Europe has let us down – it has been found wanting during the Covid-19 crisis. Today, such views are becoming more commonplace due to the unveiled schadenfreude of the European Union’s opponents and the honest despair of its most zealous supporters. As member states close their borders with one another and jealously guard their medical resources, everyone sees evidence that they were right about the EU all along. Those who have always defended national sovereignty from the perceived encroachment of Brussels take delight in pointing to the perceived helplessness of the European Commission, declaring the triumphant return of the nation state. Meanwhile, the supporters of ever-closer union nod their heads and say: “Yes, the Europe we have known for so long has finally come to an end.” And they add that the time has come for an entirely new beginning.
The emotions at the core of this criticism are largely understandable. Yet, behind the elation caused by disappointment with “Europe” lies nothing but superficial ideas about the correct course of action. This threatens to delegitimise the EU in its current form.
This chain reaction may have drastic effects on the EU
The problem begins with the language of many Europeans. Their interchangeable use of terms such as “the EU”, “Brussels”, and “Europe” reveals a misunderstanding of the issue and the subject of criticism. In reality, there are two EUs. In his acclaimed book Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage, historian Luuk van Middelaar differentiates between an EU that is based on the “politics of rules” and one that follows the logic of the “politics of events”. The first EU centres on the procedures enshrined in its treaties; the second on the ad hoc measures member states undertake without recourse to EU institutions or regulations
During severe crises, the politics of rules begins to break down. The EU was not designed to rapidly react to unexpected situations; accordingly, its member states have not entrusted the European Commission with any such competences. One may grumble that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did not travel to Italy amid the Covid-19 crisis in a show of solidarity. Given that symbols can be important, perhaps von der Leyen’s presence in Milan or Rome would have sent out a positive signal. However, she would have been forced to go there empty-handed, and perhaps would have only strengthened the frustration caused by the EU’s perceived inability to help. Finally, the Commission took substantial, if limited, measures where it truly had instruments to do so – reallocating unused budgetary funds to fight the pandemic and its consequences. But it was not designed to address the immediate implications of the pandemic.
Many Europeans now demand something similar to the relocation mechanism that the Commission put forward during the refugee crisis in 2015: a fast-acting instrument based on the principle of solidarity. However, some countries boycotted the relocation mechanism, creating one of the most toxic rows in the EU’s history.
Both the eurozone crisis and the migration crisis were sudden, unexpected events that required member states to respond according to their own, commonly understood interests. But there were no existing rules or legal foundations for this response. The lack of standard principles of action is also apparent in the pandemic. In such crises, when the politics of events reigns, the second EU emerges. Now and then, it appears to be chaotic and poorly coordinated, providing solutions that are underwhelming or even counterproductive and time-consuming.
Yet a cool-headed perspective could dampen the zeal of those who speak of the end of the EU (regardless of their motives). The EU’s reaction to the Covid-19 crisis has been disappointing due not to the dysfunctionality of the bloc itself but rather to a broad lack of preparedness for the challenge, a shortcoming that all member states shared. National governments made most of their decisions in a panic, neglecting to inform the European Commission (despite the measures’ implications for the single market); often – as in the case of border closures – they acted contrary to the Commission’s stance. But, as it transpired, few now doubt the wisdom of the restrictions member states introduced, even if these measures sometimes conflict with the principles of European solidarity.
Still, this chain reaction may have drastic effects on the EU. Ivan Krastev is right to say that this crisis seems to undermine many of the basic assumptions on which the EU is founded: it rehabilitates nation states at the cost of cooperation; it strengthens the narrative of anti-globalists and nationalists; and it awakens a belief in authoritarian solutions. But if the narrative that lambasts Europe, the EU, and Brussels – for allegedly compromising themselves and failing – continues to gain momentum, it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. “The Europe that the current Commission represents must disappear. It has crumbled to dust by itself right when we wanted to grasp it,” writes Nils Minkmar in Der Spiegel.
For those who genuinely want to rescue and strengthen the EU, it would be dangerous to conclude that they must reinvent it. Precisely the opposite is needed – when the foundations of the EU are deteriorating and the apparent renaissance of nation states is strengthening nationalists and populists, Europeans must firmly defend the EU they know. The only realistic alternative to the current EU is not an effective and compact community, but a creature designed by people such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Rassemblement National leader Marine Le Pen.
Europeans must not let border posts, temporary export restrictions, and poor coordination confuse them. It is too early to write an obituary for the EU. Indeed, the true test is yet to come. Some Europeans’ current rapture over the effectiveness of national governments will not last. National governments are obliged to support their healthcare services and introduce security measures in response to Covid-19. But the economic response to the crisis – which must come quickly, if not as quickly as the virus spreads – will require close coordination between countries. This is an area in which the EU has significant instruments and opportunities for action. Designing a fiscal stimulus and protection for economies haunted by the crisis will be a truly European challenge.
Europeans could escape from this crisis with a strengthened conviction that they are all in the same boat – whether they like it or not. But this does not require them to nurture illusions of a new, better EU; it requires them to defend the one they have, which is under threat like never before.
A longer version of this article was published in Gazeta Wyborcza. It was translated from Polish by Nicholas Furnival.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.