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“Mortal Danger” or “Unity in Adversity”? The Effects of Covid-19 on European Solidarity and Implications for the Future of Europe

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“Mortal Danger” or “Unity in Adversity”? The Effects of Covid-19 on European Solidarity and Implications for the Future of Europe

At the beginning of 2020, the European Union was forced to deal with an unprecedented health crisis which has impacted the whole world. No country was able to escape the disastrous economic and human consequences caused by the coronavirus pandemic. This pandemic has undoubtedly been one of the biggest challenges for the EU since its creation.

Comparisons with the Second World War were commonly raised by Europe’s leaders – Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and Giuseppe Conte – and they all noted the potential risk of failure to act appropriately. Former European Commission President Jacques Delors described the situation as the EU being in ‘’mortal danger’’ while the current president, Ursula von der Leyen, said the EU “looked into abyss” . Did these fears spark political mobilisation or reveal weaknesses in the EU’s structure? What does it bode for the future of the EU?

Where do we stand?

From the onset, EU Member States reacted differently to this crisis, implementing various political, economic and social strategies. The EU was blamed by many for its poor crisis management and its laxity dealing with the health crisis. Interestingly, it was those who were generally advocating for “less Europe” during pre-coronavirus times that were among those who were blaming the EU for its inaction, thus indirectly advocating for an enhanced EU role in public health. However, health remains a shared competence and EU countries are responsible for defining and delivering their own national health strategies. The role of the EU is more to complement national policies by means of its Health Strategy[1].

Yet, during the crisis, European solidarity was put back into question and divisions regarding the meaning of “European solidarity” appeared. Indeed, while medical and political coordination greatly improved since March (including common procurement, cross-border patient transfers and large initial economic stabilisation programmes) EU Member States offered different views on how the EU should react economically and financially to the pandemic, especially in regards to the longer term recovery. 

Eventually, by the end of May 2020, the EU Commission put forward its proposal for a recovery plan, which implied the creation of a new recovery instrument, the Next Generation EU (750 billion euros in addition to the 2021-2027 financial framework of 1.1 trillion euros)[2]. After Germany threw its weight behind the plan, seemingly reversing a long-standing tradition of European economic and financial conservatism and refuelling a renewed Franco-German motor, one of the longest European Council summits finally led to a toughly-negotiated but ambitious compromise on July 21st which put the EU on a path towards fiscal integration. Still, the pandemic has shown that even in times of unprecedented crisis, when European solidarity is the most needed, finding a consensus on a financial package to support and revive the economy is undermined by traditional political and economic divergences. There was a particularly evident opposition of the “Frugal Four” to the Franco-German proposed recovery plan on the issues of opting for grants or loans, and economic reform and rule of law conditionality to that aid.  It is in this particular context that many experts have called on the EU to reform in order to have a more pragmatic, reactive and results-oriented Union. Many have said that the EU crisis management failures mirrored the institutional and political shortcomings of the Union. 

State interventionism and a window of opportunity for a more ‘’Sovereign Europe’’?

During the pandemic, we have seen in many countries an increased role of the state to overcome the health crisis. In many European states such as Italy, Belgium or Romania, measures were adopted to strengthen executive powers in order to react more quickly to the virus. In Hungary and several other European countries, a state of emergency was even declared. A law – called the “coronavirus protection act” – allowed the Hungarian government to rule by decree for several months.

In this regard, in a European Union where strong and interventionist states are necessary to come to the rescue of citizens and businesses, how can democracy still be respected? Commissioner Věra Jourová recently said in an interview that the health crisis represented a stress test for our European democracies. She also stressed that European institutions should make sure that democratic principles such as respect for minorities and for the rule of law are adhered to at all times, including during the pandemic[3]. Prominent voices in both EU institutions and national capitals advocated for a rule of law conditionality system as part of the proposed MFF and Next Generation EU, strengthening the link between respect for the rule of law and EU funding. [4] However, the final wording of the agreement from July 21st was vague enough to be interpreted as a victory for both sides of the argument and put the issue on ice for the European Council to “revert rapidly” to “introduce a regime.”[5]

When negotiations for the 2021-2027 budget package started in 2018, the EU Commission already stated its willingness to include rule of law conditionality in the equation. However, the breach of European values which could be observed in a few EU Member States in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic outbreak gave a new impetus to negotiations on this topic[6]. The EU is a value-based community, every country joining the Union commits itself to respect these values. Therefore, it is a bit absurd – and it even weakens the European credibility – that countries which are deviating from the principles mentioned in the EU Treaties are not facing any particular sanction. As it was said on several occasions by Herman Van Rompuy, former President of the EU Council and Prime Minister of Belgium: “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. This pandemic indeed represents a unique opportunity for the European Union to reform in order to get back to an equal respect of European values among Member States, while keeping everybody on board.

 

“COVID-19 will reshape our world. We don’t yet know when the crisis will end. But we can be sure that by the time it does, our world will look very different. How different will depend on the choices we make today.” – HRVP Josep Borrell

 

The pandemic was also used by several global actors as a way to rewrite political narratives. A few non-EU countries even used disinformation and hybrid attacks to reach their objectives and thus tried to influence the society’s general opinion regarding the EU crisis management. These attempts had mixed success. Still, what we could see during the outbreak of the health crisis – and we can still observe it today – is that it was not only a national crisis, but it was a real global crisis, involving all countries across the world. In this particular context, geopolitical tensions between superpowers increased and many people expressed their disappointment regarding the slow reaction of the European Union. In these types of crises where we see more interventionist strategies by states, perhaps the EU should think about a more reactive crisis decision-making process? Consensus within the Council is often hard to reach and a more flexible system might bring quicker decisions and would thus probably improve the credibility of the EU as a global actor. In these troubled times, a strong European Union is needed and a few EU politicians have come up with a new emergency system which would allow to move away from the traditional unanimity and would enable the Commission to get its proposals approved with a simple qualified majority vote (and thus rejected with a reverse qualified majority vote)[7].

Producing a vaccine against the virus, an opportunity to revive multilateralism?

For several years now, and especially since the election of Donald Trump in the United States, we have seen a withdrawal of the US from many multilateral arrangements such as the Paris Agreement or the World Health Organization to name a few. This has had disastrous consequences for multilateralism across the world as the world’s strongest economic and military power has decided to revert to unilateralism. Even amidst a common global enemy like the coronavirus, the US has been further illustrating these tendencies, such as when President Trump apparently sought to unilaterally acquire a German firm with advanced research on Covid-19 in order to acquire exclusive US vaccine production rights which prompted financial aid to the company from the Commission to prevent this from happening[8].

At the same time, China’s growing economic and political weight has fed into a dynamic where accelerated US-China Geopolitical competition (including over flashpoints such as the recent crisis in Hong Kong) and a “deflecting the blame” public relations struggle amidst the pandemic have greatly disrupted the international capacity to organise and respond to the virus coherently. In this context of heightened geopolitical tensions, we have seen a shy attempt by the European Union to relaunch multilateralism. With the pandemic, the development of a vaccine has emerged as a common objective for many countries. Therefore, the EU – which has always been a strong supporter of multilateralism – should probably think about a multilateral strategy to find a new vaccine, involving non-EU countries too. The Commission has already set up a framework campaign, the Coronavirus Global Response, which raised 16 billion euros from 40 countries and more individuals in May and June in several pledging conferences. With a capacity to produce 250 million vaccines for lower- and middle-income countries, it is clearly an attempt to claim global multilateral leadership in the response against Covid-19[9].

Indeed, the European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen, has described itself as a “Geopolitical Commission”, but has not delivered much yet on that level. The European Union could make use of this pandemic and the US-China rivalry to create an opening for a new alliance, regrouping like-minded partners willing to both defend the multilateral order and to find a vaccine together on fair terms, such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand, India and many African nations. All participating countries in this arrangement would not need to share exactly the same values and principles. Nonetheless, multilateralism, the willingness to save international cooperation and to find a solution to this crisis should be at the core of this potential alliance. This would definitely be a golden opportunity for the European Union to show its geopolitical role and to strengthen its strategic autonomy in an increasingly polarised world.

Long-term prospects for the EU and a revived Conference on the Future of Europe

If Europe is to finally throw its potentially large weight around on the international scene more effectively (and fill the gap in between the two extremes of China’s collectivism and US individualism), a more “sovereign’’ or autonomous Europe, something talked about for years and already expressed as a political priority by Macron back in 2017, would first have to get its act together internally and more clearly define what kind of actor it wants to be.[10] Ever since the failed Convention on the Future of Europe of 2005, Europe has been stuck in a period of a soul-searching freeze, while its institutional foundations have proven inadequate and the world around it has grown increasingly tense amidst a decade of crises: 2010-2020. While Russia and China’s increased geopolitical activity, Brexit, the Eurozone and Migration crises had already kickstarted calls for such a moment of renewed self-definition, COVID-19 seems to have broken the ice. Even before the crisis hit, the European Green Deal, the Digital Transition and the Conference on the Future of Europe had been signalled by the European Commission as three landmark initiatives to give direction to the EU. The latter was to have been held on the May 9th – the 70th anniversary of the Schuman declaration, and involve citizens in an exercise of bottom-up discursive democracy to produce ideas for a reform of the EU’s democratic foundations and to give it renewed confidence, legitimacy and attachment from citizens. The European Parliament, Commission and many member states including the new and powerful German Presidency of the Council (a crucial luck of timing) have already expressed the need for such a Conference in this autumn to accompany the economic and financial recovery phase of the coronavirus response.[11]                

We recommend that such a conference becomes much more ambitious, bottom-up and touching upon a broader array of topics than planned before the pandemic hit. It should become the basis for a normative shift in how the EU works for its citizens and engages visibly with them and finally becomes a more authoritative international actor. In the spirit of Macron’s Grand Debat, which was largely a symbolic event, the conference should organise large amounts of citizen forums, linking policy makers and citizens, and use digital tools more effectively.

Due to corona, a number of new priorities have emerged which should be included in the discussions. Firstly, amidst plenty of evidence to the underlying weaknesses of European health competences and industrial autonomy, from the aforementioned US attempt to buy CureVac, to Chinese and Russian disinformation warfare exploiting the EU’s weak public relations profile through hyperbolic aid deliveries and media strategies, the EU needs to find a way to accommodate the benefits of global trade and multilateralism. This should include some regained autonomy in the research and development, procurement and distribution of medical equipment, treatments and vaccines. This is part of a broader push for an industrial policy of “European Giants” which can compete with Chinese and US firms, but should remain aligned with a competition policy that also gives the EU international clout.

Secondly, while the European Green Deal has already been designated as an essential element in the recovery phase of the EU’s response to the coronavirus, efforts should be accelerated to really put it at the heart of the longer-term economic identity of the EU in line with the goal for climate neutrality by 2050.[12] Citizens from Beijing through New Delhi and Paris have seen how clean the air can be if carbon intensive industry is phased out, even temporarily. Responding to COVID-19 should not just mean providing respirators to people, it should entrench a right to breathing clean air for ourselves and future generations. The Just Transition Fund and new proposals for creative tools such as a Carbon Border Adjustment and an expanded European Emission Trading System will be crucial.

Thirdly, the crisis has illustrated both the disruptive effects of physical distancing and the remarkably flexible and diverse capability of digital platforms for professional, academic and social purposes. The EU no longer has an excuse to wait with significant research and development, investment and structural transformation towards a more digital society. The latter could also improve the effectiveness and equality of participation in the Conference on the Future of Europe as well. At the same time, digital autonomy could provide for greater security, including a secure 5G network and expanded anti-cyber warfare and disinformation capabilities, weaknesses which were so clearly a major problem in the past months.

Fourthly, on the topic of defence and security and the broader discussion of strategic autonomy, the coronavirus should not lead to a shift away from discussions about expanded EU defence capabilities just as fledging new institutions and programmes such as the EDA, EDF, PESCO and Military Mobility are starting to take root. Most proposals for the new Financial Framework of 2021-2027 include significant reductions to those programmes that are seen as less pressing than the health, economic and social effects of the crisis.[13] To the contrary, all of them are tied together in security imperatives. At a time when medical aid, and treatment and vaccine research, procurement and distribution is employed as political leverage in a global “vaccine” or “solidarity” race, health should be seen as a real security issue (without losing sight of our multilateral principles). If Europe is to survive the coming period and emerge from it with greater strength that can back normative principles with credible deterrence, we should also expand our military capabilities and broaden strategic autonomy, including on medicines and moves towards defence integration.

All of these proposals should be included in the Conference on the Future of Europe and be not just reinforced, but subject to the input from citizens. All of them have an established legal basis for their potential operation, broadly encapsulated in the “Solidarity Clause” of article 222 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Yet it might be required that treaty revision will have to take place, which while a “word which shall not be named” for many national leaders, might have become inevitable in this unique situation and in fact could provide a welcome reset of a European self-definition in an uncertain era. With the new German Presidency of the Council, large electoral support for most pro-European governments, and a great impetus for greater solidarity from citizens from Lisbon to Warsaw, Europe should not let this “good crisis” go to waste in order to do justice to its citizens and its responsibilities in the world and provide both breath to the lungs of its people and to its own future.

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[1] EUR-LEX, “Public Health”, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/summary/glossary/public_health.html (consulted on 09.07.2020)

[2] European Commission, “Europe’s moment: Repair and prepare for the next generation”, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_940 (consulted on 09.07.2020)

[3] Bruegel, “Democracy in the times of COVID-19 with Věra Jourová”,  https://www.bruegel.org/events/democracy-in-the-times-of-covid-19-with-vera-jourova/ (consulted on 09.07.2020)

[4] European Parliament, “Protecting the EU budget against generalised rule of law deficiencies”, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2018/630299/EPRS_BRI(2018)630299_EN.pdf (consulted on 08.07.2020)

[5] Daniel Hegedüs, ‘’What EU leaders really decided on the rule of law’’, Politico, July 21, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/what-eu-leaders-really-decided-on-rule-of-law-budget-mff/

[6] European Parliament, “Protecting the EU budget against generalised rule of law deficiencies”, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2018/630299/EPRS_BRI(2018)630299_EN.pdf  (consulted on 08.07.2020)

[7] European Policy Centre, “Governing in times of social distancing: The effects of COVID-19 on EU decision-making”, https://www.epc.eu/en/publications/Governing-in-times-of-social~31ed40 (consulted on 08.07.2020)

[8] Aitor Hernández-Morales, ‘’Germany confirms that Trump tried to buy firm working on coronavirus vaccine’’, Politico, March 15, 2020. https://www.politico.eu/article/germany-confirms-that-donald-trump-tried-to-buy-firm-working-on-coronavirus-vaccine/

[9] European Commission, ‘’Coronavirus Global Response’’, https://global-response.europa.eu/index_en (consulted on 10.07.2020)

[10] Élysée, ‘’Initiative pour l’Europe – Discours d’Emmanuel Macron pour une Europe souveraine, unie, démocratique’’,September 26, 2017. https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2017/09/26/initiative-pour-l-europe-discours-d-emmanuel-macron-pour-une-europe-souveraine-unie-democratique

[11] European Commission, Conference on Future of Europe should start “as soon as possible in autumn 2020”, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20200615IPR81226/conference-on-future-of-europe-should-start-as-soon-as-possible-in-autumn-2020 (consulted on 10.07.2020)

[12] Michael Nienaber, ‘’ Germany’s Merkel wants green recovery from coronavirus crisis’’, Reuters, April 28, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-climate-change-accord-germany/germanys-merkel-wants-green-recovery-from-coronavirus-crisis-idUSKCN22A28H

[13] Jacopo Barigazzi, ‘’European defense hopes live to fight another day (just)’’, May 29, 2020. https://www.politico.eu/article/european-defense-hopes-live-to-fight-another-day-just-budget-eu-coronavirus-recovery-plan-mff/

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