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Europe : Time for Political Action - or the Risk of Disintegration

BLOG - 24 March 2020

Only nine years after the Euro crisis, the European Union is once again on the brink of collapse. Whilst the continent is now at the epicentre of the unprecedented global health crisis that is unfolding, it is difficult to anticipate the duration and scale of the shock, and even more so its long-term consequences on the development of European integration. But today no one can rule out a worst-case scenario that would result in the political and monetary disintegration of the European bloc - a monetary disintegration, because political in nature.

Admittedly, a decade ago, the worst-case scenarios did not materialise and Europe, on the precipice, was able to find the resources to pull itself together and keep moving forward. Isn't the ordeal that Europe is going through also an opportunity to raise awareness about the necessity to better protect ourselves together from the global crises that will unfold, one after the other? As well as achieving the pooling of financial risks without which the euro has no future? Indeed, we can hardly imagine a crisis that makes our common destiny so obvious, nor that offers a better opportunity for humanitarian, political and financial solidarity in the face of such a brutal exogenous shock. But at a time when social distancing is becoming necessary, it is political distancing that we are witnessing at the heart of Europe, particularly between Berlin, Rome and Paris.

The "battle of masks" between Brussels, Rome, Berlin and Paris will remain a symbol of the failure of European solidarity towards its most wounded member.

Has Europe already lost Italy? After 2008 and the migrant crisis, the nightmare of COVID-19, which brought Lombardy to its knees before spreading to the rest of the country, is a new trauma that binds the Italian national community together, while at the same time distancing it from a Europe that is conspicuous by its absence. The "battle of masks" between Brussels, Rome, Berlin and Paris will remain a symbol of the failure of European solidarity towards its most wounded member. On March 6th, two days after France and Germany decided to block all exports of protective equipment, the Italian Health Minister's call to his European colleagues in Brussels for an extraordinary meeting was met with a polite refusal.

The column of the Italian ambassador to the EU in Politico on March 10th prompted Ursula von der Leyen and Thierry Breton to seize the subject. It took them several days of intense pressure and threats of sanctions for obstructing free movement of goods within the EU to finally get the situation unblocked. The episode will leave deep scars beyond the Alps. On the other side, it leaves a bitter taste and the sad sensation of a missed opportunity that will never come again.

A million German masks eventually reached Italy, but this effort was half-hearted, and that is the problem. In fact, hasn't Europe already lost Germany? In her speech on Wednesday evening, March 18th, Angela Merkel addressed the German people directly on television for the first time since she took office, underlining the seriousness of the challenge awaiting her country and its historic character. She made no mention of the Italian plight and never uttered the word "Europe". On Twitter, this omission did not go unnoticed, including by some of her compatriots, who were disappointed by the lack of a European vision of the crisis in the Chancellor's speech. This is a good illustration of Germany's withdrawal, this gap in leadership at the heart of the European Union, which leaves it eminently vulnerable.

This seemingly appears as a stark contrast to Emmanuel Macron's speech to the French people on March 12th, where the President called for a "European response" to the COVID-19 crisis, a response that is twofold. First, a response to the looming economic crisis: "We Europeans will not allow a financial and economic crisis to spread. (...) Europe will react in an organised, massive way to protect its economy". Second, a response to protect its citizens: "This virus has no passport. We need to join forces, coordinate our responses, cooperate. France is working hard. European coordination is essential, and I will see to it". But what exactly does this emphasis on Europe mean, if not the embodiment of the reality of one who needs to be helped? And what is possible politically, if it does not materialize symbolically?

Emmanuel Macron's dream of "a sovereign Europe, a France and a Europe that firmly hold their destiny in their own hands", as mentioned on March 12th, will have already gone up in smoke when we finally get to the "day after".

It was therefore - after having refused Italy's aid - in this way that France took the lead in obtaining a massive financial commitment from Berlin, the creation of a debt pooling mechanism, which represents the only life insurance policy against the disintegration of the eurozone. Europe is dancing again on the brink of the abyss. In Paris, it is the scenario that is feared as much as expected, the one that justified, after the Meseberg summit in June 2018, clinging to the tiny German concessions on the creation of a eurozone budget, as grounding for "the day when". On Tuesday March 17th, contradictory rumours ran around about Angela Merkel warming up to the idea of a Corona-Bond, guaranteed by all European states, to allow Europe, and first and foremost Italy, to borrow enough to absorb the economic shock without endangering the financial stability of the eurozone. Is the door closed, half-open, or simply unlocked? With no doubt will the coming weeks see renewed European psychodramas and Franco-German tensions that have already reached, in recent months, peaks to which we have become dangerously accustomed.

Europe needs to build this war economy collectively in order to produce masks as well as protective and medical equipment it sorely needs in a crisis that is set to last.

While the scale of the economic shock calls for an urgent monetary and fiscal response, it cannot be the only dimension of the European reaction to the COVID-19 crisis. Europe needs to build this war economy collectively in order to produce masks as well as protective and medical equipment it sorely needs in a crisis that is set to last. Who will still dare to talk about European industrial policy tomorrow, if a continent characterized by almost 20% of the world's industry cannot succeed in what Taiwan has done in a few weeks?

Europe also needs to reach out to its neighbours, to whom the EU now refuses to export any medical supplies, offering a window of opportunity to those who, like Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, are turning to China and proclaiming that "European solidarity is a children's tale that never existed". Who will still dare to talk about enlargement tomorrow, and continue to promise a European destiny, to those we have left alone in the face of the virus? And who will be able to claim to be interested in the conference on the future of Europe if its countries and citizens have not shown that they are there for each other at the moment of truth?

Without swift, political action, Emmanuel Macron's dream of "a sovereign Europe, a France and a Europe that firmly hold their destiny in their own hands", as mentioned on March 12th, will have already gone up in smoke when we finally get to the "day after". We will blame a virus, or our neighbours, but we will not be able to forget our own responsibility, and a certain day in March 2020 when Italy asked Europe for help and nobody answered. Or, we will remember that the COVID-19 crisis was the moment when Europe, its leaders and its peoples, were able to live up to their historical responsibility and together overcome the ordeal that threatened to take them all away. It is up to us to write the page of European history that has just opened before us.

 

Copyright: Aris Oikonomou / AFP

 

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