“Life in Europe will change fundamentally”, Austrian Minister of Health Rudolf Anschober predicted in mid-March in respect of the looming corona pandemic. In noticing all leads at hand, one might indeed jump to this conclusion. And yet, there are reasons for doubt. Many points, five of which outlined hereafter, unveil to which great extent path dependency applies. We thus witness nothing but a great acceleration of previously existing trends within the EU triggered by the pandemic’s outbreak. It remains to be seen whether this is positive or negative. Either way, it makes frequently invoked post-corona times much more predictable.
United? In Diversity!
Since the pandemic, as the name has it, reached out to everyone, each EU member state is busier with itself than with pointing fingers at others. This allowed all countries, in regional patterns, some remarkable steps, more or less hidden in the flood of corona news. Starting with the east, Hungary de-democratizes. Further, one should add, as Orbán’s authoritarian attitude already flared earlier. The situation proves similar in Poland. Moreover, it must have surprised little if any observers that it was eastern states like the Czech Republic acting most rigorously in closing borders. As for the north, especially the Netherlands, Austria and Germany opposed so-called corona bonds, which would help especially the southern states. Thinking of Greek’s financial situation not too long ago, memories awake. Speaking of which, healthcare systems are worse in the south than elsewhere on European average, partly explaining why Italy and Spain were hit so badly. The reasons for that are manifold and evolved over decades.
Looking to the west, one might forgive counting the UK one last time as EU-ropean, for that first beginnings of Sars-CoV-2 reached Europe when Great Britain was still in our midst. One could think that Boris Johnson learnt his lesson most personally after being infected himself. While he surely did so in taking the virus’s extent seriously, it is remarkable how nationalist he remains. Acknowledging himself that it was most prominently two foreign nurses helping him recover, hopes for a word of European, let alone international solidarity in his speech are deceived. Instead, he refers no less than 20 times in five minutes to the national narrative (“our NHS”, “this country”). The EU’s favorite non-word of the previous years – Brexit – indicates these convictions are rooted earlier than some weeks ago.
Of Nationalism and Nation State-ism
One might dismiss this as nothing but nationalism. But that would fall short. When action was urgently needed in response to the spread of the virus, every single EU member state acted by its own. No government bothered to ask Brussels for advice, let alone permission. Yet, tendencies towards unilateralism on the global stage and an increasingly stagnating European integration process existed long before coronavirus. Statistically speaking, every 2.8 years a new member state accessed the EU. In the last 15 years, though, only three countries were welcomed. That almost doubles the period for candidate countries to join.
Forever and A Day
Apropos taking a long time, the EU was heavily criticized for being a mere bystander when the virus severely started spreading all over the continent. While Brussels now is trying a lot in terms of coordination and agenda setting, the union indeed had little if anything to say in the first place. Once again, however, it is not unprecedented in the organization’s history that it took decision-makers a (very) long time to come to mutual agreements. Au contraire, it became almost the EU’s special trait to get lost in its own overly bureaucratic decision-making processes, a complaint voiced by many.
Money Makes the Continent Go Round
This ties into another main point of criticism addressed by proponents of a deepening European integration. A once initiated economic entanglement, as proven not only by the EU itself but not least by the tremendous process of globalization, inevitably sets in motion a chain reaction that calls for ever deepening intertwining. At the same time, the actors involved in the process are likely to regard the very starting point of the entire process as the most worth protecting. When it comes to the European Union, the point of departure was economic collaboration. Accordingly, one cannot but notice that it comes unsurprisingly that the member states perform best in terms of finding economic agreements. Notwithstanding the insight that an ever-deepening process might at some point dig its own grave, acceleration does not equal exacerbation. That is to say that would we see the latter, every previously existing development would worsen. But we experience the former which means that, against all skepticism, positive trends will gain momentum as well.
Reasons for hope are most evident when looking at the European civil society. It is truly legitimate to talk about the European and not several national civil societies. “We are in this together” – a slogan which a campaign director of a pro-European party could not have imagined any better – is more than one of those meaningless shibboleths. It describes what literally everybody feels these days: Anxiety, tenseness, uncertainty. And to mention it one last time, similar feelings across borders are not new either. Think Pulse of Europe. Think Fridays for Future. And if you now get the impression it comes down to left-wing initiatives only, remember that conservatives and liberals are just as keen on keeping the European Union and a great many of its achievements going. Even right-wing parties who might not admit it in public take great advantage of them and, despite its different interpretation, are united in their Europeanness.
To conclude, almost all developments in the EU, not just those mentioned here, date back to different events before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Covid-19 appeared as nothing but a trigger to accelerate all those previously existing trends. In searching for possible solutions, it might therefore help to look back and learn from history. Instead of whining about the seemingly never-ending times of crises the EU finds itself in, decision-makers must break this vicious circle. In dealing with challenging events again and again, patterns evolve. But one crucial aspect of path dependency has been neglected so far: Every new path starts with decisions that are made deliberately. Now is the time for Europeans to decide which crisis management tools they want to choose to manifest in the future. The first question that must be addressed, accordingly, is how to break the vicious circle. And this is to be done in small but determined steps. It starts with self-awareness. Politicians must accept that they will not reinvent the wheel within the next couple of weeks. Instead, they should look back to formerly experienced crisis situations and ask themselves honestly what went right and what went wrong. Based on those self-reflection processes (which, if done humbly, will give back important credibility to the EU), patterns can be formed that merge the best of past and present. People make mistakes, and so do politicians. Nobody expects a comprehensive and fully-fledged newborn European Union after the corona crisis. But what should be equally clear is that the union’s future is at risk. And a step back in integration and growth is better than a complete restart from scratch, for all parties involved. Better an EU at bare bones than no EU at all. All this should be critically supervised by the people. Borders might be closed. But nobody can shut down minds. Only with a scrutinizing, admonishing civil society can Europe, can democracy get back on its feet. We are (in this) together. And we already have been before. Life in Europe will not change fundamentally, neither for the better nor for the worse. Unless we deliberately let it happen.
About the Author
After graduating from Political Science and Arabic Studies from universities in Jena and Athens, Axel Müller is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Global Studies from a European Perspective in Ghent, Roskilde, and Sydney. Being passionate about concerns of the European Union from both an inside and outside view, he is engaged as a blogger on international affairs.