Op-Ed: How responding to COVID-19 is the EU’s golden opportunity

Monday, July 20, 2020 - 4:23pm

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Over the course of the past six months, the COVID-19 crisis has reshaped politics, economics and culture around the world, drastically influencing major institutions. Significant political figures, from Jair Bolsonaro to Boris Johnson to Jacinda Ardern, have either enhanced or marred both their personal reputations and those of their respective nations through their approaches to the pandemic. However, the response to the pandemic presents a generation-defining moment for one oft-overlooked entity: the European Union. The EU’s response to this crisis will play an outsize role in setting its trajectory for decades to come, forcing the bloc to make decisions about its identity and the role its constituent nations wish it to play in European affairs. After shying away from questions about its true purpose as an organization for years, the EU now has a golden opportunity: Responding to COVID-19 in a cooperative, comprehensive and competent manner will give the EU the boost it needs to truly strengthen its position as a supranational confederation and further integration, allowing it to more effectively strengthen democracy, ensure economic development and promote its values across the continent. 

Although Brexit has attracted more headlines over the past several years than any other EU-related development, its impact on the EU’s future and identity are actually quite limited. Britain was never truly essential to the EU’s European project: It joined the European Economic Community, which later became the European Union, in 1973. This occurred later than most of its western European counterparts, and it consistently attempted to maintain a certain level of sovereign independence (for instance, it refused to adopt the Euro as its currency). 

Instead, several events over the course of the past 15 years have effectively pushed the EU into a gray zone where it is more integrated than a typical economic union, but simultaneously lacks the power to make any meaningful political decisions, placing it in a supranational limbo. The first major event in this narrative was the EU’s failure to further political integration through the creation of a European constitution; in 2005, French and Dutch voters rejected the idea (the EU eventually enacted a watered-down version, the Treaty of Lisbon). Next came the emergence of illiberalism and democratic backsliding in Eastern European nations such as Hungary and Poland in the second half of the 2010s, which has directly challenged the EU’s assertion that it can effectively promote democratization and productively influence national politics. Lastly, the EU’s initial response to COVID-19 was, in a word, shambolic: The bloc’s claim to be a “union” was temporarily obliterated as EU members shut their borders and began to compete against each other for medical resources. 

However, in the months since the EU’s initial response, political leaders have begun to grasp how the pandemic could serve to expand the scope of the European Project and meaningfully advance integration in a positive and productive manner. Although the short-term ramifications of the pandemic are disastrous, it has allowed the EU to evaluate its identity and opened the door for meaningful long-term restructuring. In response to the economic concerns stemming from the pandemic, France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel have spearheaded a plan which would allow the EU’s member states to take on collective debt, similar to Alexander Hamilton’s idea of creating a national debt for the United States. Although this plan is unlikely to pass in its current form and will certainly be distilled, it represents the type of big-picture thinking the EU must continue to engage in to strengthen and legitimize itself as an entity. 

In addition to expanding its boundaries as an economic union, responding to the pandemic also presents a golden opportunity for the EU to strengthen its relatively weak powers over European politics in the name of supporting democracy. One of the primary opponents of the collective debt plan, the Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte, has pointed out that the EU’s bailout funds could effectively finance democratic backsliding by providing financial support to illiberal leaders and parties. In this regard, Rutte’s fears are well-placed: Despite the EU declaring democracy one of its core values, it has failed to actually uphold this value within its constituent nations. The EU’s toothless responses to Poland’s Law and Justice Party and Hungary’s Fidesz has allowed both parties to continually attack their respective nation’s political structures, eroding democracy in both countries and pointing to the EU’s inability to actually influence politics and promote its own values. 

Despite the fact that Merkel, Macron and Rutte disagree about the decision to create a collective EU debt, each demonstrates how responding to this crisis has offered the EU a valuable opportunity to expand and better itself going forward. By thinking bigger, both politically and economically, the EU can further integrate and allow its constituent states to reap more benefits than they already do. By creating a collective debt, it can more effectively leverage the economic strength of its constituent nations, making it a more formidable financial power. 

Additionally, the EU should work to further political integration in order to more effectively promote democracy. For instance, the EU could enact regulations to prevent independent media and press from being co-opted by the state for political purposes (as has happened in Hungary): create more thorough baseline standards for what constitutes free and fair elections and pass more exhaustive laws protecting women, ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ people across the bloc as a whole. In order to do this, the EU must use its financial clout, as Rutte suggested, to incentivize democratization and deter illiberalism. This can be done by tying the EU’s distribution of funds — which is currently apolitical and based purely on economic parameters — to politics: Nations (and their respective ruling parties) receive more funding if they actively work to improve or maintain democratic institutions, and lose funding if they work to undercut democracy or promote authoritarianism. 

Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the world, forcing institutions to adapt to new circumstances and reshape themselves accordingly. For the EU, it could serve as a transitional moment, allowing the bloc to build up political will and create a new identity. If it responds to this crisis correctly, the EU and its member states could look back on this moment as the foundation of a more integrated and perfect union. 

Zack Blumberg is a junior in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu.