Coronavirus and the Future of Europe: towards a new balance of power redefining the future of Europe

Luis Bouza García (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) and Álvaro Oleart (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam)

06.04.2020

An empty street in Almería, Spain, during the COVID19 contention measures.

During the Coronavirus crisis we are witnessing something that goes beyond the usual EU‘communication deficit’. Paradoxically for a project that has contributed to save millions of lives in the continent thanks to peaceful cooperation, the EU is bad at dealing with life and death issues.

The agonic call for help of the Italian authorities was not immediately followed by medical equipment by EU member states, which led media and pundits to praise the quick support received by China. Even though material help from other EU Member states has arrived to Italy and Spain, it did so later – only after the European dimension of the pandemic was obvious – and was preceded by a nationalistic reaction that blocked the circulation of much needed medical supplies until the Commission reacted to the threat to the internal market. The first conclusion of this crisis is that Europeans expect European cooperation in face of transnational problems, such as pandemics, irrespective of whose competence health is – a similar dilemma could be faced when addressing climate change. Despite the weak EU involvement in the contention of the disease, the coronavirus crisis will rebalance the importance that Europeans attach to different goods and values and the debate on the future of Europe must translate these preferences into a new European balance of power that might redefine (for good or for bad) European integration.

The worst phase of the health protection problem will be over when a European response is found, so the EU will have to deal with the economic reconstruction problem, reassess its attitude towards risks, innovate and enhance a fair distribution of costs. As in 2008, the EU seems to face a break or make moment: as health care efforts soar and states design extraordinary responses to contain the virus and the social effects of the crisis and to try to achieve economic recovery as fast as possible, the crisis will likely plunge European economies into a deep recession. However, unlike in 2008, what is at stake is much more than jobs and economic opportunities: human lives by the thousands are on the line.

The EU has been much faster at responding to this crisis: whereas it took the European Central Bank 4 years before it assumed the leadership and 7 before it started its quantitative easing programme in reaction to the 2008 crisis, it only took one week for Lagarde to move from a mild to massive reaction to this crisis. However, in most news coverage and political positioning it has rather been the division in the Council on whether the time has come to address the crisis by issuing “coronabonds”. Unlike the 2008 crisis that hit European economies asymmetrically, this pandemic is likely to hit all member states – or at least Eurozone ones – in very similar ways.

As in 2008, most analysts have pointed out the clash between North and South, as Member states clash about the potential “moral hazard” of the creation of shared debt as member states had prepared differently. Metaphors such as the grasshopper and the ant fable have been used to illustrate the morale, whereas other have rather undusted their copies of Weber’s spirit of capitalism to point out how different European societies value different social and economic values. Others instead see a foundational challenge for the EU. If Europe fails to address this challenge, anti-European forces will take over and replace much needed European solutions with nationalist responses that will not only endanger the EU, but also democracy itself, as Orbán’s emergency power grab in Hungary suggests. As the virus contention measures and economic crisis is likely to hit blue collar and service workers in retail and consumption workers much more than white collar and highly educated professionals that can work from home, this is likely to deepen the opposition between winners and losers of globalisation and consolidate the polarising views of the EU.

Both views are relevant, but still reflect the forms of thinking of the 2008 crisis. Another reflection of previous crises is that, as in 2015 during the refugee crisis, the discussion between pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics focuses on whether the EU is responding adequately. Eurosceptics argue that an EU that does not address crises like this is not worth keeping, pro-Europeans respond that it is not the EU that is failing but member states who lack commitment and solidarity. However, one of the lessons of the previous crises is that member states are the EU. This is not only true for public perceptions. Even more importantly, Member state leaders have the ability to make the unthinkable possible: as van Middelaar argues, the EU is a circle that Member states have established between them and the rest of the world and one where they are committed to jointly face history’s challenges. We contend that what is happening is not a clash between EU member states challenging the survival of the EU, but a struggle to redefine the type of European integration that will follow Coronavirus. Crises are moments when common sense and understanding of what binds us are at stake, and very different scenarios may result. The EU may have little competences in relation to health, but this crisis will impact how Europeans understand life-work balance, their relation to travel, learning, risks and the environment, all areas where the EU has (and ought to have) something to say.

We do not mean by this that Member states disagreements are not to be taken seriously: this is a challenge pro-Europeans need to win because the sense of the crisis is not so much whether there will be an EU after the crisis, but how will power relations look like once the crisis is over. If the frugal member states have their way and the EU limits its budget to 1% GDP, it will be more complicated to support member states rebuild their economy, some of which will face double-digit unemployment. If instead those in favour of issuing European debt pull the strings they need, they have to be ready to assume much higher levels of common decision on spending and income to sustain this debt.

This crisis will be decisive in shaping what Europeans will do together in the future and where (and how) Member states will have to mind their own business. It will also fundamentally influence power relations between the EU and its member states, but also between different social goods and redefine the limits of the state, society and the market. The clash between EU member states will determine to a great extent – they are not the only policymakers, but the essential agenda setters in crisis time – what the EU will be like after the crisis, but this is a discussion that cannot happen only among heads of state and government. The Conference on the future of Europe will be postponed, but it will be decisive to make sure that we have learnt the lesson and are ready to face future crisis as Europeans. If this is not the case and governments control the discussion over the future of European integration, the next crisis will also be met with division between EU member states. With lives on the line, the coronavirus has exposed the flaws of the EU, and opened an opportunity for deepening European integration, and rebalance its current state of affairs.