Europe in May 1945: a destroyed continent, over 50 million war victims, tens of millions of refugees, uprooted and injured. Hunger, devastated lands and torn societies. Continuing civil wars and partisan fights in Italy, the Balkans, Greece and Eastern Europe. A political geography of failed states with dysfunctional judicial and financial systems, mistrust and a desire for revenge between neighbouring states.
Europe in May 2020: A continent in corona lockdown, Brexit on the doorstep, a difficult transatlantic partner, China as a rival gaining influence, deep mistrust of neighbour Russia, which is waging a hot war in Europe. Climate change and migration as megatopics challenging Europe’s material and political resources.
Is Europe finished? No, because Europe today is also the following: one of the three largest economic areas in the world, winner of the Cold War in the 20th century, a community of continuously developing and expanding work of peace and prosperity by former enemies of war. Europe, that is the reality of a deeply integrated area of economy and law, of learning and research, of free encounters and free speech. A place of longing for millions who want to escape misery and make the dream of a better life come true.
Crisis Management Machine EU
75 years have passed since the end of the Second World War. Europe’s history since then can be told as a sequence of crises, although – on the whole – they have been overcome. And always at the centre: the institutions and resources of the European Union – the European Parliament, the member states and the EU Commission.
What lessons can be learnt, especially now in the times of the most recent crisis, the Corona crisis? What must Europe now focus on, what can it build on?
We in Europe are now around week 8 of the lockdown. Our life of physical distance from our neighbours, without the routine everyday mobility and without the estimated everyday consumption, extends the time in our personal perception far beyond these two months. Moreover, the awareness that we are only at the beginning of the pandemic gives us the certainty that we will be confronted with new restrictions or hurdles for a long time to come, perhaps forever in some areas. What we need now is courage and care in our daily lives and strategic patience with a view to the future.
Europe has Quickly Found its Footing
Stocktaking: Europe has made rapid progress. We have learned from the financial crisis. Much faster than in 2010, the body of European institutional cooperation has taken off. Yes, we have seen unattractive and counterproductive national egotisms. But: what took months and years at the time has now happened in weeks. The Commission, Parliament and the Member States have worked together, European programmes for short-time working allowances are in place, the EIB and the ESM are putting in place protective umbrellas worth hundreds of billions of euros, and the ECB is standing by to guarantee liquidity. People are arguing and working in Europe. That is good.
And there is more to come: the Commission will bring the roadmap for a European Recovery Fund into the political arena in the next few days. Political Brussels is hosting a donor conference to mobilise funds for a global vaccination programme. We have – in Europe and globally – more resources than ever. Tangible and intangible. More capital, more available knowledge, more communication than ever before. Ergo: more and faster solutions to problems.
But it’s not just about money and programs: We know and some citizens in Europe have experienced bitterly that a financial crisis can be followed by an economic crisis, a social crisis and finally a political crisis. Now we are still in the middle of a health crisis, but economic, social, financial and political crises are threatening to follow. None of the decision-makers in Brussels and the capitals of the European Union will, however, give in to an automatism of such a cascade of crises.
There are three things that matter now.
(Re)Vitalize the Economy
First: (re)stimulate the economy. Industry, trade, services, agriculture, the whole range of the more than 20 million companies and their employees in Europe must now be brought out of the lockdown coma. Without production and consumption there can be no income and no investment. And no tax revenues. Europe will want to set a course with its European Recovery Program. In Brussels, as in some capitals, there is a lot of talk these days about only granting public aid if future business models of companies become climate protection-oriented. In ideological exclusivity, this is a dangerous path that would lead to numerous misguided measures and create a resource-distorting control bureaucracy. In the political process of European consensus-building, it will be important to help get a clever sustainability strategy of the EU back on its feet, to weigh up and combine it in an appropriate way with the simple necessity of helping millions of companies with millions of jobs at risk to get back on their feet. The reconstruction programme will only ignite if it is well received by the market. After all, the leverage of private consumption and investment decisions is still stronger and more innovative than any public programme.
Understanding and Combating the Crisis Globally
Second: Understanding and combating the crisis globally. From 2010 onwards, after the financial crisis, Europe’s rapid recovery was achieved primarily because China and the USA provided the growth impetus that the European economy was able to absorb. This will be much more difficult this time, as both economic and political powers will have to contend with severe recessions. For Europe, however, this does not mean that it should deviate from the path of globalisation and seek economic salvation in a kind of Euro-protectionism. Rather, the EU and its Member States must more vehemently than ever advocate a rule-based, global trade and economic policy. We must not roll up this flag, even though there is hardly a political breeze at present. For this very reason, every opportunity on the stage of the international institutions, but also in the bilateral talks with the USA and China, must be used for increased cooperation and confidence-building. It will probably be easier to make transatlantic relations more servable again, no matter who wins the battle for the White House in November. Here, common political interests, traditions and cultures are simply stronger and easier to mobilise.
Only together can the big three – the EU, the US and China – incidentally also provide effective aid to emerging economies and poor states. And this is ethically necessary, economically worthwhile and politically wise, regardless of whether we are talking about global solutions for issues of health protection, digitization or climate protection.
It took more than 50 years to overcome the Cold War in 20th century Europe. We must summon this strategic patience here, too, in the further development of the world after Corona – beyond all efforts to take short-term measures to combat the crisis, and against all the frustrations that will lie along the way. Incidentally, this global power constellation would have existed even without the Corona crisis. But as the saying goes: “Never waste a good crisis”. Exactly, let us use the opportunity offered by the corona crisis to do what needs to be done more intensively and, if possible, more quickly.
Using and Rebuilding Political Capital
Thirdly, to use and build political capital. Every crisis and the fight against it destroys proven trust and builds new trust. Losers lose, winners win. The crises of the past ten years have left deep scars in the EU. Along various frontlines, bitter disputes have been fought, injuries have been inflicted, and speechlessness has ensued. Between North and South, West and East, large and small, poor and rich and other, sometimes deliberately sought-after, typologies. An important member preferred to give in and chose the Brexit. For the community of the EU27, the common understanding that the community is not a zero-sum game for any of its member states has had an effect so far. They all know that together they are stronger, that crises can be better managed, that Europe’s goals can be more audibly articulated in the world, let alone implemented. This common understanding can be put at risk. Through arrogance, populism or lack of political leadership.
Political leadership in democracy means: feeling what is in the air and what is at stake, bringing both to the table of the negotiating room of public opinion and political parties, finally pushing the decisions made through the door into reality to make them effective there. This is no different in the current Corona crisis. And not easy.
There is much more to politics than just expertise, whether that of virologists or economists or other scientists. Science will not solve the conflicting goals we face. Politics must do that. That is politics. And so the talks between Heads of State and Government, the Commission and Parliament that we will be experiencing in the coming months will be about politics again and again. That is a good thing.
Regional Director of the European Dialogue