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European (Dis)Integration During Pandemics

European (Dis)Integration During Pandemics Lessons for EU members about the convergence of interests

The big aspirations of “Unity in diversity” within European speeches seem to fade, as the supranational gathering around connection and cooperation is now, in the context of the pandemic, an ideal with less commitment than before. The necessity of intra-European Union coaction during this crisis has a significant impact on the current situation of EU integration and enlargement policy overall. The degree of polarisation has grown during the coronavirus pandemic as countries are isolating themselves and maintaining a continuous international “quarantine”. The question the present social and economic crises raise is whether the Union will be able to move towards greater cohesion, or rather decline irreversibly. Can the EU be considered a selfish association existing only for occasional national interests? Is the reaction to the pandemic a proof that the decrease of national sovereignty in the EU is an illusion? Is this a more devastating crisis than the ones the EU have faced before (the 2008/9 recession, the refugee crisis, Brexit)? 

The EU-scapegoat for the Corona-chaos? 

The EU Member States are dedicated to achieving collective goals, but also have their national goals, which may be at odds with each other. It often happens that when things go well, the national governments take credit, but, when the situation turns bad, they rapidly start to blame the EU, a pattern which applies to governments no matter the political affiliation. During this crisis, many political leaders started to question the EU for not doing enough, while others questioned what else it could do.

The treaties remind us that to be unified around maintaining peace, security and raising prosperity in Europe does not imply the complete elimination of foreign threats, which is the reason why strong institutions were the vanguard of implementing the required measures. Yet, the immediate response when the pandemic started was to close internal borders and to postpone the process of integration. However, the budgets for healthcare systems remain a responsibility of the individual nations, and since the EU does not have a shared public healthcare system, this is perhaps an area of better integration in the future. Still, given these conditions we should not expect a holistic approach from the EU institutions, and also not interpret it as an utter division between countries.

The actual trends in globalization show networks and interdependencies whose impact becomes evident in the case of economic crisis, or moments when countries would rather work exclusively in their own interest. Furthermore, the strong polarisation across the EU is not an isolated event, as it occurred during the migrant crises as well, but in a different manner. Some Member States, especially those from the West, showed a warm welcome, while others wanted to strengthen their borders. Since the international challenges have an asymmetric impact, the warning signs discourage states from being more cohesive. It is indeed a difficult test to avoid the disconnection among members, but they should prioritize the fight against the pandemic, the mediation of inter-ethnic conflicts, and most importantly, better cohesion in case of a future disaster, preparing measures for the political agenda of states and international organizations. Although globalization is no longer a new phenomenon, it still brings structural changes and transformations on a large scale of modern social arrangements that connects geographically distant communities and extends the importance of international relations across countries.

There have been significant economic consequences to the European and National response to the crisis. The national leaders’ reaction to rapidly lock down their territories was meant to avoid the dramatic scenario that eventually occurred in Italy. Furthermore, the limitations of the free movement of people may be considered more politically grounded than scientifically recommended. The collective isolation might take weeks or months and in certain parts of the Europe it can become a threat, since the present political leaders can exert their state of emergency powers to promote illiberal and undemocratic actions, often difficult to predict. For this reason, the coronavirus is believed to affect the European political situation, and is also able to change the EU democratic landscape (Wigura & Kuisz, 2020). 

Eurobonds’ economic vs. political limits? 

The area in which the EU has the power to intervene is the economy. As the production was stopped, thousands of people lost their jobs in most EU countries, the small and medium companies were heavily affected, and the predictions for the future are very pessimistic, not only in Europe, but globally. Contrary to other recessions, this one is more symmetrical, affecting all the countries, and the final bill for the coronavirus crisis is expected to be significant. Being a situation long foretold but taking the leaders unaware, it is also considered to require special remedies.

One potential solution was the Eurobond idea, in which the debt guarantees are shared across the members, however not all the countries agree with this strategy. Although the plan is not decisive, for countries like Italy it would represent a consolidated financial solidarity model, although its effectiveness is criticised and debated. The reciprocal accusations arise when the countries in the North are in favour of financial austerity while the ones in the South are known for having financial problems. The mutualisation of debts could lead to a moral hazard similar to the one explained in the “tragedy of the commons” theory, since it may lead to opportunist behaviours in countries with lax budgetary standards. Also, the Northern states are condemned for not being united in a humanitarian emergence causing almost 1000 deaths per day in Southern countries (EUobserver, 2020). For this reason, nine EU members expressed their concerns about the financial downturn, and mentioned their support for so-called Corona-bonds. Others saw the need to create a professional European group, consisting of competent economists who can generate reforms and financial instruments, because the Eurobonds are not the only option. Those who are against the Eurobond idea are afraid that the most productive and solvent countries of the EU would end up paying all of the debt, since others, especially referring to the PIIGS after the financial crisis of 2008, are considered to have a high risk of default (Siemiatkowski & Jankowska, 2013).

Even if not in the form of the shared liabilities, the EU bailout funds and the various pro-growth measures can represent a valuable addition to a rescue plan to rebuild the economies. The cost of these funds is low, as they have a small interest rate, compared to other instruments, but the political cost is considered to be higher, the beneficiary country being under permanent EU monitoring on how it handles the funds, a measure that is often appropriate, especially with the countries at a high risk of default. The problem is that countries like Spain and Italy are reluctant to be under such European scrutiny, and they are not ready to pay the associated political cost, especially after the mismanagement of the crisis that has already decreased the trust of their citizens. For them, it is easier to accuse the EU of lack of solidarity, rather than engaging in economic reforms that are more challenging.

This economic crisis after all proves the need for greater unity in the name of social and economic recovery, but governments should be more upfront with their voters, rather than spreading allegations which undermine the EU. 

Quo vadis? 

The ability of the Union to maintain international cooperation, mediate conflicts among the members and manage the abrupt health crisis has serious social and economic consequences. The recovery of individual national societies requires remobilisation, solidarity, as well as transnational frameworks that address the issues stemming from interconnectivity. Millions of devoted EU citizens, benefactors, volunteers, workers and the humanitarian organisations are a reliable foundation for tackling the difficult situation of the European Union. To connect the European core principles with the political abilities to reform and find innovative methods is the key to strengthening ourselves against future crises. 

References 

EUobserver. (2020, April 1). Without European patriotism, EU decline is inevitable. EUobserver. Retrieved April 28, 2020, from https://euobserver.com/opinion/147954.

Siemiatkowski, P., & Jankowska, E. (2013). Financial Dependence of the PIIGS Countries. Journal of World Economic Research, 2 (No. 5), 89-94.

Wigura, K., & Kuisz, J. (2020, April 1). Coronavirus is now contaminating Europe’s democracy. The Guardian. Retrieved April 28, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2020/apr/01/coronavirus-contaminating-europe-democracy-viktor-orban-seize-more-power.

 
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OEconomica No. 1, 2016