Tim King writes POLITICO‘s Brussels Sketch.
The European Union is in retreat. What successive generations of Euroskeptics tried but failed to achieve is now happening: The EU is being rolled back. The Union that in recent years has withstood successive crises over the single currency, migration and Brexit is now rocked to its core by coronavirus.
The rallying cry from European Council President Charles Michel — that COVID-19 requires “more Europe” — is familiar but wrong. It flies in the face of what is actually happening: a hasty dismantling of what took decades of painstaking negotiation to construct.
But there’s reason to believe that there’s something else going on — that this period of retreat and restraint might eventually come to be seen as a moment at which the EU took an important step toward becoming a more sophisticated and mature political authority.
Granted, that’s not how things look right now. The most visible example of how the EU is fragmenting is the imposition of travel restrictions. COVID-19 has transformed the EU’s cherished single market into a health risk. The advantages of the Schengen area of border-free travel have become threats.
The ideal of intra-EU solidarity has hardly been burnished by the sight of Italy and Belgium relying on donations of masks from China.
What started with a so-called red zone in northern Italy is fast becoming the norm throughout much of the European continent. Germany closes its borders. France and Belgium confine their citizens to their homes, with only limited exceptions. The European Commission, struggling to catch up, has proposed restrictions on the EU’s external borders.
Another instance of how the niceties of the EU’s single market are no match for COVID-19 has been the provision of medical supplies. National governments, worried that they might run out of equipment such as masks and clothing, rushed to announce export controls.
Belatedly, the European Commission has begun coordinating the possibility of shared procurement — which in principle ought to help smaller countries increase their muscle in the marketplace. But the ideal of intra-EU solidarity has hardly been burnished by the sight of Italy and Belgium relying on donations of masks from China.
Growth through crisis
Such fragmentation conforms with what has long been an axiom of European politics: that the EU doesn’t have the wherewithal to respond to crises. It is the national governments that have the instruments of crisis management: armies, emergency services, hospitals, national banks, and, according to their individual constitutional structures, the right to take upon themselves emergency powers.
What EU officials like Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen can do to respond to COVID-19 is only a pale imitation of what national leaders can do. On Tuesday, Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, announced a €45 billion injection into the economy and guarantee for bank loans up to €300 billion. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced a €200 billion aid package, including €117 billion from public funds.
The truth is, however, that the EU is no longer as marginal in times of crisis as it once was. In the course of a series of convulsions over the last 15 years — the banking crisis, Greece’s membership of the eurozone, the migration crisis and Brexit — the EU was obliged to respond to unpredictable events in ways that had previously been impossible. In doing so, it developed a certain authority in times of crisis.
That’s the argument advanced by Luuk van Middelaar, a Dutch academic who had a ringside seat as a speechwriter for Herman Van Rompuy, the first full-time president of the European Council, from 2010 to 2014. He has since won acclaim for his observations on recent EU history, published in Dutch in 2017 and then last year in English as “Alarums and Excursions.”
In this book, van Middelaar argues that the EU has to move from “a system based purely on the politics of rules to a system that can also engage in the politics of events.” The institutions of the EU had been equipped to construct and run a market, but they were unprepared to act when history failed to run along predictable lines.
Van Middelaar’s thesis is that “under the pressure of crises, leadership is being improvised, new political players are appearing onstage and forms of governmental power are emerging.”
The EU turns out — at least in a crisis — to have a supreme authority at its disposal, expressed principally through declarations made at EU summits. The EU is now recognized by its citizens as having a duty to protect them — from, for example, the existential threats of Brexit and of U.S. President Donald Trump’s isolationism.
In the past, the Commission would have insisted that events comply with the rules. Today, the technocrats are asked to make the rules adapt to events.
Van Middelaar argues that the EU will be politically mature when it has political leaders who walk onto a European stage and are ready to explain their decisions as choices freely made, rather than technocratic obligations.
Throwing out the rule book
Van Middelaar’s argument is particularly intriguing at this moment, not just because Europe — and indeed the world — is in the grip of a crisis par excellence, but also because the EU is responding to COVID-19 by relinquishing its self-defining attachment to rules.
Five senior European Commission managers lined up last week to explain how they were relaxing the obligation on member countries to comply with EU rules. Public spending to cope with COVID-19 will be exempt from the strictures of the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact, which sets limits on government deficits and debt.
The rules on state aid — spending public money to assist industrial sectors or individual companies — are similarly being relaxed, and this relaxation is even permitted for companies that have previously been allowed money on a “one time, last time” condition.
Meanwhile, the Commission is proposing to release regional aid money that was to have been clawed back from national government because they had not complied with EU rules. The various obligations — to spend it on approved projects and programs, matched by an element of national funding, within a certain period of time — are being set to one side.
What this indicates is that the EU is not simply in retreat: It’s much more nuanced than that. But the Commission is at least temporarily relaxing its devotion to rules. In the past, the Commission would have insisted that events comply with the rules. Today, the technocrats are asked to make the rules adapt to events.
No one knows the course that COVID-19 will take or what the long-term effects will be on the global economy. Nor, therefore, can we predict the effects of this crisis on the EU. In the short term, at least, this event is so painful and so immediate that the response must be led by local and national politicians.
The EU seems to have understood that it should at the very least avoid doing harm. But the experience may be more transformative than that. It is not inconceivable that we might look back on this as a moment when the EU took a significant step from a rules-based club to a community of values.