A year ago this week, we learned with astonishment that Italy was going into a national lockdown to fight a strange new virus that had apparently come from somewhere in China. Within a fortnight, Spain, France, and Britain had followed. Now here we are a year later, still in a state of emergency.
We work at home and live online. Our children have become ‘babyzoomers’. “You’re on mute!” is the most frequently heard sentence of our time. Face masks and two-metre distancing from other human beings seem almost normal. Our languages have acquired a whole new imagery: “second wave”, “flattening the curve”, “herd immunity”, “the British variant”. Demographers will trace the long-term effects of this year of covid-19 for a century to come. Some say there is already a Generation C.
There have been other moments of shared European experience, such as the 1968 protests or the end of the cold war – but, to find one that simultaneously affected so many people so personally, you must go back to the second world war. When else since 1945 have we been so conscious that our individual actions, and those of our governments, can directly determine whether we and those we love will live or die? Yet, this time, Europeans have been fighting not each other but a common enemy.
This shared threat should have pulled us all together. But has it? And what will happen as solidarity fades and differential long-term impacts become apparent? Will the European Union ultimately emerge stronger or weaker?
Thus far, the EU’s response to covid-19 has chalked up one great success and one great failure. The success is last summer’s agreement on a seven-year budget and a dedicated European recovery fund (also known as ‘Next Generation EU’) with a combined total of more than €1.8 trillion (£1.6 trillion). This decision, which introduced shared European debt, was the greatest step in economic integration since the introduction of the euro. It offers the possibility for the EU to help all its member states recover economically and “build back better”.
The great failure has been the attempt to demonstrate that only the EU can deliver vaccines quickly and equitably for all member states. The German finance minister elegantly described the European Commission’s performance on vaccine procurement as “really shit”. Germany’s leading tabloid, Bild, delighted Brexiters with a front-page headline telling the Brits “We Beneiden [envy] You”. (The Sun riposted with “Wir Beneiden Dich Nicht … over the EU vaccine shambles”.) Now Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic are off getting vaccines from China or Russia, while Austria and Denmark are developing a vaccine partnership with Israel.
This is the personal failure of the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and of the relevant commissioner and department. The European Commission has handled this incompetently because it does not have the competence, in two senses of the word. Public health is largely a national competence, in the sense of legally assigned authority; as a result, EU institutions do not have the competence, in the sense of the ability and experience to do a good job.
Moreover, this was to misunderstand from the start what the EU does well. Its forte is what the American scholar Andrew Moravcsik calls “incremental and technocratic policymaking”. The key word there is “incremental”. Because the EU is so complicated – having to take account of the views of 27 national governments, three different Brussels institutions, and several European party groupings – it is unavoidably slow-moving. Its rather small bureaucracy is also exceedingly bureaucratic. But what was needed here was speed – a willingness to take risks and put lives before red tape.
Brussels would have done better to take on a more modest, facilitating role from the outset, supporting those poorer and smaller states that would otherwise have been disadvantaged in the scramble for scarce vaccines.
The main lesson to be learned? For the next three years, the EU must have a single-minded focus on delivery. A recent opinion poll for my research team at Oxford University underscores what other analysts have also found: the EU’s legitimacy derives more from what it delivers than from the political and institutional process by which it gets there. Thus, while a large majority of our respondents said it is important to have a European Parliament, no less than 59 per cent agreed with the statement that “as long as the EU delivers effective action, the presence or absence of the European Parliament is of secondary importance”.
The very last thing Europe needs at this point is an orgy of introspection in the shape of its proposed Conference on the Future of Europe, preparations for which are currently bogged down in characteristic inter-institutional infighting. If European leaders really care about the future of Europe, they will start by abandoning the Conference on the Future of Europe. Instead, they will focus on what the EU can actually do for its citizens.
The next step is a so-called “green digital pass”, allowing Europeans who have been vaccinated to travel around the continent again. Freedom of movement is what Europeans value above all else. An amazing 74 per cent of respondents in our poll agreed with the statement: “If it did not offer the opportunity to travel, work, study and live in other EU member states, the EU would not be worth having.” The freedom to move around is what we have sorely missed over this year of lockdown. Delivering it back again smoothly would be an important success for the EU.
Beyond that, there is the giant task of ensuring that the €750billion recovery fund is spent rapidly, effectively and unbureaucratically, but also uncorruptly, in ways that really benefit the people of Europe. It needs to help create new jobs and opportunities; a significant chunk of it must go to genuinely green projects, not just “greenwashing”; and the soaring levels of public debt, especially in southern Europe, must not result in another eurozone sovereign debt crisis.
Politically, the acid test will be whether pro-European parties prevail not just in this year’s Dutch and German elections, and France’s presidential election next year, but in Italy, Spain, and Poland thereafter, and then in the 2024 election of the European Parliament.
In short, the EU faces one of the biggest challenges of its life. Instead of wasting time on a conference on the future of Europe, European leaders should have the Nike motto pasted on every door in Brussels: Just Do It.
This article first appeared on 9 March 2021 in The Guardian.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.