A crisis can be a great eye-opener showing how much of what we believe is true. In recent memory, the EU has seen four major disruptions – the financial crisis, the migration crisis, Brexit, and now the Coronavirus. Those instances have shown severe flaws in the EU’s institutional architecture, in the resilience of the member states, and in our ability to find joint solutions to challenges. Conventional wisdom suggests that these chains of events are akin to black swans – the culmination and result of which could not have been foreseen. Is this true or were those accidents waiting to happen? What kind of leadership do we need now, when things are beginning to go awry?
Especially in times of crisis, the role of leaders is to give a sense of direction, take decisive action, and not merely react to unfolding events. This is ever more important in a world where information flows faster than ever before, where people strive to make sense not only of their own lives but of global questions. Hence, the remedy is the opposite of the usual trend in many European countries, where it appears that politicians are reacting to headlines or even tweets. Instead of setting the agenda, they are driven by it, pushed by a perceived wave of opinions. But unlike elections, governing should not be a popularity contest.
While an increase in information has bred uncertainty among citizens, many elementary fears have re-emerged during the Corona crisis. After all, it is a question of life or death at worst, and a question of economic survival at best. Some national governments are exploiting this to strengthen their position in an unprecedented way and at the expense of democracy. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán has been given quasi-authoritarian powers by the parliament for an unlimited time, and the Polish ruling party is pushing through presidential elections in May, while the ban of electoral rallies hinders opposition candidates.
In stock markets, the bidder in a hostile takeover is called a “black knight”, an analogy that might be fitting here in the context of democracies. Especially when democratic institutions are marginalised out of “necessity” and for the sake of “efficiency”. The question remains as to who makes the counteroffer as the “white knight” and what they can do to avoid the trap of crisis and the temptation of opportunity.
Everywhere across Europe, people have largely supported and followed the measures introduced by the executives. They seem to be willing to cede their civil liberties in lockdowns that have been widely imposed. One can witness rising approval ratings for governments regardless of their track record in the fight against the virus and regardless of whether they can be classified as “populist” or not. The positive side effect of this is that there is currently less support for populists that are in opposition. However, this phenomenon should not be taken for granted and can only be sustained if governments can limit the economic and societal damage caused by the virus. Otherwise, we will see populist forces on the left and right on steroids at a time when hardships for citizens become overburdening.
For the EU, the current crisis is doubtlessly existential. Corona has struck the core of the EU’s economic project, the Single Market, like an earthquake. National governments responded by taking unilateral measures. Within a few weeks, border controls were reinstated across the Schengen area, the free movement of persons was restricted, and supply chains crumbled.
Despite the attack on the de facto core of European integration, European leaders have not been able to identify a way out of the crisis yet. The visionary approach needed for the EU to stick together must connect the different strands of individual measures to a bigger whole. This is especially important, as there is a considerable risk that diverse national reactions to the crisis will increase divergence in the Euro area. In the past, national decisions were often taken without considering the cross-border impact. The same is already happening in this crisis, which poses the tremendous risk that countries which are already strong could assume a dominating position after the crisis.
At the same time, it is useless to lament a lack of support for measures that would turn the EU upside down. Nobody can expect from the frugal governments of Northern Europe to throw their principles overboard from one day to another. Leadership means exploiting what is possible, trying to do the impossible, but not attempting the illusionary.
The EU now needs a clear roadmap for reconstruction. It is of little importance whether it is called the Marshall Plan or the Michel Plan. But it is vital to act decisively and quickly. The roadmap also needs built-in flexibility; it must avoid centralisation and respect the principle of subsidiarity. Surely the unemployment reinsurance SURE can have a sunset clause in five years, giving member states the chance to opt-out. Beyond that, the EU’s remedy cannot be just patching up holes – it is time to finally decide what the EU should look like in the future. It is hard to lead if you do not know where you are going. Perhaps the Conference on the Future of Europe could be a first – albeit rather late – step in this direction, if it does not end up as a mere communication tool.
Although the reputation of the EU and of intra-European cooperation has already been damaged considerably in Italy and Spain, it is not too late. Is there a white knight in sight? The fragmented polycentricity of power between the European Commission, the European Council and the Franco-German tandem makes it seem unlikely that a single white knight will be found. But European cooperation could itself still be the white knight for all member states, especially those most hit by the Coronavirus pandemic.