Saturday

19th Sep 2020

Column

The price of a European order

The most surprising reaction to the EU's weak early response to the coronavirus came from the bloc's nationalist governments.

You would expect them to rejoice: finally, there is a problem they can deal with freely, because members never agreed for the EU to oversee emergencies.

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  • 'After all, the contributions that are now paid to the Hungarian government would be put to better use in Italy and Spain'

What did they do instead?

Victor Orbán of Hungary and Poland's Mateusz Morawiecki blamed the EU for not doing enough. At that point the EU had made sure that Hungary and Poland could use funds of around €1bn each from unused cohesion funds, which normally would have to be returned to the EU.

Their response reminds me of the traditional Jewish joke: 'The wedding was terrible. The food was bad - and there was not enough of it.'

The Europe that we saw in the first days of the outbreak was the Europe that nationalists want to build. Every country for its own, by its own rules, and may the strongest prevail.

Borders were closed without warning, their own citizens prioritised, while governments like Germany and France's stopped the export of any medical equipment. Welcome to the Hobbesian jungle of international anarchy.

In this nationalist world of 'Deutschland zuerst and 'La France d'abord', there would be no European Commission to threaten legal action against medical export bans.

A billion euros would not be available at a week's notice to support Poland or Hungary. There would no space to ask for solidarity, a concept that vocal nationalist Matteo Salvini just discovered. States in need could ask for help in the way they can now ask Norway of Switzerland for help.

The widespread criticism of the EU by its friends has been more coherent.

The Union did not look strong because it was not in charge. But it also did not look strong because its leaders missed the opportunity to frame the crisis as a pan-European one that needed a joint response.

For EU-enthusiasts the conclusion is clear, and it is the same they draw from any situation: the EU needs to get many more competences to play a leading role in the future.

Existential for EU?

They overlook that the public legitimacy of member states is deeper and stronger than that of the EU. Crises in member states come and go, while crises in the EU become existential.

Even the most ardent critics of their governments in, say Sweden, Spain or Italy would not argue that their state needs to dissolve because their governments did not respond effectively to the challenge.

And yet, there is already a lively debate whether the EU will survive this crisis although it was not even in charge.

I do not doubt the convictions of people who now argue that the EU should be in the lead to face crises of this nature in the future, but I am not sure they do the Union a service by trying to put it at central stage of any potentially divisive theme.

A lot must be done to improve preparedness and co-ordination across the EU, but only member states can take the responsibility for the hard emergency measures that this danger has made necessary.

At any rate, the EU does not need new tasks. It has its work cut for itself to deal with the enormous economic and financial challenges that are in front of us.

A lot of the pent-up anger that the corona-crisis has created is now directed at the EU and has widened the gulf between North and South. It is a useful diversion from our own responsibilities. All member state governments were badly prepared and made missteps.

Instead of blaming the EU or other member states, however, all sides should now focus on solutions.

Germany, the Netherlands and other should understand that their desired V-shaped recoveries are unlikely to work if the rest of Europe fails. Southern members should acknowledge that financial commitments involve accountability between member states and the EU about their public finances.

All sides should keep in mind that for 70 years, the EU has created an unprecedented level of order in European relations. Many aspects that bedevil bilateral relations elsewhere – trade, investment, travel, movement of labour, border regimes – are regulated and legally enforceable. They are managed at scale, saving member states many costs.

Compare that to the UK, which is just now hiring thousands of new civil servants to take care of functions that the EU had fulfilled.

At a deeper level, however, this should not only be a calculation of economic costs and benefits. It is a question of whether member states are willing to hold up a European order that has worked or if they prefer anarchy. To do so they all must contribute and respect their commitments.

The Hungarian government has made clear for many years that it is only interested in the benefits of EU membership – it is amongst the greatest beneficiaries of EU funding – while it ignores its obligations, in particular on democracy and the rule of law.

As such, future funding should be strictly contingent on respect for the EU's values.

After all, the contributions that are now paid to the Hungarian government would be put to better use in Italy and Spain.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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