For the first time in my life I cannot travel freely throughout the European Union. This is a sobering thought, an inherent right I have enjoyed all my life as a European Citizen no longer applies. This suspension of my right is ultimately temporary and will be eventually re-instated, yet it raises the question; What Europe will emerge from the lockdown?
Thus our time in isolation allows us to reflect on ourselves but also our socio-economic structures and our increasingly connected union. Indeed the greatest strengths of the EU, its connectivity, has been its undoing in the face of Covid-19. Once the virus was in the espresso bars of Milan it was only a matter of time until it spread to Dublin’s Pubs.
The relative stability we have enjoyed since the financial crisis has allowed us the luxury of taking for granted this stability, and within this luxury, as Fintan O’Toole outlined in the Irish Times, we become perversely attracted to the politics of risk such as that of Brexit and Trump. Suddenly, however, when faced with a legitimate threat that can’t be dealt with by a late night deal in a Brussels board room, the thrill of risk disappears and instead is replaced by legitimate fear. O’Toole states “it’s like paying to go on a roller-coaster ride of simulated danger only to find that the vehicle really is out of control.”
Once again we see the Eurosceptics gleefully rounding upon the EU to decry it as an all-powerful, all conquering super-state then in the same breath, sneer at its inability to act in the face of crises.
Europe is found wanting simply because nation states have not furnished it with the powers to react to fast paced situations such as Covid-19. The Union is a large ship with numerous internal workings. When faced with an obstacle in the way, the course can only be altered slightly not swiftly turned. Such is the nature of the hulking behemoth that makes up the Union.
The simple reasons why the EU is struggling to deal effectively with the Covid-19 pandemic is that health is a closely guarded competency by member state. There is very little reference to health care in the treaties. To put it simply, the EU does not have the tools to deal directly with this issue.
Thus, the Union is looking to what it can do and ultimately deal with. The elephant in the room is that of finance. As our economies grind to a halt an economic downturn is inevitable. The bitter memories of the euro-zone crisis remain fresh in the collective European memory. The US approach was swift, difficult and ultimately effective. Europe on the contrast lurched form crises to crises because it did not act decisively. Again, not because lack of want but because lack of ability. There is a currency union but ultimately not a fiscal union.
The EU is again faced financially with limited scope of application yet is attempting to implement measures, notably 750 billion Euro as a support package for member states and the implementation of the “member state escape clause” which allows member states to violate spending restriction.
Outside this clause is Europe’s ability to control the bedrock of the union, the single market. Even while borders close, goods will move allowing vital medical equipment to be manufactured and transported through the “green lanes”. The most notable action within competencies is the closure of the External and Schengen Borders to non-essential travel and repatriation of EU citizens.
The Paradox that ultimately exits is that when Europe is faced with a crisis, we lambast the Union for its inability to act and then subsequently defy any opportunity to give the union those powers to act. Once this pandemic ends, and it will end, we will be faced with another challenge - the redefining of our socio-economic structures and our Union. We cannot and must not retreat into the mistakes of the past. We must ensure that we prepare Europe for the next crisis as, Jean Monnet stated “People only accept change when they are faced with necessity, and only recognize necessity when a crisis is upon them.”
We have a necessity to reform the European Union and strengthen its competencies in the wake of this crisis so that we can respond to the next crisis. The voices will grow louder for less Europe when in fact, to preserve our way of life and the plethora of rights we have become accustomed to, the only solution is more Europe.
Conor McArdle is a 22 year old Masters Student studying for an LLM in Human Rights Law. He is Secretary of QUB Young Fine Gael and a member of the European Youth Parliament.