On 26 March, an utterly divided EU emerged from the European Council dedicated to European measures aimed at managing the severest crisis since 1929, one far worse than the 2012-2017 crisis. The coronavirus pandemic and the transpiring economic and social crises present Europe with an extraordinary opportunity: to decide to move towards a deeper unity, or to decline irrevocably. The prevailing road will naturally depend on the decisions of the governments in the European Council and other EU institutions; but also, and above all, on the mobilization of citizens and the public opinion in each of the Member States. Can we still expect concrete and visible measures managing the ongoing tragic health crisis, as well as the imminent socio-economic crisis? Measures which correspond to the EU’s values, traditions, and increased global responsibilities? The question for Europe is the following: is the EU a community of destiny, a Schicksalsgemeinschaft, or is it but an instrumental association of national selfishness, where the blind choice of each man for himself clearly prevails over rising up to historical challenges? Does a common sense of belonging, based on strong common interests but also the commitment to stick together, still exist?
The forces of disintegration from the right and the extreme right, victorious with Brexit but temporarily defeated in the EP elections of 26 May, are here, ready for a renewed, relentless attack on both the euro and the EU. And this time round, these forces might even prove victorious, cynically taking advantage of the massive popular disconnection from the EU, caused partly by the enormous suffering endured during this health crisis and the social and economic tragedy that awaits us, but also by the political and moral inaction of the pro-European elites.
The European Parliament has clearly spoken out for a leap forward in European integration. The European Commission however, notwithstanding launching the great, visionary and identity-shaping project of the “Green Deal” in 2019, bears a great responsibility in the current stagnation. This is due to its lack of leadership, both in terms of the multiannual budget, and in proposing measures to manage this health crisis and its economic consequences.
Contrary to the 2012-2017 crisis, this crisis does not amount to an asymmetrical shock: it is symmetrical, affecting all countries, even if it currently strikes especially hard in the countries of the South, which already endured the most during the migratory crisis. A situation of exceptional emergence requires exceptional remedies.
The ECB’s decision to commit 750 billions euros to the bond market is important, but it is not decisive, as, during past crises of lesser gravity, the ECB engaged between 50 and 80 billions per month for several years. (Q.E). Moreover, the ECB cannot be expected to act alone: its measures must be accompanied by national and European policies. The suspension of the Stability Pact may enable national governments to respond to this emergence as they would “to a war”, in the words of Draghi (Financial Times): to finance the greatest efforts in saving our industry and our economy, which will then trickle down to the employment level.
But all this is dramatically insufficient in the face of dire needs and public deficits, which, in the context of the expected recession, will only increase with an estimated 2 to 5% of the GDP. It is therefore imperative that the EU combines an outpouring of anti-virus solidarity with concrete financial solidarity.
Why so little initiative and creativity within the EU institutions? Why such bureaucratic inertia? Political, symbolic and mediatized measures of solidarity would help enormously, particularly in a setting where only aid from China, Russia and Cuba appears to manifest itself!
The situation in the EU has never been more threatening, and political decisions can push millions of citizens towards Euroscepticism and nationalism with unpredictable consequences, as sadly demonstrated by the Hungarian case.
Indeed, reciprocal accusations are harsher than ever. On the one hand, the theme of the Dutch and German right of “moral hazard”: eurobonds, meaning the mutualization of national debts, would encourage immoral practices and budgetary laxity in indebted moral hazard countries. On the other hand, the Northern countries are accused, not only of lack of solidarity in a situation that sees almost 1000 deaths a day in Italy and Spain, rising social unrest and a significant breakthrough of the pandemic in France and Belgium, but furthermore, and most weightily, of wanting to take advantage of the looming financial crisis to enrich themselves and to change the balance of power in Europe. Getting rich? Yes, by the desire to attract global savings to national bonds. And by attracting the investments of multinationals, by means of tax dumping obtained by lowering corporate taxes. These reciprocal accusations no longer solely stem from European subcultures which enable the likes of Salvini, Wilder, Le Pen or AfD, but also resonate with the decisive central circles, with those who invested in the construction of Europe. These heavily mediatized reciprocal accusations, this collapse of trust, are upsetting even the most convinced Europeans, are bogging down the very core of the European consensus which has been painstakingly built the past 70 years. The damage to our democracies may soon become irreparable.
The European Council of 26 March failed miserably in the search for a compromise. More disastrous in fact, it delegated the search for a solution to the Eurogroup, even though the latter in turn just delegated this very matter to the former. A deadlock, which needs to be solved within the next few decisive days.
We are convinced that, not only within the 8 Member States whose governments have compiled and sent the letter for coronabonds to Charles Michel, but also in the public opinion of Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland, there is a broad consensus for:
(a) a negotiation on the conditions for crisis/emergency access to the ESM (the European Stability Mechanism comprising 430 thousand million euros), whose loans are now too conditional on the unacceptable placement under supervision of the Member State in crisis;
(b) the creation of a European group of qualified experts, who can propose urgent new instruments with all the necessary technical details. Granted, the 8 concerned states naturally must not focus on eurobonds as if these constitute the only viable solution, but on the underlying objective instead. However, the eurobonds proposal is rich in promises of efficiency (unity in the face of world markets) and symbolic (in the face of citizens). It thus cannot be dismissed as cheap propaganda altogether.
Thus, two important messages need to be sent:
1.The first message, one of hope, must truly speak to the ordinary citizen, to the peoples of Europe who are upset by the coronavirus crisis and worried about their future: the EU is here to help. It is facing this health, social and economic crisis head-on, with greater unity and a great economic and social recovery project.
2. The second message must be addressed to the world at large: the EU guarantees unity, strength and stability of the eurozone, ensuring our “common sovereignty” (dixit Macron) in the face of global markets and in the face of the powers that seek to divide and destroy the EU.
The EU bears a global responsibility to the human race. The US has underestimated the current pandemic, and its central administration has proven that it no longer holds the necessary political and moral authority to effectively coordinate the battle against the global coronavirus, nor to issue new economic policies needed during this period of primaries and in this phase of self-isolation. China on the other hand, is yielding its soft power. Its aid is welcome, but, in light of its responsibility for delays in lack of transparency about the disease and its victims, this country’s approach cannot serve as an example for the EU, as it de facto opposes efficiency and respect for the rights of the individual. India finds itself in a state of total chaos, whereas Brazil is held back by a strange president who has presented himself as the last in a sadly long line of pandemic deniers. Only the EU, in a context of multilateral cooperation, can successfully step in and pave the road for the management of this unprecedented health crisis and its social and economic consequences.
The time has come for a new European patriotism. New, because it absolutely needs to be rooted both in national communities remobilized on the theme of solidarity, as well as in transnational networks. The millions of committed citizens, volunteers, health workers and civil society voluntary associations, active in the fields of work essential for the survival of our society, come together as one: this is the solid human basis for a new phase of the idea of Europe, this is the way to link Europe’s core values to the technical and political capacity in an innovative way, this is how we offer the world a message of hope and strength against this unprecedented crisis.
Gesine Schwan, former President Viadrina University of Frankfurt and twice candidate for the Presidency of the German Federal Republic
Bertrand Badie, Sciences Politiques, Paris
Enrique Baron Crespo, former Spanish Minister, Spain, and President of the European Parliament
Ramona Coman, Professor and President IEE-ULB
Maurizio Cotta, Professor Université de Sienne
Biagio De Giovanni, former Rector of the Eastern University of Naples and Chairman of the EP Constitutional Affairs Committee
André Gerrits, University of Leyden,Netherlands
Christian Lequesne, Paris, Sciences Politiques, ancien directeur du CERI
Lucio Levi, University of Turin, director of The Federalist debate
Ferdinando Nelli Feroci, President of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) Rome
Ruth Rubio Marin, Professor at the European University Institute and the University of Seville and UNIA UNESCO Chair in Human Rights.
Thomas Meyer, Director ”Neue Gesellaschaft frankfurter Hefte”, Berlin
Leonardo Morlino, LUISS, Rome, former vice Rector
Anton Pelinka, Universität Innsbruck and CEU, Budapest
Maria Joao Rodrigues, former Portuguese Minister and FEPS President
Mario Telo’, professor at LUISS-Rome and IEE-ULB
Luk Van Langenhove, professor at Ihe Institute of European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Bussel, Brussels
Bruno Van Pottelsberghe, ULB Solvay business School
S. van Wijnbergen, University of Amsterdam, formerly Secretary General of the Ministry of Economic Affairs
Didier Viviers, Perpetual Secretary of the Royal Academy of Belgium
Michael Zurn, Professor at Freie University and Founding Director of the Hertie School in Berlin