EU strengths evident throughout Covid-19 crisis
Union cannot furnish solution but helps co-ordinate members’ actions
A banner about the coronavirus global response hangs on the European Commission headquarters in Brussels: If coronavirus had swept Europe in the 1960s, voters in Ireland would not have thought of comparing their government’s actions with those in Spain. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet
The Covid-19 crisis has reignited talk of an existential crisis for the European Union. Even pro-EU politicians like French president Emmanuel Macron have suggested that the union’s failure to effectively tackle the pandemic could be its downfall.
Declarations that the union is facing an existential crisis are not new. Over the past 10 years, the shortcomings of the EU’s responses to the financial, climate change and migration crises have all brought forth confident predictions that the collapse of the EU is imminent.
In each case, despite ending up with very sub-optimal solutions, the union has not collapsed. Yet, when the next crisis arises, the same dire predictions are made.
No one suggests that the lack of co-ordination between different American states indicates the US is about to break up
In relation to the current pandemic, the charges seem particularly inapt. Article 168 of the treaty gives the EU very limited powers in the area of public health.
It is true that the EU often co-ordinates the actions of member states even in areas in which its formal legal powers are limited and the response of European countries has been un-co-ordinated in many respects.
However, no one suggests that the lack of co-ordination between different American states indicates the US is about to break up. Moreover, member states would not tolerate the EU imposing uniformity by, for example, forcing Sweden to abandon its more liberal approach or making Italy relax its stringent controls.
The EU is uniquely powerful for an international organisation but it is still dominated by its member states. This means that the EU cannot impose ideal solutions. It is often restricted to getting the maximum agreement possible from 27 states with different interests.
EU structures do make this agreement easier to obtain. EU membership involves an endless series of deals. If a state makes trouble on one issue it will find an unsympathetic audience when later on an issue it cares about comes up for discussion. The Dutch, for example, recently found little sympathy for their plan to have the EU protect tulip growers after alienating southern states through their strident position to the development of eurobonds.
Even with give and take, the EU will always find itself hammering out unsatisfactory compromises on important issues but that does not mean the union is useless or past its sell-by date.
Indeed, the very fact that the union has been criticised for failing to take a major role in relation to an issue (public health) where it holds few direct powers shows how resilient the union is likely to be.
By providing a framework within which member states constantly co-operate and co-ordinate with each other, the union has, over time, changed habits and mentalities across Europe.
As the academic Luuk van Middelaar writes about the regular European summits, when you put 27 heads of government, all of whom are worried about a shared problem, into a room together, they will inevitably co-ordinate their actions, even if the EU lacks the legal power to act in a particular area.
If coronavirus had swept Europe in the 1960s, voters in Ireland would not have thought of comparing their government’s actions with those in Spain; and French civil servants would not have considered co-ordinating their approach with Finnish colleagues. Indeed, ministers and civil servants would not have been meeting with their counterparts in other European states, they would have struggled to become aware of what measures other states were taking.
EU membership has created, across the continent, a habit of comparing our actions to those of other member states and of co-ordinating our activities with them. The fact that the public expected the EU to be doing more shows just how deeply the union has come to be woven into governance in Europe and how we have come to see our destiny as being inextricably linked to that of our EU partners.
With China rising and the US in a dangerously unpredictable phase, the need for European countries to stick together will not disappear
Even the anger displayed by Spain and Italy at what they see as a lack of solidarity from other member states shows the degree to which the union has transformed the relationship between European states. Countries that share EU membership now feel that fellow members are not simply foreign states but part of a family that generates obligations of solidarity.
That is not to say that the current situation does not contain threats. Italy’s national debt was at the limits of sustainability before this crisis struck. If the Dutch and their allies do not yield in their opposition to more fiscal union, there is a definite risk of default or of an Italian exit from the euro zone and possibly even from the EU.
Yet, even in this worst-case scenario, Italexit would be nothing like Brexit. It would be caused by a failure to go for more EU integration not, as in the case of the UK, a reaction to a perception that too much integration has occurred.
With China rising and the US in a dangerously unpredictable phase, the need for European countries to stick together will not disappear. Whether it be in relation to immigration, climate change or Covid-19, the proper question is not whether the EU has managed to solve these crises. Instead we should ask whether member states would be better able to confront these issues if they did so separately rather than co-ordinating their actions through the EU. The answer to that question is obvious. The need for structured co-operation between European states will not go away, and neither will the European Union.
Ronan McCrea is professor of constitutional and European law at University College London