Written by Beatriz CÓZAR MURILLO

Much has been said about the European Union since the COVID-19 virus broke out in the world, in Europe, and the lives of most citizens. Many isolated countries, substantial economic losses, loss of confidence in governments and institutions, and some consequences that are not yet visible because the world itself is in the middle of the turmoil.

The pandemic caused by COVID-19 is making it clear that some Member States only want economic cooperation and integration and not the political and social pillar, which is so necessary for everyone. It should not be overlooked that, within its capabilities, the European Union has responded as quickly as it could with the articulation of a triple safety net to deal with the situation at the economic level [1]. It is easy to say that the measures always come late, but the public must be mindful of the existing limitations. It means to coordinate the twenty-seven Member States, which are very different and have different cultures and economic, political, and social maturity.

Given all this and taking into account the scenarios proposed by Jean-Claude Juncker in the White Paper on the Future of Europe in 2017, in which one will the EU be moving towards 2025 when the pandemic subsides? It depends on the choice whether the Member States continue to opt, for example, for a multi-speed Europe or a “Europe à la carte, for fiscal integration and not just monetary integration or for preserving the four major guarantees enjoyed by citizens and economic agents as they have done up to now. This response should also cover whether the EU will be capable of continuing to make progress in areas such as the Common Foreign and Security Policy, which have always required unanimity.

This could continue for the time being, stating more questions than answers. Nevertheless, the European Union has gone through recent experiences, and this allows the European community to be positive because it is expected that something has been learned from the refugee crisis or the economic crisis of 2008.

There is no doubt that each State independently cannot overcome a crisis that is not national but shared with many countries. In this case, even more so, because it is a global challenge in which all States must show what they are made of. Although it is true that at times like this, the worst or what no one would want to see from its country or its leaders is coming out. This refers to the selfishness, lack of generosity, or merely the absence of empathy that has been seen above all in the Euro group meetings by letting the North-South divide prevail. So, what is the point of the EU being the world’s largest aid donor if it cannot get its Member States to put aside their differences in national interests to help those in need?

Jacques Delors himself denounced on March 28th that the inability of States to show solidarity is “a mortal danger to the European project” [3]. These words were accompanied by those of the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, who warned that “without solidarity, links and reasons for being together are going to fall apart.”

This vision may seem downright pessimistic, but reality cannot be denied. This virus has meant that life, as it was known, has been shaken to the core, and nothing can be taken for granted. Even well-known organizations and entities, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) or the International Monetary Fund (IMF), are not exempt from feeling this sway.

So, when something does not work, return to the basics, to the roots, to the essence would be helpful. In this case, it would be a return to the values that fostered the construction of the EU 70 years ago in Robert Schuman’s oft-quoted declaration:

“Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”

This does not mean that it should not reinvent itself. Just as the internal rules of each State evolve in line with the maturity and growth of society, the EU must evolve by ceasing to be the so-called European project. This will involve trying to articulate real strategies to combat problems that are either not of the year 2020 but have been in the shadow of the Institutions for years. This applies equally to challenges and threats that are emerging this year or will emerge in the short term.

Furthermore, one of these challenges or threats is the detachment of citizens from European issues. This subject must be addressed when this storm passes if the EU is not to add to the much-feared loss of credibility. A recent example is found in the European Commission’s strategy to combat disinformation, which shows that some steps are being taken in the right direction. This fight against disinformation is also considered necessary by other leaders. António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, stated a few days ago that “the global ‘misinfo-demic’ is spreading” and that “the world must unite against this disease, too” [4].

Another example is the youth associations that have been emerging at the dawn of the EU’s development in recent years precisely to promote the work and added value of the Union. For instance, the rapid emergence and development of Equipo Europa in Spain in the context of the European Parliament’s “This Time I’m Voting” campaign in 2019. This is also a way of reclaiming the role of youth in the decision-making process as this group is the direct recipient of a vast majority of measures.

Likewise, work must continue on the priorities of the European Commission and the Presidency of the Council of the Union for this new legislature. That includes the adoption of a new budget with more funds taking into account the current situation [5]. All this without forgetting that none of the problems or challenges the EU already had before the pandemic have suddenly disappeared. Climate change, new geopolitical tensions, the migration phenomenon, or the need to improve neighbourly relations with the Western Balkans are just a few examples.

Given this situation, the impetus of the “Conference on the Future of Europe” is more necessary than ever. Before proposing a new reform of the Treaties, the EU and its Member States have to acknowledge where they are going without forgetting where they come from. However, if one thing is sure is that if the economic crisis, the refugee crisis or the Brexit seemed to be turning points in the European Union, today they can be seen as no more than the prelude to the real turning point and a great challenge that has come with the current pandemic.

The political philosopher John Gray has said that the crisis of the COVID-19 is a crossroads that will lead to the farewell to the era of the apogee of globalization. Notwithstanding this approach, according to this author, this shall not prevent that “a new, more fragmented world is being born, which in some ways may be more resilient.”

For all these reasons, today more than ever, the word that is repeated more than twenty times in the EU Global Strategy (EUGS) of 2016 should now acquire its full meaning [7]. The term in question is the word “resilience.” In the last decades, both the European Institutions and European society itself have not been exempt from different challenges and crises, albeit the EU has reinforced its ability to cope with and thrive despite difficulties and pessimistic views. 

As has been noted, for the EU, “resilience” is not and an end in itself, but a process that ensures development and from which the EU, in turn, feeds [8]. In this regard, several examples can be cited of how the EU’s ability to cope with shocks has enabled progress to be made in the aftermath of crises and even to delve into full integration or differentiated integration. Probably, the most notable example is the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 when the EU was in the throes of the economic and financial crisis. Also, in response to the crisis itself, the European Stability Mechanism was created in 2012 to cope with the problem of sovereign debt. Without going any further, the EUGS is an example in itself, as it was adopted around the day the United Kingdom decided to leave the EU. 

Thus, this capacity to recover from the adversity projected in the truly appropriate policies and strategies would lead the EU towards a real strengthening and consolidation of its credibility and its role as a global actor. 

To conclude, it should be emphasized part of the statement of the High Representative and Commission Vice-President Josep Borrell [9] which summarizes what has been expressed in these lines:

“COVID-19 will reshape our world. We don’t yet know when the crisis will end. But we can be sure that by the time it does, our world will look very different. How different will depend on the choices we make today.”


References

[1] Council of the European Union, “Report on the comprehensive economic policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic”, April 9th 2020. Available on: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/es/press/press-releases/2020/04/09/report-on-the-comprehensive-economic-policy-response-to-the-covid-19-pandemic/

[2] European Commission, “White paper on the future of Europe”, COM (2017) 2025, 1st March 2017. Available on: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/future-europe/white-paper-future-europe_en

[3] Wieder, T. et al., “Coronavirus: les divisions de l’Union européenne la placent face à un «danger mortel»”, Le Monde, April 1st 2020. Available on: https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2020/04/01/coronavirus-les-divisions-de-l-union-europeenne-la-placent-face-a-un-danger-mortel_6035118_3210.html

[4] António Guterres, “Communication This is a time for science and solidarity”, 14th April 2020. Available on: https://www.un.org/en/un-coronavirus-communications-team/time-science-and-solidarity

[5] Euronews, “EU Commission to revise its budget proposal in light of COVID-19 crisis”, March 28th 2020. Available on: https://www.euronews.com/2020/03/28/eu-commission-to-revise-its-budget-proposal-in-light-of-covid-19-crisis

[6] Gray, J., “Adiós globalización, empieza un mundo nuevo. O por qué esta crisis es un punto de inflexión en la historia”, El País, April 12th 2020. Available on: https://elpais.com/ideas/2020-04-11/adios-globalizacion-empieza-un-mundo-nuevo.html 

[7] European External Action Service, “Shared vision, common action. A stronger Europe: a global strategy for the European Union’s foreign and security policy”, June 2016. Available on:  http://eeas.europa.eu/archives/docs/top_stories/pdf/eugs_review_web.pdf

[8] Pontijas Calderón, J. L. “El concepto de resiliencia de la OTAN y en la UE: espacio para la cooperación”, Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos, Documento de Análisis 65/2017, October 31st 2017. Available on: http://www.ieee.es/contenido/noticias/2017/10/DIEEEA65-2017.html

[9] European External Action Service, “The Coronavirus pandemic and the new world it is creating”, March 23rd 2020. Available on: https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/76379/coronavirus-pandemic-and-new-world-it-creating_en