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The Paradoxes of a Post-Covid-19 World

Three questions to Ivan Krastev

INTERVIEW - 15 June 2020

In his essay “Is It Tomorrow, Yet? How the Pandemic Changes Europe?”, political scientist Ivan Krastev analyses a paradoxical world emerging from the Covid-19 crisis and structured around a new power dynamic. How to analyse the European response to the crisis? And what lessons can be learnt for the world of tomorrow?  3 questions to Ivan Krastev by Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano, Head of Institut Montaigne’s Europe Program. 

The pandemic represents an unprecedented crisis, radically different from the previous ones striking almost every country on the planet. In times of uncertainty, governments had to react to face this new form of enemy. What can we learn from this reaction?

The coronavirus pandemic is a global crisis in a paradoxical way. For a period of seven weeks, capitalism was basically suspended, as was the EU, and 2 billion people stayed at home. In that moment, the world appeared to be in sync. Paradoxically, during this time of "de-globalisation", citizens were living in the same, common world. It was a crisis of globalisation due to the closure of borders, lockdown measures and the shutdown of industries, but simultaneously people, from their home, were able to compare what was happening to them with other countries for the first time. They looked at how many people were dying from coronavirus in India versus in Germany or France for example. In this sense, citizens became much more cosmopolitan than ever before, as they started to be more connected to each other through this comparable reality.

Furthermore, this crisis impacted many different types of governments, economies and cultures, but ultimately they all decided to do the same thing. The economist Frank Knight established a distinction between risk and uncertainty, in "Risk, Uncertainty and Profit" (1921). While the future is unknown, risk is measurable and past events can be assessed using empirical data. Uncertainty, on the other hand, applies to outcomes that we cannot predict. Governments and businesses almost always calculate risk, but it is impossible to do so with uncertainty. Is the Covid-19 similar to the Spanish flu or the previous SARS, or is it much more harmless? In the face of such uncertainty, governments had to use the worst case scenario to make decisions. By preparing for the worst and by replicating what others were doing they avoided being judged. 

During this period, Europeans understood the limits of economic nationalism.

Most countries therefore pursued this strategy and acted similarly, except for Sweden. In this context, it can be underlined that Sweden, by standing out from the other states, demonstrated courage. They were at first very proud of this choice, but as the crisis progressed, the data showed that this strategy neither prevented deaths nor a decline of the economy, which is expected to be even worse than for certain countries in lockdown.

This fundamentally demonstrates the limits of national policies in our current globalised world.

It is extremely interesting to observe how countries decided to copy each other, not because they thought it was the right solution, but rather to decrease the risk of being accused and judged. 

In the past weeks, the EU has redeemed its central position through its recovery plan after stepping down during the crisis to let Member States act. What does this paradoxical period mean for the future of Europe? 

The crisis started with the closing of borders and citizens being forced to stay at home. It is, in a sense, a geopolitical analogy of social distancing. During this time, Europeans understood the limits of economic nationalism. It showed the strength of the "mysticism of borders" but also its weaknesses, as closed borders had a negative impact on the economy. Secondly, it also proved to the Europeans the lonely position of Europe on the international scene. 

A response to such a pandemic is expected to be global but, the reality has been quite different. In geopolitical terms, the main effect was a much more visible competition between China and the US. The crisis led to a deterioration of the image of the US ( eg. from its inability to respond to the crisis, and a reconsideration of how little the EU can rely on them) but also of China, as the country showed a hidden face by using masks as a diplomatic means to improve their image.

Therefore, even though Europeans were not impressed by the EU during the crisis, when surveyed, they expressed a desire for more coordinated policies at the EU level. This is another paradox. The consolidation of the EU project and empowerment of Brussels are not due to a federalist feeling in Europe, but rather to a concrete reason. Citizens realized during the crisis that nation-states need the EU in order to remain relevant in the world.

Citizens realized during the crisis that nation-states need the EU in order to remain relevant in the world.

Whether it is through a carbon tax, the Macron-Merkel plan etc., such an unprecedented push towards the EU was unthinkable before the crisis. The European Union was, at its roots, a project of globalisation. Now, the fear of de-globalisation and of a fading international relevance are key incentives for a strengthening of Europe.

You wrote "While the Covid-19 crisis has unleashed the political imagination of the public, it has paradoxically paralysed the political imagination of the elite". What do you imagine will be the legacy of this crisis for the EU but even more largely for our globalised society?

It is my firm belief that this crisis can be considered a turning point. There are two strong trends that can be highlighted. First, after being exiled in an apartment, citizens long for normality. At the same time, the crisis transformed the idea of what is possible or impossible. For a climate activist, seeing planes stuck on the ground for two months is a proof of new possibilities to decrease carbon emissions. In the same way, for nationalists advocating for strengthened border control, the crisis demonstrated its feasibility. 

A green conservatism consensus could therefore emerge from the pandemic. However, even if the EU changes its policy in a radical way this shift will not come overnight. For a greener society, the EU should implement a very high tax on products harmful to the environment. The pandemic demonstrated that border closure is feasible, but will it make countries stronger ? It can be done for not more than two or three months, before the economy suffers. The crisis proved that the impossible can become possible, but that this new possibility also comes with constraints.

Overall, this unprecedented crisis freed the public imagination. The world will be deeply transformed but the directions of this change are yet to be determined. 

 

 

With the collaboration of Margaux Tellier.

Copyright: Oli SCARFF / AFP

 

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