The Coronavirus crisis may signal the beginning of the end of the European integration project. But it could be the springboard for a more robust and united Europe.
It is too early to estimate in what ways our lives, and Europe, will change in the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic. However, the first reaction of the EU was feeble, to say the least, resulting in lack of cooperation and little coordination, exposing the union at its worst, not only in the health sector.
Overall, national policy, politics and interests have prevailed over solidarity and desperately needed, united, rapid response. Yet again, Brussels generated long deliberations and largely dysfunctional bureaucratic practices. Unless the EU will be ready to exercise some “harsher soft power” in order to live up to its own standards, regain dignity and control, it may not survive as the union to serve the world we want to live in.
The 2009 debt crisis, the 2015 immigration crisis that followed Syria’s civil war, and Brexit now look like a prelude to what awaits Brussels. External competition and internal detraction from the growingly popular periphery looms overhead.
Damage imposed by Europe’s external challengers, first and foremost, embattled, dictatorial Russia and illiberal China, can be deflected as long as the EU remains united from within. Russia’s systematic interference via secretive and sophisticated public opinion campaigns, China’s purchasing power over Europe, and even Arab Gulf oil giants' purchasing pieces of Europe, can be contained if the union chooses life.
However, internal foes can expedite corrosion of unity and peace within the continent. Old Europe hasn’t yet given way to the new, as isolationism and racism provide fertile breeding grounds for illiberal leadership in Germany, France, Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere throughout Europe. Populists blame foreigners and minorities in spreading the disease- Germany’s AFD, France’s Le Pen and Hungary’s Orban. The latter has recently taken dictatorial-like powers, brutally suppressing the Opposition which was forced to relinquish the remains of Hungary’s short-lived democracy.
Dangerous leaders reinforce their power bases by seizing cynical and vicious aspects of the crisis, fuelling flames of hatred. Less than eight decades after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, European Jews are again targeted, as antisemitism raises its ugly head. If European leaders who enjoy the fruits of the union continue to manipulate and exploit Brussels’ soft handedness and systematically evade corporate obligations, the Coronavirus crisis will accelerate the EU’s disintegration process.
It may not be politically correct to articulate, but the EU now has a rare opportunity to show its muscle. While legally Brussels cannot remove members from the EU, even if they are making a mockery of EU values and abuse the democratic system only to destroy it from within, it can employ a multitude of policies to weaken and eventually replace leaders acting contrary to Europe’s core values. Cancelling voting rights and exerting strong sanctions can help starve and eliminate extremist political parties.
Some member states with populist regimes are now exposed in their most vulnerable weakness. They are failing in managing the Coronavirus pandemic and require external support. This is not a coincidence because populism often produces quick-fix and inadequate responses, rather than complex, and sometimes unpopular, but more effective, lasting strategies.
The EU must act cold-bloodedly and provide preferential assistance to those leaders who advance and support its core values. It will be a hard measure to take, but conditioning medical assistance to countries with regimes systematically breaching European values, should be considered. Ironically, such hard measures, and an overall real-politic will earn Europe long lost trust and respect among those who traditionally vote against the soft-spoken and consensus-driven EU.
The world needs a Europe in which public investment increases and EU ways of doing business are predominant. As with the aftermath of armed conflicts, it is fine for Europe’s mainstream governments to remind citizens who takes care of their security, safety and health, even if that requires playing some hardball. A Europe that abolishes autocratic, antisemitic, and xenophobic political forces will be safer and better to live in, and a valued global partner.
If the EU can strengthen and consolidate ranks, remove undemocratic elements, and stand behind the values on which it was established, it will survive, and even thrive.