Turning the Page on the (Post) Pandemic Debate
In the EU, we do not do things in moments, we do them in processes. Next Generation EU could be the start of an ambitious, Hamiltonian process of guided recovery.’
‘No one in their right mind could make a credible argument that we can get through this alone.’
The debate regarding COVID-19 in Europe is currently shifting from the initial phase dominated by health concerns to a phase very much focused on mitigating the socio-economic effects of the pandemic, the full extent of which we are only just beginning to understand. Accompanying this shift is the EU getting its act together - the widely criticized initial silence and lack of coordinated action on anything from providing medical support to border management has given way to an ambitious, all-encompassing recovery plan, built not just on the principle of European solidarity, but also on a realisation of just how monumental this crisis is for EU’s present and future. This feeling has not yet echoed across Europe, however. Italy becoming the symbol of helplessness and systemic weakness in the early days of the pandemic mobilised Central and Eastern European countries into adopting strict lockdown measures ultimately responsible for their success in battling the first wave of the virus. However, it also gave populist politicians in the region the opportunity to strengthen their hold on power by pointing out that whilst the Western countries might be more globalized and prosperous when it comes to the real Armageddon, there is nothing better than the local strongman. The region is ridden by cultural wars between liberalism and conservatism, which exacerbates anti-Western tendencies; this combined with the fact that EU is often seen just as a source of income and a key culprit in the blame game, rather than a community that the CEE is a part of poses a problem. Nonetheless, if political convergence is achieved through this process of guided recovery, it could lead to a socio-economic convergence too, to the benefit of all.
Next Generation EU – will the proof be in the pudding this time?
‘European Union is not Father Christmas – it is not there to just give out presents. Our gains come from coming together, building a trust-based relationship through reforms, and mutualising risk. We all have to do our homework if we want to be better off.’
Unlike the previous crises’ response, Next Generation EU is firmly tied to EU’s long-term strategic priorities, especially in the realms of digital and green technology and transition, and as such, it is tied to an ambitious Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). The EU proposal gives cause for optimism, as it is about quality as much as quantity. The amount of money on the table, in loans and grants, is phenomenal; the level of German generosity is unprecedented. However, beyond enabling immediate post-pandemic recovery, it also dusts off old debates that could lead to greater integration, as the money is to be channelled through programs and thus will be conditioned on reforms and adherence to long-term political priorities. In the South, the governments have their priorities straight in that they will try to push the bar higher, hoping to come to a reasonable compromise. However, the public and parliamentary debate is rather parochial and provincial. Getting stuck on issues such as the European Stability Mechanism sucks the energy out of the important debate, which then weakens governments’ negotiating position. Central and Eastern European states are even less connected to the debates on the EU’s future. According to Jakub Wisniewski, these countries will at best put in place tentative measures to secure the necessary funds. He also cautioned against using the financial instruments to enforce the rule of law. Though as Nathalie Tocci rightly pointed out, it is everyone’s interest that the EU Member States should be rule-based liberal democracies, cracking down on expenditure that flows directly into the communities might turn CEE citizens away from the EU.
Conference on the Future of Europe – old divides, new narratives
‘Conference on the Future of Europe provides an opportunity to tell a different story to the one that came out of the Eurozone and migration crises – if we get the policy right.’
Engaging the public more broadly is a great opportunity, but the concept needs to be re-thought and the work must be done, otherwise, the exercise could only lead to further public estrangement from the EU. The question of whether this can lead to a Treaty Change is a tricky one. In 2003-2004, such process was seen as a conspiracy of elites imposing a federalist idea on people whose lives were extremely local and national. This time around we do not even have the luxury of pro-EU governments wanting to steer this process in the right direction, so a Treaty Change is rather unlikely. However, the pandemic made it plain just how thin the layer of EU integration is – it only takes one or two decisions to (temporarily) restrict or even dismantle Schengen and the Single Market. Can citizens be made to see matters in the European context, or will they stick to a national perspective? The endpoint of a potential Treaty Change needs to be preceded by a process in which the public will be re-engaged and re-enamoured with the EU.
EU’s global role-taking centre stage in a hostile world?
‘The public attitudes towards actors such as Russia or China are based on the filling a space that was left open – if the EU does things right, we do not need to worry about public support.’
The importance of EU having its act together internally is more important than ever because of a hostile global environment, characterised by an increasingly ideological, rather than just economic rivalry between the China and the US, with the latter notably missing in action. Though the EU is taking many positive steps to strengthen its internal resilience, it is fundamental that it lifts its gaze up, turns its intellectual awareness of the global situation into a political resolve and takes its place in preventing the dismantling of multilateralism and the push for more regional globalisation. The EU also needs to take responsibility for its neighbourhood, especially Africa. Strengthening multilateral institutions is something that is in the EU’s DNA and we have the resources to do so too. EU’s foreign policy stance is important, not as a theoretical policy, but as a strong coalition of the willing and able. The journey has only just begun, internally and externally, but the need and potential for the EU to come of this more resilient and confident is certainly there if national and European institutions work together on the tasks that lie ahead of us.
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