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Building the post-coronial world: a vision from Germany

Let’s revive belief in a future that improves on the present: what role could Germany and Europe play?

Benjamin Tallis Neil Renic
22 April 2020
20 April 2020, Berlin: Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) after Corona crisis cabinet meeting.
20 April 2020, Berlin: Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) after Corona crisis cabinet meeting.
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Markus Schreiber/PA. All rights reserved.

The scale of the response to COVID-19 highlights the degree to which radical change is possible. Germany and Europe should seize this moment to advance a more democratic, enterprising, sustainable and hopeful future.

After a somewhat slow start, Germany’s response to COVID-19 has become exemplary. Berlin has provided humanitarian aid and assistance to EU partners, set the European standard for testing, jettisoned its previously sacrosanct balanced budget (“Black Zero”) and authorised a vast stimulus package. Underpinning all this has been the well-informed, reassuring and widely praised leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Germany has proven it can react swiftly and decisively when the moment demands it. It must now demonstrate its capacity to act proactively; to steer the post-coronial future in a more progressive direction. This pandemic will be exploited politically, whether we like it or not. Berlin cannot cede this historic moment to authoritarian powers, reactionary ideas or conservative timidity. Nor can it simply return to ‘business as usual’. This would only store up trouble for the future; and besides, for many people business as usual was precisely the problem.

Instead, we should learn from the social transformations ushered in by past pandemics and man-made disasters. The provision of public health, socialised medicine, the New Deal, the welfare state and the Marshall Plan were radical responses to radically changed circumstances. Today, the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19 offers a similar opportunity to remake our world for the better.

Here, we suggest ways of doing so, drawing on a variety of policy prescriptions elicited by COVID-19 - but also challenging and going beyond them. Our proposals include specific policies across a diverse range of areas, but they are united by a dual attitudinal shift: the revival of the belief that the future can improve upon the present; and the conviction that Germany and Europe can play a key role in this improvement. To build a better post-coronial world, we will need to:

  1. Embrace the right kinds of national retrenchment – and reject the wrong ones.
  2. Build resilient societies that are more inclusive and remain international.
  3. Accelerate smart automation, embrace localism and introduce a European Basic Income
  4. Rise to the challenge of climate change by re-imagining mobilities and communities.

As its response to COVID-19 has demonstrated, Germany has the capacity to lead. It must now do so, drawing both on its longstanding policy strengths and current crisis-induced daringness. Germany should take advantage of its advantages, overcome its historically-conditioned reticence, and embrace bold, visionary, proactive politics. The Corona moment demands nothing less.

Embrace the right kinds of national retrenchment – and reject the wrong ones

COVID-19 is an illustrative moment. The deadliest global pandemic since the 1918 Spanish Flu has exposed and intensified the deep structural flaws of a number of states – under-resourced and overburdened health care systems; fraying social safety nets; and listless or misguided political vision. Yet it has also seen the re-empowerment and revitalisation of the state as such. Only national governments could act with sufficient power and scope to deal with COVID-19 and some states, notably Germany, have risen to the challenge. In defiance of the conventional wisdom of the inevitable dominance of impersonal and globalised market forces, states have rediscovered their imprimatur to shape the future of their societies. They should now seize the opportunity to do so, starting with economic reform.

In public services, especially health and social care, slack should be built in to key systems rather than eliminated in the quest to provide ‘Just-Enough’ at the lowest cost. Even before the crisis, Germany was a model to emulate, providing three times the EU average of intensive and critical care beds per capita in a socially just way. Across Europe, governments should undertake a comprehensive audit of key services, with peak-flow capacity requirements introduced and providers nationalised where necessary. The cost of not doing so should now be abundantly clear.

In public services, especially health and social care, slack should be built in to key systems rather than eliminated in the quest to provide ‘Just-Enough’ at the lowest cost.

COVID-19 has also exposed our over-dependence on globalised, Just-in-Time (JIT) supply models. States should act to identify key industries, goods and services (e.g. health and social care, food, medicines and other essential supplies) and subject them to greater national control to ensure sufficient national provision in the event of future shocks to the system. In these industries, inventory can no longer be seen as ‘fundamentally evil’ and minimum stock requirements should be introduced, analogous to the capital requirements imposed on banks in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Berlin’s prohibition of the sale of Tubingen-based vaccine developer, CureVac, to the Trump administration highlights the importance of national control over certain key sectors.

This is emphatically not a call for Autarky – global supply chains are vital and their preservation will be essential to economic recovery in the aftermath of this pandemic. If they are to endure, however, they must work to serve the needs of society. Governments should help safeguard those that do in the days ahead. In terms of equipment, the EU can assist by introducing common procurement programmes (as it did for ventilators), configured to encourage cross-border production - and to get a better deal for its members. For food, member states should seize the chance to collectively re-orient the Common Agricultural Policy to European self-sufficiency based on local supply where possible.

The EU can assist by introducing common procurement programmes (as it did for ventilators), configured to encourage cross-border production - and to get a better deal for its members.

The EU can also help ensure that in securing national supplies, states don’t fall into a ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ trap. Germany’s initial refusal to export PPE to Italy was rightly criticized, including by the European Commission, before it was quickly corrected. Now, however, Germany must do more.

The ongoing controversy over mutualizing debts to help (e.g.) Spain and Italy cover the costs of this crisis must be resolved. If Berlin continues to reject ‘Coronabonds’ then it must offer a credible alternative. Whether this recovery is delivered through the EU budget or a separate, Marshall Plan-like initiative, it must match the scale of the crisis. The collapse of Southern European economies is counter to German interest; and to allow it, when it can be avoided, is counter to its values. Germany can follow both its head and its heart in leading EU efforts to prevent this outcome.

If Berlin continues to reject ‘Coronabonds’ then it must offer a credible alternative.

Build resilient societies that are more inclusive – and remain international

COVID-19 has hammered home the message that our societies are only as resilient as our weakest members. This has long been known, in relation to a variety of social, economic, political and security issues. Yet, for just as long it has been insufficiently acted upon.

Germany exceeds most other G7 nations in relation to income inequality, social cohesion, and migrant integration. Like other countries, however, it still needs to do more to help the many who still feel excluded – particularly the economically disadvantaged, homeless, socially and culturally disconnected, as well as migrants and minorities.

COVID-19 is not a ‘Great Leveller’. Like other natural and man-made calamities, its costs have fallen disproportionately on the already marginalised. If left unaddressed, these harms will widen and deepen pre-existing societal fractures and leave us more vulnerable to threats like hybrid destabilisation. Our response to this challenge must begin, but not end, with elevating the material circumstances of these exposed groups. Just as importantly, we must engender greater social cohesion and unity of purpose.

Doing so requires a cognitive leap – COVID-19 has already helped us re-imagine what is possible. For example, the sudden ability of governments around the world to house homeless people shows that problems conceived as a lack of capacity are often, in fact, failures of political will. Having interrupted that logic, we now need to incentivise greater citizen buy-in across society. In the aftermath of COVID-19, this focus on inclusivity will be essential to deoxygenate political protest movements such as the AfD. The kind of debates provoked in Germany by the resurgence of far-right politics can actually help in this regard as more people start to ask what the country should be and what their role in that is.

The sudden ability of governments around the world to house homeless people shows that problems conceived as a lack of capacity are often, in fact, failures of political will.

At the same time, domestic cohesion cannot come at the expense of international solidarity. No society is an island (no, not even the UK). European and world history show inter-societal interaction and trade to be great pacifiers and those who seek to exploit COVID-19 for isolationist or nativist ends must be resisted. Germany knows better than most the dangers of chauvinistic nationalism, as well as its lure in the aftermath of crisis. For this same reason, Berlin is best equipped to counter these dangers. For both political and moral reasons, it needs to do more to promote the welfare and resilience of other societies, both within and beyond Europe. We are only as resilient as the most vulnerable people in our societies, but also the most vulnerable in our community of societies.

No society is an island (no, not even the UK).

Accelerate smart automation, embrace localism and introduce a European Basic Income

COVID-19 has forced much of the public to work in new ways. It has stopped others from working at all, triggering mass job losses around the world. The ensuing cashflow and liquidity crises have been recognised and acted upon – to varying degrees – by governments. Emergency cash injections, along with income guarantees - on a scale once considered unthinkable – have been reconceived as a necessary and healthy economic response.

Yet the risk of mass joblessness will not disappear with the virus. The severe economic disruption it has caused will necessitate further income-support, albeit in some countries more than others. Spain, one of the countries hit hardest by COVID-19 has already announced that it will introduce a ‘Minimum Vital Income’ that will last beyond the crisis to become a permanent feature of its welfare provision. The German economic support package crucially recognized the need to support the self-employed, gig-economy workers and those engaged in cultural and artistic activities at this difficult time. What if that too could become permanent – and extended across social and economic sectors?

Spain, one of the countries hit hardest by COVID-19 has already announced that it will introduce a ‘Minimum Vital Income’ that will last beyond the crisis to become a permanent feature of its welfare provision.

In the longer-term, however, certain sectors will disappear entirely as a consequence of automation, digitalization and dispersion, trends accelerated by COVID-19 and our response to it. If Europe is to embrace and benefit from this change, which it should, it must transform social support systems to prevent widespread insecurity and provide a believably better future for its populations.

Introducing a form of Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the easiest and best way to address both pre-existing and emerging economic tensions in a humane way. Rutger Bregman and others have argued convincingly that UBI would pay for itself over time – by allowing people to make better choices (including over health) at the individual and family level and streamlining welfare systems. Within the EU, a region-wide version of this policy – a ‘European Basic Income’ (EBI) – should be considered. Germany’s reluctance in this area is well-documented, but in need of reconsideration, given the degree of its economic entanglement with its neighbours.

Within the EU, a region-wide version of this policy – a ‘European Basic Income’ (EBI) – should be considered.

Regardless of the specifics, any variant of UBI would need to be accompanied by mass training and education programmes to re-skill and re-orient those whose jobs are being automated. Providing surety through income and possibility through training and education can turbo-charge Europe’s – and Germany’s - move to lead the global knowledge economy.

We must, together as a society, find new sources of meaning, dignity, and transcendent belonging; forms that can endure both the transformation and obsolescence of work. Mass re-training and upskilling programmes can widen participation in the knowledge, creative and care economies. Income assistance will also open up opportunities beyond work; cultural, educational, and leisure activities that enhance individual well-being, along with community cohesion.

Providing surety through income and possibility through training and education can turbo-charge Europe’s – and Germany’s - move to lead the global knowledge economy.

Rise to the challenge of climate change by transforming mobility and community

States and citizens have accepted radical and rapid change in order to fight COVID-19. The lessons this provides for our response to other existential challenges, including climate change, are obvious. The capacity of the public to sacrifice is great. Crucially though, it is also contingent on a clearly articulated – and widely accepted – need. Policymakers need to balance the practical with the visionary, emphasizing not just what we stand to lose from inaction, but what we hope to gain from transformation. Sacrifice is far easier to endure when it is framed not as a penalty, but an investment. Political leadership is needed to market this investment - and ensure that it subsequently pays off for the majority.

Policymakers need to balance the practical with the visionary, emphasizing not just what we stand to lose from inaction, but what we hope to gain from transformation.

Now is the time to act decisively, ambitiously, but also realistically to address climate change. There can be no return to the pre-industrial past, and contrary to the misanthropic claims of some, people are not inherently the problem. Governments will not secure the necessary buy-in from the public if the environmental future they offer is devoid of comfort, joy, and indulgence. Our response should centre not on curtailing, but re-imagining how best to preserve and even enhance these indispensable features of life.

A key aspect of this re-imagining will be a transformation in our understanding of mobility – alongside a related re-thinking of community. COVID-19 has restricted travel to the essential across much of the globe – and shown many of us how little of our regular mobility really falls into that category. Many environmentally damaging practices endure more as a consequence of inertia than genuine necessity. We should now take the chance to eliminate them. Changing our culture of presenteeism will free up real estate to ease housing pressures, put urban centres to more socially constructive use and reduce emissions. The time has come to re-invent our cities as spaces of social, cultural, intellectual and sporting engagement: places we want to inhabit, rather than places we cannot escape.

Many environmentally damaging practices endure more as a consequence of inertia than genuine necessity.

COVID-19 can be the catalyst for a resurgence of the local. Much of German city life takes place at the level of the neighbourhood and ‘kiez’-kultur has grown significantly in recent years. It has grown unevenly, however, and the benefits of local living, working and learning need to be extended beyond hipsters and start-uppers to the whole of society. Incentivising companies to shift to remote working – and making this an option for more people by providing community co-working spaces, would be one easy way to start.

In parallel with this re-energised localism, it’s vital to enhance connections between communities in ecologically sustainable ways. This means investment in and subsidies for the forms of intra-urban and inter-city travel that we do want. Germany’s cities have long been models of urban connectivity. They should now be adapted to better serve the mobilities of leisure and desire, rather than the daily grind of commuting. Recent moves to eliminate demand for domestic flight by improving the high-speed rail network can be accelerated. But the German model can also go further as well as faster: Berlin should propose a high-speed, European public transport network, coordinated by the EU and priced affordably. Long-haul flights will remain a necessary evil, but could be better regulated to avoid wasteful and carbon-heavy over-provision – or even re-nationalised and inter-governmentally coordinated.

Germany’s cities have long been models of urban connectivity. They should now be adapted to better serve the mobilities of leisure and desire, rather than the daily grind of commuting.

COVID-19 has given us the chance to change our mobilities. In the process we can re-imagine, re-invigorate and re-enchant our cities and communities.

A vision for Germany: national exemplar, regional leader, global player

Germany has long sought a balance of economic strength and political modesty; favouring cautious incrementalism over bold policy ambition. This will no longer suffice. The times demand more from Germany than Switzerland writ large. They demand a progressive and strategic vision for the future.

Debate over Germany’s strategic shortcomings has been overly dominated by narrowly focused hard power analysis, from the perceived need to boost military expenditure, to the merits and drawbacks of a German nuclear deterrent. But true ‘Strategy’ goes far beyond military matters to encompass both economic and normative dimensions. It is in these key areas that German leadership can excel. It must firstly lead – through example and instruction – on the programme outlined above: societal resilience, automation and EBI, sustainability, green growth, and transformed mobilities and communities.

To realise this ambitious agenda, Germany should embrace its role as an essential custodian of democracy, both at home and abroad. The response in Germany and elsewhere to COVID-19 has included mandatory lockdowns, the forced closure of business, and sweeping restrictions on social organisation – measures that in virtually any other context could be regarded as the death knell of democracy. With few exceptions, however, the public has acquiesced to these restrictions, convinced of their need in the fight against this pandemic. Going forward, vigilance is needed to prevent this state of exception from becoming a permanent and illiberal state of affairs.

Germany should embrace its role as an essential custodian of democracy, both at home and abroad.

Germany’s post-war transition into a thriving democratic power is widely recognised and admired. It should leverage this story of success across Europe and the globe to forestall the increasingly serious and widespread problem of democratic backsliding. As well as being fairer in mutualising debt with Italy and Spain, Germany must take a firmer stance on Hungary: Victor Orban’s latest power grab must be unequivocally condemned – and leading German politicians should add bite to this bark by working to expel Fidesz from the European Peoples Party.

As well as being fairer in mutualising debt with Italy and Spain, Germany must take a firmer stance on Hungary.

Casting the net wider, the liberal rules-based order is not self-sustaining. It must be safeguarded, and improved upon, by those with the capacity and moral clarity to do so. In short, it needs Germany. The Alliance for Multilateralism (A4M) – A German-Franco initiative – is an important statement of intent in this regard. Now in particular, Germany must lead on two key initiatives of The Alliance – the preservation and enhancement of human rights and the regulation of future technologies. If mishandled, the government response to COVID-19 may see the latter harnessed to the detriment of the former. Germany can become an international exemplar for the alternative, imposing necessary, but critically temporary, surveillance measures that remain mindful, as much as feasible, of civil liberties.

The Alliance for Multilateralism (A4M) – A German-Franco initiative – is an important statement of intent.

As true as it is trite, the world is growing increasingly complex. The crisis of COVID-19 only punctuates this fact. Germany cannot simply bear witness at this most critical of junctures. To do so risks ceding the future to less worthy prophets and darker visions: terminal meandering, uninspired caretaking, or most dangerous of all, missionary authoritarianism. Germany should take on the responsibility of steering the post-Coronial world in a more progressive, ambitious, and democratic direction.

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