The lessons learned from the pandemic opens a window to further European integration.
Lassitude, sacrifices, anxieties, unknowns surrounding the pandemic, economic uncertainties are all undermining the spirit of the population, rendering the task of governing ever more complex.
The media, be it TV debates, the press or social media platforms, train their sights on the dysfunctionalities, the contradictions, the incoherencies underpinning the opinions of “specialists” (or incompetent participants) who wrangle publicly, thus making the decisions made by political authorities particularly difficult to follow and understand.
Within this context, there is a lack of consensus concerning the importance assigned to competing priorities, aiming either at health care, economic activity, social protections or to be respectful of citizen’s rights and liberties, each, in turn, being heavily influenced by their “political” consequences.
As the light at the end of the Covid tunnel comes into sight, growing attention is being paid to the measures needed to engineer a return to “normal” life, even if it is generally accepted that the pandemic will have some irreversible consequences. In particular, the debate concerns the reinstatement of “rights” of which citizens resent having been deprived. Disagreements concerning, among other topics, questions relating to mobility and their attendant formalities or vaccination in relation to accessing certain activities, are flourishing.
However, within the EU, some of the most interesting questions relate to the institutional aspects raised by the management of the pandemic. Serious weaknesses have been uncovered in the decision making structures, in the exercise of executive, legislative and administrative powers as well as in long term trends concerning the considerable efforts needed to correct decades of neglect in investments in areas such as healthcare, infrastructure, industrial production, education, etc.
Considering the efforts needed to finance the recovery while amortizing simultaneously the social fallout of a recession of historic proportions, it is manifestly obvious that the budgetary challenge facing each individual Member State, will not allow the mobilization of the necessary resources to meet their current expenditures as well as to correct the above-mentioned deficiencies (not to mention those of long standing such as defense, justice, ageing population, climate change, digitalization, etc.).
This common sense conclusion implies the necessity to complement the short term measures envisaged to control, or at least drastically reduce, the impact of the pandemic with a significant long term institutional reform of the EU, fostering a vision of progress, prosperity and security to which its population aspires. It also provides a meaningful answer to the prophets of doom, bandied about by those advocating populist or otherwise utopist solutions (debt cancellations).
The EU is far from lacking powerful arguments: in addition to the “acquis communautaire” accumulated over 63 years, the recent “Recovery Plan” amounting to € 1.8 trillion over 7 years together with a similar amount committed by the ECB in support of MS’s sovereign debt, constitute major breakthroughs in relation to meeting the challenges of exiting the crisis.
Similarly, the key role played by the Commission in the procurement of vaccines to the EU 27 (despite largely unjustified criticisms) has boosted its demonstrable added value. Furthermore, the impulse offered to the harmonization of measures taken by individual MS within the scope of the pandemic, aimed at maintaining or restoring the smooth functioning of the Internal Market as well as the enjoyment of the four key freedoms of movement (people, goods, services and capital) has enhanced significantly the awareness of the population, in particular of the younger generation, of the value of the freedoms that they were used to and constitute a welcome reminder of the price of “freedoms” they had come to take for granted.
This sudden awareness of the considerable contribution made by the EU’s capacity to regulate human relations in accordance with the deepest aspirations of the population (stable currency – freedom of movement – security) is the most likely explanation for the – at least apparent – rallying of Mr. Salvini to Mario Draghi’s Government and Ms. Le Pen’s acceptance of the usefulness of the EU and the €. This unlikely alignment must be seized upon without delay to initiate an irreversible movement towards an integrated Union which alone is capable of mobilizing both the necessary human and financial resources to ensure the defense of its population’s deepest economic and security interests as well as its civilizational values.
Postponing such decisions until overcoming the pandemic might encourage the electorate to seize upon the first opportunity to vote “against” those in power, judged to be responsible of the Covid’s consequences, rather than voting “in favor” of those promoting a positive vision for the future. It would indeed be a godsend for extremist parties to promote their alternative dangerous ideas, taking advantage of the general acceptance of freedom limiting measures deployed during Covid, to appear more acceptable to voters.
Now is the time to relaunch and accelerate European integration, building on concrete measures such as the reopening of borders which must not only restore the freedom of movement within the EU but also open its territory to the rest of the world so that trade, tourism, investment and culture, etc. can once again flourish.
This imperative to take a European approach must also extend to reestablishing the Union’s industrial, healthcare and research independence which would be unattainable at individual MS level both in terms of human and financial resources; on the other hand the financing capacity of a “Federal Union” remains largely under-exploited. In addition, the EU’s capacity to play a geopolitical leading role will protect it against vassalization to the United Stated (and the $) or to China.
In conclusion, the lengthy restrictions to which the EU’s population has been submitted during the pandemic has clearly put into evidence the overarching need to protect both our freedoms and wellbeing by pooling our resources and our sovereignty. In so doing, we will be able to pass on to future generations a better world, an objective that should be shared by any self-respecting citizen!