Commentary / World

Coronavirus has exposed the EU’s creeping irrelevance

by Andreas Kluth

Bloomberg

COVID-19 was only just arriving from Asia when the European Commission, with the technocratic equivalent of fanfare, announced a “Conference on the Future of Europe,” to be kicked off in May. Now, of course, the various seminars, committees and working groups are in lockdown limbo. And the conference title suddenly seems exceptionally ill-chosen. For it raises the question: Does the European Union, in the long term, even have a future?

Among dyed-in-the-wool europhiles, such big and fundamental thoughts are usually disallowed. “Europe” has always muddled through, from one crisis to the next, goes their refrain. It will weather this one as well.

And yet, many Europeans increasingly have their doubts. The Brits volunteered to leave the club even before the pandemic. As morgues fill with coffins in Bergamo, Madrid and elsewhere, others no longer find that choice so outlandish. A survey conducted in March by Tecne found that 67 percent of Italians view their membership in the EU as a disadvantage. The prime minister of Spain isn’t alone in warning that, short of a political miracle, “we will fail as a union.”

That’s because one side effect of COVID-19 has been to blow away the pretense of solidarity among the 27 states. That solidarity has, since the founding treaties of the European project in the 1950s, been the implicit glue binding its members into an “ever closer union.” It was eventually supposed to lead to a common identity in a United States of Europe.

But the coronavirus called Europe’s bluff. Instinctively, member states slammed down their national borders even before imposing (epidemiologically more sensible) domestic policies such as “social distancing.” And with short shrift, they suspended their much-touted “single market,” temporarily banning exports of life-saving gear such as face masks.

“We caught a glimpse of the abyss,” admitted Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, alluding to an unraveling of the union. So the EU’s members quickly lifted their export bans again. But only after China and Russia, of all places, scored propaganda coups by delivering masks and other gear to Italy before any European country did.

Since then, eurocrats have reverted to standard Brussels ways, promising vague and complicated but rhetorically impressive measures yet to come, from “coronabonds” to “a Marshall Plan for Europe.” This doubles down on a decades-old misunderstanding: that there’s some technical kludge that will fix all this, to be found in more rounds of late-night summitry.

The EU’s problem is at once bigger and simpler. It’s that its members never resolved their fundamental dilemma: Are they ready to pool (meaning cede) their sovereignty to join into one entity, strong enough to stare down the United States, China, Russia and maybe a coronavirus? Or do they want to remain a club of independent nations, acting in unison only when it suits all of them?

As it happens, there is a surprisingly precise historical analogy for this dilemma. For centuries, a similar union sprawled across central Europe, called the Holy Roman Empire. As Voltaire famously observed, it wasn’t really an empire (or holy, or Roman), just as the EU isn’t really a union. Sovereignty was shared between the elected emperor (usually a Habsburg in Vienna) and several hundred independent princes, kings and bishops.

The empire, like today’s EU, gradually became an anachronism. In the 16th to 18th centuries, England, France and Spain centralized and became major powers, whereas the empire remained decentralized and weak. Today the U.S. and China are heading toward a “G2” stand-off and other nationalist powers like Russia and Turkey are vying for their spheres of influence, whereas the EU is trying desperately to stick to its post-national multilateralism.

The Holy Roman Empire also failed to resolve its internal rivalries, especially between Prussia and Austria. Similarly, the EU today is divided by bitter rifts between north and south, west and east. If anything, today’s divisions cut even deeper, because Europe also defines itself as a beacon of democracy, human rights and rule of law. If members become “illiberal,” the EU loses its raison d’etre.

That’s why a tin-pot dictator like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban undermines the whole edifice. He has already largely neutered Hungary’s opposition, courts and press, and last month he took the pandemic as his pretext to rule by decree. Poland, ruled by a nationalist and populist party, isn’t quite as bad, but has also been dismantling, piece by little piece, the rule of law.

The EU seems paralyzed in groping for a response. “I have been dreaming of a ‘United States of Europe’ for years,” tweeted Matteo Renzi, a former Italian prime minister, which is why he wants the EU to “expel Hungary from the Union.” Trouble is, the EU has no mechanism for expulsion, and requires unanimity even to sanction a member. And Poland, Hungary and their ilk have each other’s back.

In exactly the same way, individual members can block the EU from solving any other problem. The biggest emergency before the pandemic was the refugee crisis of 2015-16. But a few nations, including Hungary and Poland again, balked at all attempts to reform Europe’s dysfunctional, and nation-based, asylum system, in defiance of the union’s top court. So the EU still has no common migrant policy, just as another refugee crisis looms.

On it goes, down the list of problems that could be solved by a United States of Europe, but won’t be solved by this EU. The currency union, for example, was meant to be a “convergence machine” but has instead led to “divergence and polarization” between a core of export powerhouses like Germany and a periphery of debt-financed laggards like Italy. A full fiscal union with massive redistribution might fix this, but won’t ever happen, because the core countries reject it.

In foreign policy, the EU can only act with unanimity, which means that a single veto blocks even a press release. China and others exploit this by picking off individual states with financial largesse. Moreover, member states cannot agree on common interests — in the Libyan civil war, for example, France supports one side, Italy the other. In defense policy, the EU is a no-show because there isn’t, and won’t ever be, a European army.

None of this is to belittle the EU’s achievements. In trade, the one area where it does act as a United States of Europe, it is a global superpower. In consumer and antitrust regulation, it’s powerful enough that firms all over the world bow to the “Brussels effect” by complying with its rules. The EU is indeed a place where “in peacetime, everybody can prosper,” as Goethe wrote about the Holy Roman Empire.

But what the EU isn’t, and to all appearances will never be, is “a Europe that protects,” to use a favorite phrase of French President Emmanuel Macron. In the absence of major crises, such a union can persist for a long time, losing its relevance so gradually that the decline isn’t always visible.

That is, until a threat materializes that’s existential. For the Holy Roman Empire, it was Napoleon, who simply dissolved the millennium-old realm in 1806, without anybody taking much notice. For the EU, it could also be a foreign enemy. Or another onslaught of refugees, nuclear blackmail or environmental disaster. Or indeed the next virus.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.”

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