Displeasure with ‘the EU’ is increasing, clearly audible among acquaintances, friends, in the media, commentators as well as among some politicians. Where is the EU in the so-called ‘refugee question’, i.e. ‘migration-crisis’? Why doesn’t the EU quickly help the countries particularly affected by the COVID-19 crisis? Why doesn’t the EU intervene when fundamental rights are violated, for example in Hungary or Poland? And so on, and so forth. We read and hear many questions. A lot of anger, rage and dissatisfaction are coming to light. And far too few differentiated and fact-based answers.
Without a doubt, Commission President Ursula van der Leyen could have spoken out louder and faster on some acute problems in respect to the global pandemic. After all, the COVID-19 crisis is not the first - and certainly won’t be the last - crisis faced by the EU. However, if one analyses in detail the discourses on earlier national, European or global crises since the EU or EEC came into existence - such as during the Cold War (Hungary 1956, CSSR 1968, Poland 1981) or in relation to the consequences of 9/11, the bank crash and the financial crisis of 2008 or the global refugee movement in 2015/16 - it becomes clear that the perspectives of individual nation states dominate, and that even traditional ideological conflicts (between left and right, for example) have been marginalized. ‘Has the corona virus brought back the nation state?’ asks political scientist Jan Zielonka in a contribution to the platform Social Europe.
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The contradiction between transnational institutions and nation states has always been inherent in the conception of the EU
In most cases, the situation was similar in the elections to the European Parliament - incidentally, this is the only possibility of formal political participation left to us as European citizens: characteristically, these elections are used as a battleground for political conflicts inside individual members states, rather than an opportunity for choosing specific programs or directions in which to develop the European Union and which the European Parliament would actually be able to influence. National interests have therefore not just begun to determine the possibilities of the EU; rather, the contradiction between transnational institutions and nation states has always been inherent in the conception of the EU.
Obviously, few people really know about the highly complex network of institutions and decision-making bodies/processes. Few also seem to be aware that the heads of government always have the final say in European Council decisions and that a single veto can block decisions at any time, be it on the budget, on sanctions against a member state that has violated a treaty, or on the coordination of the distribution of refugees. And even if and when, as we have learned, decisions are finally taken (such as on the distribution of refugees by quota), the EU is powerless to force member states to implement them; Again, we are currently witnessing populist agitation against fugitives and the fixation of related debates on ‘borders and walls’, where desperate people are to be stopped at all costs. This distracts attention away from the causes of such tragedies, from the human rights violations of refusing asylum, and from the European Union’s inability to deal with a problem that is small in relation to its size and wealth.
For example, it was only during the COVID-19 crisis that many EU citizens realized that health is a national agenda. Asylum and migration policies are also the responsibility of nation states. The responsibility for the success or failure of the respective health and migration policies therefore lies with the member states, not with the Commission, which can only make recommendations. Moreover, we have just seen that initiatives such as the new ‘Marshall Plan’ proposed by the Commission – being an important and effective measure to protect the economy, especially of increasingly indebted states, from collapse due to the COVID-19 crisis - are welcomed in solidarity by some states and rejected by others (especially Austria, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands). Moreover, the letter expressing outrage at Viktor Orbán’s abrogation of the Hungarian Parliament was not supported by all EU member states; among those who did not support this important initiative, incidentally, we also find Austria!
This distracts attention away from the causes of such tragedies, from the human rights violations of refusing asylum, and from the European Union’s inability to deal with a problem that is small in relation to its size and wealth
This confirms a view held by political scientist Jan-Werner Müller: that in no country in Western Europe or North America has a right-wing populist/far-right populist leader managed to get into office without help. This always required conservative collaborators from the establishment. Similarly, political scientist Cas Mudde notes that mainstream conservative parties are now openly discussing ‘immigration and multiculturalism as a threat to national identity and security’. It is thus legitimate to state that the ‘political center’ has moved to the right. In other words, right-wing populist agendas have been normalized. Indeed, Swiss human rights consultant at the UN and political activist Jean Ziegler writes about ‘Europe’s Disgrace’ when describing the horrific and untenable conditions in the refugee camps on the Greek island Lesbos.
It is thus legitimate to state that the ‘political center’ has moved to the right
In Orbán’s rhetoric, the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ and the global pandemic are merged into one huge ‘world-conspiracy’, a traditional antisemitic stereotype: The Hungarian-Jewish philanthropist George Soros is – repeatedly – accused of transporting ‘illegal migrants’ to Europe and specifically, to Hungary. Simultaneously, these ‘illegal migrants’ (i.e. refugees) are accused of bringing the COVID-19 virus to Europe. Hence, the fallacious argument implies, that ‘the Jews’ and the ‘illegal migrants’ are to be blamed for the current global crisis. Similar anti-semitic attacks occur in Poland by the governing PiS-Party. Of course, many other conspiracy theories regarding the pandemic are dominating the social media as well, all of which are targeting vulnerable and marginalized groups, on the one hand, and traditional media, specific countries (such as China) and influential CEOs such as Bill Gates, on the other.
Thus, I repeat and expand on the question posed in the title: Quo vadis, Europe after the COVID-19 crisis? Will the EU member-states now be inclined to embrace more long-term solidarity and closer cooperation on the basis of recent crisis experiences, or will they become even more inward-looking and, in the long term, turn the EU into an economic union between independent nation states, without a contractually guaranteed consensus on human rights and peace?
Borders have been closed, but viruses do not respect borders; neither does the climate crisis, to be sure
The current crisis urgently calls for visions for the EU and, indeed, the world post-COVID-19. Borders have been closed, but viruses do not respect borders; neither does the climate crisis, to be sure. The economic consequences of measures to combat the crisis call for a new ‘Marshall Plan’ for EU member states, according to the Commission President. This can only be implemented on a joint basis. In an interview broadcast in the Austrian news show ZIB2 (15 April 2020), the economist Clemens Fuest argued in detail that the rich EU member states, such as Austria and Germany, depend entirely on the poorer countries (such as Italy and Spain) for their production. A possible bankruptcy of these countries would therefore also affect ‘us.’ Transnational solidarity is therefore the order of the day - not the narrow, backward-looking thinking of nation states. Many political scientists and sociologists have expressed similar views.
The COVID-19 crisis has made it abundantly clear that expert knowledge and expertise are in demand again today (after the populist zeitgeist had relied strongly on a politics of feelings and the power of ‘common sense’). Hopefully, European politicians will not quickly dismiss the lessons of the crisis, but will be forced to develop and agree on sustainable solidarity with the vulnerable and social programs in order to be prepared for new, cross-border crises - which will surely come.