Can Europe Make It?

Towards a thriving European welfare state: thoughts on 9 May 2020

As a matter of our societies’ preservation, we need to demand a lasting change in the policy rationale of the EU. And we need a new institutional design.

Albena Azmanova
11 May 2020
Citizens take over Europe Day, May 9, 2020.
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Albena Azmanonva took part in the Citizens Take Over Europe initiative on May 9, 2020. See here for programme details and further information.

Until recently, the debate on Europe revolved around issues of democracy and sovereignty: from the infamous ‘democracy deficit’ (e.g. the European Commission, the body that initiates EU legislation, is not elected) to the perplexing rule that a sovereign state is bound by laws it might oppose (e.g. in most cases, decisions in the Council are taken by a qualified majority, not unanimity).

The emergency situation created by the Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity to shift the debate from matters of sovereignty to matters of the substance of EU policy. We should be asking: how can public authority, both at EU and national level, deliver socially responsible rule – that is, rule that takes into account the social consequences of economic policy. So far, the EU has been dedicated to market integration in its domestic policy and to market opening in its foreign economic policy. The social consequences of this predominantly commercial policy logic have been devastating – as cuts to public services and social spending were made in the name of EU competitiveness in the global marketplace. This incurred serious damage to public health infrastructure and its funding – which is at the root of the social crisis the pandemic has unleashed.

The social consequences of this predominantly commercial policy logic have been devastating.

It is time to abandon this policy logic. Unless the EU assumes functions oriented directly towards the care for our common public welfare – to the creation of a European public sector of both public services and even public enterprises, European societies will fail.

That is why proposals such as the creation of Eurobonds (the issuing of common European debt) are not about solidarity, they are about sheer rationality, about our self-preservation. The trans-European public-health crisis is making it clear that each member-state's financial health is in the (economic) interest of all other members. Moreover, the ambition of this proposal surpasses the ad-hoc expediency of managing a crisis situation. As a matter of our societies’ preservation, we need to demand a lasting change in the policy rationale of the EU.

The trans-European public-health crisis is making it clear that each member-state's financial health is in the (economic) interest of all other members.

Curiously, such a policy shift might be emerging, despite some member-states’ (namely, Germany and the Netherlands) reluctance to embrace the idea of Eurobonds. After the eruption of the pandemic, the European Commission organized successfully a procurement scheme for life-saving equipment; created a stockpile of essential medical equipment, and launched an unemployment reinsurance scheme – which is to be financed through bonds issued by the EU itself.

Thus, the ‘Brussels bureaucracy’, much derided for its infamous red tape and cumbersome decision-making, is providing swift leadership. Moreover, the Commission has ventured outside its usual market-integrating role and is displaying capacity to deliver what many of its members struggle to provide on their own – a social safety net, including a public healthcare system.

This not only goes beyond the idea of ensuring a level playing-field among its members, which has long been the raison d’être of the EU governing institutions. It also surpasses the minimalist idea of social justice as a matter of wealth distribution from rich to poor regions. We could see this as a move towards something even more ambitious – building a robust public sector at the heart of a thriving European Welfare State.

At this point we are back to the old debate about sovereignty – is the EU to be transformed into a European Republic? When we confront this issue again and ponder the balance between national sovereignty and trans-European unity, between democracy and bureaucracy, let us not be sidetracked away from the key concern – how to deliver socially responsible rule. Neither national democracies nor the European bureaucracy have so far managed to shelter our societies from the vagaries of globally integrated capitalism. We need a new institutional design.

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