“People only accept change when they are faced with necessity, and only recognize necessity when a crisis is upon them.”
– Jean Monnet, EU founding father.
The above quote is taken from the memoirs of Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, in response to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” which led America out of its Great Depression. How well it resonates with the situation we Europeans find ourselves in today is remarkable, when facing into our next economic crisis. It took the deaths of hundreds of European citizens before the Union as a whole realised the measures needed to protect their people – when the crisis was at our doorsteps. It would seem Monnet’s hypothesis is going to hold out in the Union’s economic and political recovery from the COVID-19 crisis too, unless attitudes change drastically.
Tensions within the EU have never been as fraught as they have been in recent weeks. Member states have largely been split into two groups; those who vociferously support the issuing of jointly-guaranteed coronabonds, and the “frugal four” – Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, and Austria -who don’t. The suggestion by some members of the latter group to juxtapose their own economic position, in moral terms, with that of the former group has been a PR disaster for the EU. The presentation of a dichotomy between a frugal North and a profligate South dichotomy is nothing new in EU rhetoric, but to raise perceived economic incompetence as an issue of morality in the middle of a global pandemic has not been taken kindly by the Italy, Spain and Portugal. A compromise deal[link] has since been reached between all member states, which has slightly repaired the relationships between the two groupings, but the bruises from this affair are unlikely to heal quickly. In any case, it is doubtful that this agreement will be the end of the matter.
The fact that member states couldn’t come together in steadfast solidarity in response to this crisis paints a grim picture for the prospect of a harmonious Union with each member on equal footing. Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa has already questioned the commitment of some member states to the EU project: ‘We need to know whether we can go on with 27 in the European Union, 19 in the Eurozone, or if there is anyone who wants to be left out’. It is unlikely that questions like this will abate as COVID-19 transitions from a health crisis to an economic one. With those countries most heavily affected by COVID-19 also being affected by the debt crisis of 2011-2012 and the conditionalities of the European Stability Mechanism et al., the atmosphere is ripe for a rise of Eurosceptic and anti-establishment populist parties to take advantage of people’s real fears of a return to enforced austerity.
The EU ought to undertake robust action to prevent this happening. The economic situation of respective member states prior to COVID-19 needs to be put to the wayside in the face of this crisis. Countries bearing the brunt of the health crisis and related downturn need a helping hand in getting back on their feet – saddling them with debt and imposed austerity is not the answer. The EU needs to act like the Union it claims to be, otherwise it could be ripped apart.