The Irish Times view on the EU and coronavirus: Living with the aftershocks

All of the union’s great projects must be recrafted through the prism of the pandemic

As Simon Coveney put it in his speech to the Institute for International and European Affairs on Friday: ‘Even after the virus is defeated, its aftershocks and the new constraints it imposes will define what member states and the union do for the next decade’. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

As Simon Coveney put it in his speech to the Institute for International and European Affairs on Friday: ‘Even after the virus is defeated, its aftershocks and the new constraints it imposes will define what member states and the union do for the next decade’. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

 

‘World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.” Today, no doubt, he would have said “the health of the world”. But, on May 9th, 1950, then French foreign minister Robert Schuman demanded of Europeans a giant, ambitious leap of imagination and set the ball rolling to launch what is now the European Union.

Schuman Day is marked every year by speeches invoking the spirit of the union’s founding fathers, with often somewhat over-egged estimations of what has been achieved, and what will be achieved if only the project is taken forward. But the 70th anniversary, with Europe engulfed in its most profound challenge since the second World War, is rightly a time for more than ritual self-congratulation.

Nothing less than the reimagining of the union is called for. As Tánaiste Simon Coveney put it in his speech to the Institute for International and European Affairs on Friday: “Even after the virus is defeated, its aftershocks and the new constraints it imposes will define what member states and the union do for the next decade.”

All of the union’s great projects – difficult before the coronavirus pandemic, now doubly testing – have to be revisited and recrafted through the prism of the pandemic and facilitating recovery. The deadlocked budget has to be reorientated to that single end. The massive and radical Green Deal, until March the EU’s new great purpose, must be reimagined as an engine of that recovery. More orderly migration, a new imperative. And the Brexit challenges, with their likely trade and social disruptions, now only a sideshow in the slipstream of Covid-19.

Coveney rightly warns that “Ireland will have to be agile in adapting to the changed political and policy environment. Now and in the coming months, we must take a critical look at the assumptions behind our existing positions on the dominant EU issues and assess how they might be impacted by Covid-19, if they remain fit for purpose and, if not, how they should change”.

So, as pollsters report public disappointment at EU inaction at the start of the pandemic, presumably we should prioritise giving the EU the powers it currently lacks? Like a role in fashioning common health strategies? Or enabling the union to raise cash by giving it new taxing powers?

But giving up, or even sharing, national prerogatives does not come easy. Different states move at different paces, as Coveney pointed out. We really don’t want to get involved in treaty changes, or lose “tax flexibility” or our ability to set competitive rates.

More co-ordination is a good thing, Coveney says, but handing over competences is “unlikely to happen”.

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