Manhattan Institute

Will We Meet Again?

The Covid-19 crisis is testing European unity to the breaking point.

He may not have had a pandemic in mind, but Jean Monnet, the late founding father of Euro federalism, saw supranationalist opportunity in fraught times such as these. “Europe will be forged in crisis and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises,” he said in 1976.

Another architect of the European project, former European Commission President Jacques Delors, painted a gloomier picture recently. In a rare public statement, the 94-year-old Frenchman warned that in the age of coronavirus, “the climate that seems to reign among heads of state and government and the lack of European solidarity pose a mortal danger to the European Union.”

You don’t need to share Delors’s federalism to agree with his assessment of the continent’s response to Covid-19, which is testing European unity to the breaking point. A pandemic is exactly the sort of thing that should necessitate greater European cooperation. Global challenges demand cross-border cooperation; national sovereignty is an anachronism in the age of globalization, mass migration, big tech, and climate change. Or so we’ve been told. The arrival of a borderless challenge, and perhaps the most acute crisis that the European Union has ever faced, has exposed the hollowness of these views.

Far from demonstrating the merits of pooled sovereignty, Covid-19 has so far reestablished the power of Europe’s national governments. Borders have gone up across the bloc, and the continent’s response to the virus is defined by variety, rather than unity. Sweden opted for a lax approach; Emmanuel Macron deployed the Napoleonic resources of France’s administrative state; Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán exploited the pandemic for an outrageous constitutional power grab; and Germany tested its way into a position of comparative strength. In cases where national responses resemble one another, it’s because policymakers happened to alight on the same set of measures, not because of any sort of cooperation. Britain’s newfound freedom has proved neither an advantage nor a disadvantage in relation to Covid-19.

The level of frustration at the lack of a coordinated European response was underscored yesterday, when Mauro Ferrari resigned as president of the European Research Council. The EU’s top scientist said that he was “extremely disappointed” by the European response to the coronavirus. “I arrived at the ERC a fervent supporter of the EU,” he told the Financial Times, but “the Covid-19 crisis completely changed my views, though the ideals of international collaboration I continue to support with enthusiasm.”

If you want to know how much solidarity is on offer from Brussels, ask the Italians. Nowhere is frustration with the EU more keenly felt than in the West’s first coronavirus hotspot. In late February, the Italian government requested assistance from other EU member states. When the EU commission activated the Civil Protection Mechanism, the formal means by which such assistance is sought, Italy’s neighbors failed to heed the call. More support has been forthcoming only in recent weeks, with member states lifting bans on medical-supply exports. Nonetheless, to most Italians, Covid-19 makes a hat-trick of recent crises that have exposed the sizable gap between rhetoric and reality on EU cooperation. First a debt crisis, then a migrant crisis, now a public-health crisis. According to a recent poll, 72 percent of Italians believe that the EU hasn’t contributed in any way to the fight against Covid-19. Before the coronavirus crisis hit, Italian trust in the EU stood at 34 percent. Now the figure sits at just 25 percent.

Beyond concrete policy responses, the crisis has also exposed the emptiness of the shared European identity that Brussels sought to forge over the years with a flag, an anthem, “citizenship,” and other gimmicks. During these trying times, Europeans have turned not to Brussels but to national leaders, including the continent’s remaining monarchs. To some, this is just evidence of how much work remains. You can hear the echoes of Monnet in the prominent federalist Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt as he describes the opportunity he sees in the crisis: “We should use this crisis to forge a more united and stronger Europe. We’re starting this struggle from an economically and structurally disadvantaged position. If we’re to overcome this storm together, it has to be as one union—not 27 individual countries.”

The best hope of Covid-19 moving the EU toward an “ever closer Union” is on the economic front, where calls for so-called coronabonds—issued by a European institution, backed by all member states, and used to fund spending on an individual member-state level—have some momentum. Even here, though, resistance is considerable. The divide between the continent’s needy south and frugal north—exposed during the last economic crisis—appears unchanged. A coordinated European economic response, with or without coronabonds, is yet to materialize. Advocates of coronabonds argue that this time is different, not least because the coronavirus is essentially an Act of God, not a consequence of member-states’ past mistakes. Indeed, German newspapers that stoutly opposed generosity toward insolvent Mediterranean states a decade ago are more sympathetic today. For the time being, however, European governments are in a stalemate.

In addition to persuading member states to deliver on economic solidarity, the federalists also need to demonstrate the EU’s worth as a guarantor of liberal democracy. Now that Orbán has used the coronavirus to award himself the power to rule by decree indefinitely, we will soon discover how effective the EU is at preserving the freedoms that it claims to hold dear. The mechanisms in place to do so are about to be tested like never before.

It’s dangerous to see the coronavirus as the complete vindication or repudiation of any particular worldview. The pandemic has exposed weaknesses and strengths in all sorts of approaches to government. For all the EU’s failures to rise to the Covid-19 challenge, it may yet prove to be the sort of crisis that Monnet predicted, from which a new, more centralized Europe emerges. But Europe’s federalists face two entangled uncertainties. The first is whether they can exploit Covid-19 to pool sovereignty more deeply in Brussels. The second is whether that new Europe is something that would command the support of the continent’s people.

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