During the Corona crisis, the EU member states mainly take individual measures, while the EU does not currently seem to play a major role in their coordination.
“Schengen dead – borders closed in Europe”, “Monster traffic jam at the Polish border”, “Ministries all over Europe on a mask hunt”, “The South is dying, the North is hoarding”. Such or similar headlines and stories can be found in current times of the Corona crisis across classic and social media. The verdict: Member states do what they want and the EU, “Brussels”, does nothing; once again failing across the board. But, what is true about EU bashing on corona accounts?
In times of crisis, even the modern man acts in tribal mode. We seek security and protection from our chiefs. Mayors, councillors, prime ministers, the federal government. We lend legitimacy and trust to decision-makers who are literally close to us, who we know, in whom we recognize ourselves, who speak our language, in order to introduce the drastic measures that now restrict our lives. The same applies to the unprecedented economic and financial packages that are now being crammed through parliaments to support our economic life. Brussels is far from this – the Member States are the focus of action.
This finding is therefore no surprise in these times of crisis. And in the current hot phase of political response, we do not even have to consider it a disatvantage. What matters is the mix of instruments and the cooperation of the actors. Germany is an example for this. The federal structure of this country makes the authorities on site not recipients of orders from Berlin, but partners in responsibility on the ground. They can act faster and more precisely than a “clampdown corona tsar” from a deployment bunker in Berlin or even Brussels could ever do.
Yes, thanks to the free and agile media in Germany, we learn a lot about actual (or supposed) mistakes and organisational mishaps. This is a good sign and contributes to course correction just as much as our strong scientific landscape with RKI, Wirtschafts-Sachverständigenrat (SVR) and co. After all, do we see the traditional central state France coping better with the crisis? Not to mention the sad and dangerous spectacle offered by the autocrats in Turkey and Russia and the reality deniers in the White House.
And what about “Brussels”, about the “actor Europe”? The city in which the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council operate is by no means asleep. Last week’s virtual meeting of the heads of the Member States was the prelude to the development of common financial policies to combat the crisis. The Commission is working at full speed: joint procurement of medical equipment, creation of a new strategic stockpile and increased production through harmonised standards for medical devices, measures to secure the free movement of goods at borders, direct measures to support businesses, facilitation of the production of disinfectants by the European Chemicals Agency, to name but a few initiatives. In addition: the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Investment Bank (EIB), and the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) are preparing for the necessary liquidity support measures for the economy as a whole.
It is precisely here, in the European institutions and agencies, that the code of cooperation between the Member States was put into practice during the financial crisis ten years ago. Often the hard way, but just like people, man-made institutions often only learn in crises. To paraphrase Jacob Burckhardt, you cannot learn anything from history, but you can be better prepared for the next time. And we are.
Moreover, the crisis shows, similar to Brexit, how interconnected the economies, societies and states of the European Union are today. Traffic jams at the borders, selfish member states, disputes about the financial policy course are not arguments against Europe but show the necessity for a smarter Europe: cooperation, exchange, collaboration, solidarity, growing individually by working together.
By the way, the more we flatten the curve of new infections, the louder the hour of Europe will strike, once public and economic life returns to normal. By the time the phase of immediate crisis management comes to an end, the main post-Corona questions will be: What measures do we need to relaunch the economic engine of Europe? What trade policy is needed to combine globalisation with interconnected security? Which type of foreign and security policy guarantees freedom of the sea routes, the resilience of the world’ s regions against the next crisis and effective international cooperation simultaneously? What contribution do climate, energy and health policies make? These are all questions that no country in the world, and certainly no country in Europe, can successfully answer on its own. The lesson of the crisis is once again: If we are smart, we will fight and work again for cooperation and integration, against disintegration and isolation. For a united Europe!
Regional Director of the European Dialogue