Jean Monnet was famously quoted claiming that “Europe will be forged in crisis, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” Crisis is not new for Europe and challenging European unity is not a new phenomenon to the member states.
Ranging from the Eurozone crisis to the core challenges posed by increased immigration to the continent, EU27 has found it hard to find a consensus on what it means to provide a united front. With the global pandemic, an additional challenge was presented to Europe, exasperating some of the disconnect between Brussel’s vision for Europe versus Europe’s current challenges.
If Europe is forged in crisis, the COVID-19 crisis has created a Europe that many deem to function inadequately.
COVID has challenged Europe in ways that tend to undermine European unity and place into question: What are European values going forward?
A Borderless Challenge at Stake: The Schengen Paradox
Schengen has been both COVID-19’s problem and solution for Europe. Many pointed to Schengen as a reason the virus spread so fast among the EU, yet this free movement of people is a core component of the Union and provides a perfect backdrop to counter a “borderless challenge” such as COVID.
Yet, instead of “demonstrating the merits of pooled sovereignty, COVID-19 has so far reestablished the power of national governments.”
When EU countries started to close their shared borders without consulting one another, Schengen was put aside for national purposes. French President Emmanuel Macron sent a strong warning of Coronavirus “nationalism” when measures such as these were adopted.
Yet, can one blame countries for such nationalistic tendencies when the perception by some is that the supranational organization has failed them? Italy is a case study for such a claim. In early March, Italy asked the European Union to activate the European Union Mechanism of Civil Protection in order to receive medical aid and supplies- and not one European country responded to this cry of help.
China, on the other hand, was quick to send medical personnel and supplies to the country- something that sends a strong message to the direction Europe is building for itself.
Leaders in European nations have been repeatedly asked by their constituents about the purpose of the broader European project when states fail to come to each other’s aid at the darkest times.
In an open letter published by Politico, Maurizio Massari, the Italian permanent representative to the European Union, writes that:
“The coronavirus crisis is not just a national crisis. It’s a European crisis, and it needs to be treated as such…This is a battle where we are facing two terrible enemies: panic and selfishness. Panic leads to irrational and irresponsible behavior by citizens and economic stakeholders. Selfishness leads to the adoption of a lose-lose, beggar-thy-neighbor logic and to discriminatory or speculative actions. Neither should be acceptable…
We are facing exactly the type of emergency in which a “Europe that protects” must show it can deliver. Unless we wake up immediately, we run the risk of going down in history like the leaders in 1914 who sleepwalked into World War I. The virus will pass, but any rotten seeds of complacency or selfishness will stay.
The coronavirus crisis is a test of the EU’s cohesiveness and credibility — one that can only be passed through genuine, concrete solidarity. Europe must act according to the principle of mutual defense and help those members whose security is under threat. If we are courageous and united, we will win. If we are selfish and divided, we will lose.”
A Cohesive COVID Bailout
A 750 billion euro recovery fund was long negotiated, believed to have been agreed upon by all 27 member states until a clause regarding rule of law was added to the agreement- a clause that was very much not agreed upon by Hungary and Poland. Linking “access to Brussels cash with respect of the rule of law” did not sit right with the two member states.
This demonstrated, what many were already very aware of, the divide among the various values defining Europe and impeding the unity which Brussels seeks to enforce.
The veto provided by Hungary and Poland halted access to money countries so desperately needed in order to move forward and upwards out of the dark cloud COVID-19 created within their countries.
Under such tense conditions, European Commissioner Ursula Von der Leyen threatened that they would move forward as the EU25 if an agreement on the budget and recovery fund could not be agreed upon.
Luckily, this break between the member states did not happen and early December 2020 brought about an agreement between all 27 states to the 1.8 trillion budget and COVID recovery package. The rule of law mechanism was suspended while “Brussels draws up guidelines for how it should be used and what might trigger it… Europe’s top court, the European Court of Justice, is also expected to weigh in on its validity.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban (who has taken advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to exceed his executive powers) celebrated this agreement and claimed to have “saved the unity of the union…don’t forget that this dispute was not only about the rule of law, regulation, financial issues, it was about the future of the European Union and the question: what is the power centre of the European Union, the European institutions like Parliament, Commission or the member states?”
What’s next for Europe?
Winston Churchill said in his first speech to the European Parliamentary assembly: “We are nurturing a living plant, not making a machine.” Some fear that with the powerful bureaucratic tendencies highlighted in the course of the pandemic crisis, a “Brussels machine” could be in the process of being built- one that might do more harm than good for the future of the European project. A strong EU is crucial, it is a beautiful project—but it must align with the realities that it faces today.
“In the past more Europe has been the EU’s preferred response” to challenges, yet more EU must be done in a very strategic and tactical way. In a survey carried out for the European parliament, European citizens believed the EU should have more powers, particularly in the field of medical devices, funding for vaccine research and financial assistance for countries in difficulty.
But how best to do this?
And to do this without simply building a more powerful bureaucracy to dominate the European project?
Moving forward, “European leaders will have to deliver an explanation of what, truly, are the benefits of EU membership after the opening weeks of the coronavirus crisis did more to promote the idea of a divided states of Europe than anything else.”
European institutions remain supranational bodies of power that are nationally bound to the limits of very different nation states, with different histories, priorities, and ways of acting. Europe has always been a project of values, yet with it having enlarged to what it is, it may be time to revisit how to keep going.
Dealing with Hungary and Poland’s propensity to fight against Brussels submission is an important goal to tackle, especially with the rise of such tendencies globally- but simply playing Hungary and Poland off against the Brussels bureaucracy does raise the questions of how best to proceed with the next phase of European development.
Europe might be better off to choose the proper time, place and framing of such projects rather than adding an additional crisis into an existing and unprecedented one.
Europe must remind all of its members of its purpose and it must make itself irresistible to those who seem to think Brexit is an appealing route.
With the way the COVID recovery has been handled and as many are questioning the very relevance of the EU, Europe may have to push its message in ways that are palatable to those who hold less patience for it for the sake of its peaceful and democratic future.