The past two weeks have seen a rapid intensification of the Corona-situation in the EU and many European citizens have witnessed drastic measures being taken by their respective governments. Once again, EU-countries have not been quick to respond to a situation that could have been anticipated latest by the end of January. Unlike the EU-countries, the hybrid-democracies further east took swift and decisive action in a matter of days. Which observations and conclusions can therefore be drawn at this time?
1. Humanism’s comeback
EU political leaders have (in many cases quite justifiably) had to cope with the allegations of saving banks instead of protecting citizens’ lives during the 2008 financial crisis. In early 2020 we can observe an entirely different situation: Hesitantly at first, a number of governments have begun to shut down public life to a degree never seen before during peace time, taking into account the most severe economic consequences. Besides heavily affected Italy, France, and Spain, where these measures represent more or less a desperate ultima ratio attempt to contain a public health worst case scenario, less affected countries such as Switzerland and Austria have resorted to the same steps, in order to protect their citizens. Since then, more and more countries that were initially reluctant, have resorted to similar drastic measures.
Although it may appear pointless to discuss whether or not this is a comeback of European Humanism, we are nevertheless left with the atypical and powerful images that are not going to fade away soon: EU leaders have hamstrung their soaring economies in order halt the advance of COVID-19 and to protect their people.
2. Who should we help now?
An entire generation of political leaders in the post-2008-era has learned to effectively avoid taking responsibility for actions by blaming practical constraints and inherent necessities, a method that has, among other things, promoted the rise of right-wing populism. Besides Donald Trump, the undisputed master in this discipline, many younger EU leaders have also begun giving first-rate performances in playing the political blame game.
Yet, with their handling of COVID-19, Sebastian Kurz and the likes of him have maneuvered themselves into a position they will not be able to get out of without making and communicating some real old-school decisions. It is becoming more and more apparent that normalization after COVID-19 will not be achievable following a beaten path. New ways and solutions have to be created. A generation of (particularly conservative) political opportunists has a massive amount of true pioneer’s work ahead.
The current state of the economy puts conservative leaders in a more difficult position than social democrats, the latter feeling much more at ease with large-scale state intervention for struggling economies. The sheer magnitude of the challenge to be tackled can be a game changer. There is a real chance for a Green New Deal, as laid out repeatedly by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. The EU needs to make an immense effort to sustainably reduce its climate-gas-emissions, it has to push itself out of the economic recession, or even depression, it is barreling towards. As if this weren’t already enough, a fresh approach is urgently needed to finish off the last remains of the 2008-crisis (one that was dealt with fairly well by the EU, according to the assessments of most current observers).
3. COVID-19 – A chance for a better, greener Europe?
Finally, one should think of the people that have kept up surprisingly well so far, such as the terribly affected Italians, who have proven disciplined, optimistic, and resilient especially when the full brunt of the disaster finally hit. At the same time
COVID-19 is going to change the mindsets of Europeans and those living in Europe.
What if the consumer in the world’s largest consumer market – the EU – finally realizes in mid-2020 that his consumer days are over, as a consequence of the massive collective experience he is undergoing in the largest quarantine in world history? For the majority of Europeans not affected by the virus directly, the situation has brought the weird yet interesting insight that life without all of the usual commodities is not only possible but often far from unpleasant.
4. PS: US presidential election 2020
COVID-19 is going to affect the outcome of the upcoming US presidential election. If it does takes place, the virus will have a tremendous impact on the first half of the 2020s in the US. Let’s put it this way: Trumps chances for a second term have not improved in the course of the past ten days.
Conclusions and recommendations
Appropriate responses to the current situation need to come from an EU level, since merely a few weeks into the crisis, nation-state action has already reached its limits. Once again, the EU needs to act as a union, and it can draw on the experiences made during the 2008 financial crisis.
With a Green Deal in the drawer and proven institutions ready to act, the EU could prove to the world that it is up to the task and ready to transform itself into the greener and more equal continent it strives to be, an opportunity that should not be missed.
Wolfgang Göderle is a postdoctoral researcher at the History Department at the University of Graz. A specialist in modern history of knowledge, environment and technology, he is currently working on a history of infrastructure in Habsburg Central Europe between c. 1800 and 2000.