Salvaging the European Union

As Winston Churchill once observed, too many people who ‘stumble over the truth’ will ‘pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened’. But in the case of Covid-19, the world has been confronted with uncomfortable facts that are impossible to ignore. Like the 2008 financial crash and the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, the pandemic has fully exposed a deep vulnerability to systemic threats.

The ultimate role of the state—the very meaning of sovereignty—is to provide its citizens with adequate protection from existential risk. Yet globalisation appears to have undermined the modern state’s ability to cope with low-probability, high-impact scenarios. Just as the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States forced people to rethink security, the Covid-19 crisis compels us to take a fresh look at how we manage interdependence.

It’s tempting to ask whether this crisis will be resolved more effectively by nationalism or through international coordination. But that is the wrong question. The real issue is whether interdependence can be compatible with and complement the continued existence of nation-states. In today’s political environment, lectures about the need to maintain open markets and borders simply will not cut it. As soon as the novel coronavirus was recognised as a global threat, most national leaders’ first instinct was to close their borders. Calls for international coordination through forums like the G20 were an afterthought.

And yet, while the initial spread of the virus owes much to interdependence, the health crisis it has created within individual countries won’t admit of nationalist or autarkic solutions. Once the virus is being transmitted within communities, closing borders will do nothing. In the world wrought by Covid-19, Jean-Paul Sartre is absolutely correct: ‘Hell is other people.’

The pandemic has struck an international order that was already in crisis. It has been obvious since at least 2008 that, contrary to what was long claimed, not everyone wins from globalisation. A more open and interconnected world is conducive to strong economic growth and prosperity, but also to rising inequality and ecological destruction. The freer movement of people has provided new opportunities for millions, but it also has increased the upward pressure on public services and downward pressure on wages in host countries, while fuelling a brain drain from the places left behind.

Long before the pandemic, these trends had provoked a backlash, particularly in developed countries, where populist parties and leaders have seized the political agenda from the mainstream parties that defended the post-war liberal international order. Most dramatically, under President Donald Trump, the US has gone from leading the international order to dismantling it, on the claim that both US allies and rivals such as China have been exploiting America for their own gain.

Against this background, it is inevitable that the current crisis will remake globalisation one way or another. But how?

The pandemic represents an opportunity for a number of different political groups, from environmentalists who have long demanded more sustainable development to those who are worried about inequality or the fragility of global supply chains.

For their part, Europeans should use the occasion to rethink their notion of sovereignty. The challenge is to figure out how European integration itself could serve as a backstop for national sovereignty, rather than pose a threat to it. As this and other recent crises have shown, European governments must be allowed to protect their citizens from the threats introduced by interdependence, be they environmental, cyber, contagious, migratory or financial in nature.

To that end, Europe’s leaders need to develop a vision of ‘European sovereignty’ that mitigates the need for autarchy by creating channels for national governments to make certain fundamental decisions for themselves, and to bargain effectively within broader frameworks of interdependency. Specifically, such a vision must transcend the divide between the ‘open’ and ‘closed’ camps in three areas.

First, in the debate between self-sufficiency and more efficient, diversified supply chains, the EU can blaze a middle path. It’s not realistic for small member states to return to self-sufficiency, but it should be possible for the EU to produce and store key resources, from ventilators and food supplies to 5G networks and energy supplies, and then ensure their availability within the single market. This would offer protection to smaller countries that are more vulnerable to being bullied in the 21st-century global economy.

Second, in the battle between autocracy and democracy, Europe must demonstrate how democratic principles can be preserved even in a state of emergency. Here, one promising option is to create a judicial framework to ensure that data collected for Covid-19 tracking and other purposes are not kept in perpetuity. EU leaders also should be thinking about new mutually agreed standards governing the use and duration of emergency powers adopted by member states.

Third, in navigating the gap between national sovereignty and multilateralism, Europe can adopt an approach that satisfies both impulses, while also charting a course that leads to a different destination from the approach taken by Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. By reaching out to likeminded countries, the EU can shape the international order in ways that reflect its own core values and interests.

For example, on climate change, the EU could use a border adjustment tax to force its many trading partners to internalise their own carbon costs. On migration, it can work more closely with third countries to manage the movement of people. And on global public health, it can use aid and other instruments to help vulnerable countries strengthen their healthcare systems, thereby minimising the likelihood—or at least the impact—of future pandemics.

Ultimately, the Covid-19 crisis could allow the European project to return to its roots: reconciling the prerogatives of the nation-state with the realities of interdependence, rather than sacrificing national sovereignty on the altar of neoliberal dogma. Better yet, developing a coherent vision of European sovereignty would help to prepare for the next crisis of interdependence. Will Europe’s leaders pass Churchill’s test and confront the truth that Covid-19 has pushed into their path, or will they pick themselves up and return to business as usual?