The Future of Europe in Times of Corona – A Debate Needed More Than Ever
Resources and efforts by the EU institutions and the Member States are currently focused on dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. But the conflicts which structure the discussions around finding an adequate European response to the crisis and its aftermath are symptomatic of a bigger picture of the state of the Union.
The European Parliament, the European Commission and the Committee of the Regions had already drawn up with their proposals, the Council was on its way: the Conference on the Future of Europe was to be launched on 9 May 2020, Europe Day, thus initiating a two-year-process of citizen participation and debate with the EU institutions regarding the future of the EU.
But then – as we all know – the Corona pandemic hit Europe, and crisis mode was enabled. Over the past weeks, attention and resources within the EU institutions and the Member States have been relocated in order to tackle the most pressing issues in the current health, social and economic crisis, many have singled out the pandemic to be the most challenging crisis the EU has ever faced. And indeed: for the time being, the worldwide damage caused by Corona remains uncertain, the news are worrying.
The Conference on the Future of Europe was under scrutiny from the moment it was announced by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in summer 2019. Responses by the media and advocacy groups ranged from enthusiasm to more cautious comments, including the assumption that the project could easily turn into a PR stunt by an increasingly out-of-touch-with-its-citizens-Union rather than actually fostering participation, democracy and fundamental change. With Corona overshadowing all aspects of national, European and global politics, the answer to this question will have to wait, and with thousands passing away from Corona, it would be borderline cynical to try to keep business as usual.
However, acknowledging the fact that all political efforts need to focus on tackling the problems caused by the pandemic, the current crisis also teaches us a thing or two about more basic insights into today’s EU. We would be well advised to learn from these lessons and integrate them into the dialogue on Europe’s future once heads and hands have free capacities again.
Lessons to be learned from the Covid-19-pandemic
It is by far not the first time we’ve heard this narrative: in a globalized world, threats don’t stop at borders. Climate Change, international terrorism, cyber security – the need for global and European cooperation is obvious. However, the Covid-19-pandemic holds particularly powerful momentum when it comes to this narrative. Where other transnational challenges seem to remain rather vague threats to most citizens (or at least don’t pose the same danger across different countries), the spread of the Corona virus has shown just how quickly problems cross our borders these days – quite literarily.
Considering the transnational character of a crisis such as the Covid-19-pandemic, a comprehensive response to the current situation and its social and economic aftermath cannot be a national one. Coordination, cooperation and solidarity across the globe, but especially within the EU with its open borders and its common market economy, are crucial in managing the situation – and may even save lives.
So far the obvious observation – an observation, by the way, which has been made by numerous EU and Member State officials over the past weeks. But apart from Corona turning into a (sad) symbol of interconnectivity and tangible proof that we actually do need transnational cooperation and coordination, this crisis also uncloaks tendencies within the Union which should worry us as they question the very existence of the EU as we know it – the values and principles it was founded on as well as increasingly nationalist positions and strategies pursued by member states’ governments. Only to mention a few: the ongoing debate concerning ‘Corona-Bonds’, recent developments in Hungary where the government appears to instrumentalize the situation in order to consolidate its way into autocracy, national rhetoric accusing other Member States and the EU institutions of mismanagement. The list is long and requires both attention and in-depth analysis by scholars – something we want to contribute to with the following blog posts dealing with the current situation and its potential consequences for the functioning and the future of the European Union.
The current crisis and the responses found by Member States and the EU institutions are symptomatic of the condition Europe finds itself in. National solo runs appear to be the measure of choice rather than coordinated responses and solidarity across Member States. Historically speaking, crises have seen to be catalysts for European integration – or to deepen existing combat lines even further. The Corona pandemic has profound impact on every citizen’s everyday life, and will trigger economic and social upheaval, expected for the upcoming months. If we want to make sure that it will turn out to belong into the first category, i.e. a crisis fostering integration and making the EU stronger, we have to take the lessons learned from this experience and feed them into the debate on the future of our Union. This debate is needed now more than ever.