’s watershed moment, but it will definitely be a seminal moment that will determine the direction of European integration for at least a generation. Nonetheless, there is considerable room for establishing our European common fate, by taking the lead in areas of policy coordination, European-wide and transnational projects, an emphasis on sustainable development in conjunction with the European green agendas and a realistic view on the closing of social and national inequalities.


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