Since the outbreak of the corona pandemic, the European Union has been subjected to harsh criticism. The Confederation of States is too unsound, it is said, and its institutions reacted too late to the crisis. Dutch philosopher and historian Luuk van Middelaar comes to different conclusions.
Mr van Middelaar, after the financial crisis of 2008 and the migration crisis of 2015, the corona crisis is the third and perhaps most serious crisis in the history of the EU. Does it have the potential to tear the international community apart?
I think it is too early to speak of an existential crisis for the EU at this stage. First of all, we are dealing with a public health crisis, which is very strongly experienced as a national crisis in all European countries. Presidents, heads of government, kings speak to their citizens as well as to members of national communities of destiny. National governments are at the forefront of the fight against the virus because they are responsible for health policy. For me, that is the big difference to the financial crisis, where the euro was one of the most important achievements of European integration. The common currency faced collapse three times. It would have been a shock to the EU.
Do you not believe that the unresolved conflicts of the past are catching up with the EU in the current crisis?
Of course, the economic consequences of the corona shutdown will be catastrophic. There is a new crisis on the way. Fortunately, the EU countries have already made some efforts to cushion the worst effects. It is true that the conflicts of the past decade have caught up with us when it comes to pent-up frustration and unhealed wounds. This is particularly striking in the current debate about financial solidarity: Italy has already felt that its EU partners have abandoned migration policy in the past. That is why there are now some who argue that Eurobonds are the order of the day if Matteo Salvini is not to win the next elections.
Is that an understandable argument for you?
You also need to keep an eye on the north side of the equation. And these are primarily the eurosceptics in Germany and the Netherlands, who are just waiting to take advantage of every step their governments take to ensure that debt is communitized permanently. The Corona Bonds debate is a political minefield everywhere.
When the Italians speak of solidarity, they don’t just mean the corona bonds.
Italy was undoubtedly abandoned in the early stages of the crisis. It didn’t get the help it needed. Instead, Germany and France restricted exports of medical protective clothing, which could not be justified. Tragically, the virus first had to cross the Alps to convince other Europeans that it was dangerous.
The question is: how much selfishness and dissent can the EU tolerate? Your compatriot, Vice-President of the Commission, Frans Timmermans, warned a few days ago that the Confederation of Nations, as we know it, cannot survive this crisis.
I want to answer that from a historical perspective. How often has the end of the Union, the end of the Schengen area or the end of the common market been predicted in the past decades? Some Anglo-Saxon economists even pretty much determined the day when the euro would cease to exist ten years ago. Nevertheless, it still exists today. I think the EU is much more resilient than you think. When the unit is really at stake, there is always some kind of invisible glue that holds it together. By that I mean not only the pursuit of economic interests but the deeper cultural and historical awareness of being part of Europe.
Are crises simply part of the EU?
Yes. Occasionally, the heads of state and the government even have to persuade the crisis to make quick decisions possible. One could also say that panic is part of the EU’s crisis management. The system needs a sense of survival to become active. I think that was also the reason why Frans Timmermans sent out such a dramatic message.
The German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger described the EU as the “gentle monster Brussels” with regard to the power of the bureaucrats and the political incapacitation of the citizens. How much of this monster is still in the Brussels institutions today?
In fact, the events of the past ten years have overtaken Enzensberger’s story. Of course, the common market is still a central part of the EU. But the public debates today are no longer about the degree of curvature of cucumbers or other bureaucratic cliches, but about things that affect people directly: the events at the borders, the currency, our relations with Russia, with China, with the United States. The EU is increasingly concerned less with technocratic details than with unforeseen events. I call this event policy, which has replaced regular policy. The EU had to reinvent itself as a rule-based system that was not equipped to deal with shocks and crises.
How does this event policy manifest itself in the Corona crisis?
The corona crisis exemplifies how politicians have to accept to live with uncertainty. German Chancellor Merkel understood this when she described the crisis as “serious and open”. President Macron, who never admits to not knowing anything in normal times, said in his last speech to the French that he wanted to share with them, “what we know and what we don’t know”. The uncertainty as to what the virus does to our societies makes any bureaucratic approach difficult – and in a much more fundamental way than in previous crises.
And how do you think the Commission, as the heart of the Brussels bureaucracy, has been in this crisis so far?
The Commission eased the EU budget rules and state aid rules at a very early stage. This gave the governments scope for action, for example, to save companies from bankruptcy. She understood that the Member States are at the forefront of fighting for lives and jobs. I was disappointed when it came to organizing a medical equipment procurement program. There was talk of months in the public tenders, although Italy needed the help within 24 hours. Here the Commission has not realized that we no longer live in normal economic times. At least as far as the market for medical goods is concerned, it should have started a war economy, as the American President did.
Is she able to do this at all?
Yes, it’s even in their DNA. Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the commission, was a man who organized the demand for goods and their logistics for the Allies in two world wars. Of course, there are always good arguments for bureaucratic procedures: they ensure fairness and predictability, everyone is treated theoretically in the same way, you prevent corruption, etc. But in exceptional times, flexible decisions have to be made, because it is more about quick judgment and leadership.
To come back to the “invisible glue” that, in your opinion, welds the club of Europeans together: according to surveys, only a minority of citizens in Italy are now committed to the EU. Don’t you worry?
But. And we have seen in the case of Brexit that insufficient support can lead to membership termination. Nevertheless, the British were never wholeheartedly members, there was never a real sense of identity like the Italians. The disappointment of the Italians is very real, at the moment some are even more inclined towards the Russians and Chinese than the Germans and French. But I think there is still a broad awareness that the benefits outweigh the benefits of sitting better inside than outside the club. And I cannot imagine that the sympathy towards Russia and China is politically sustainable.
How is that in your country? How big is the approval of the European project in the Netherlands?
According to surveys, a large majority of Dutch would vote to stay in the EU. A “Nexit” would currently be unlikely. There are plenty of points of friction with Brussels that also give a tailwind to EU sceptics. But the Dutch are pragmatic. They know what advantages they can get from the common market.
The Netherlands has recently made itself very unpopular in the dispute over Corona aid. Finance minister Wobke Hoekstra wanted to know why some countries do not have sufficient financial capacity to deal with the effects of the pandemic.
It was pretty idiotic and not a diplomatic moment. The Dutch position is quite comparable to the position in Germany, where the same reservations about euro bonds are shared. The problem is that both countries are currently under considerable moral pressure. At a time when life and death are at stake, the argument to act in solidarity is much more important than at a time when one can be accused of just doing business poorly.
Where do you see Switzerland in this crisis? There is traditionally a high level of EU scepticism here, and many may feel confirmed when they look at the current clashes. At the same time, everyone feels that you are in a boat and that you can’t do it without cooperation.
It is significant that Switzerland, as a non-EU country, is no less exposed to the public health crisis and the coming economic crisis than its neighbours. In this situation, as in all European countries, there are two predominant narratives in public discourse: one that emphasizes what is common and one that emphasizes what divides Europe. This should also remind us that no country should be understood as a homogeneous block and that there are different perspectives and conflicts not only between but also within the states.