Another crisis, another round of headlines suggesting the European Union is about to disintegrate. Politico says that coronavirus “could break the EU”. Reaction, a news website, predicts “the looming collapse of the eurozone”. New York Magazine asks whether the pandemic will “tear the EU apart”. The only thing as durable as the EU itself is the belief in its imminent demise.
As early as 1953 the diplomat Robert Boothby told Tory backbenchers that the European Coal and Steel Community would fail. His view was echoed not just by Harold Macmillan in 1955 (who told MPs that the “Monnet concept” was “doomed to failure”), but also by Boothby himself three decades later in 1981, when, as a peer, he warned the House of Lords that “the EEC will collapse. It will break up of its own accord.” More predictions of doom followed with Danish and French “no” votes to further EU integration in 1992 and 2005 respectively – and then with the eurozonene crisis. In 2012 the respected CEBR think tank put the chance of the eurozone’s collapse at 99 per cent and declared its survival “a political impossibility”. Then came the migrant crisis of 2015 (Europe’s “breaking point”, according to the New York Times) and the Brexit vote in 2016, which Nigel Farage predicted would “trigger a domino effect” leading to the EU’s collapse.
Coronavirus has unleashed the latest round of doom-mongering. Borders have gone up within the Schengen zone. The EU has not coordinated health policies in its member states. The economically strong have done too little to help the weak: despite calls for coronabonds, or mutualised debt, the EU is heading for a disappointing economic rescue and recovery package.
At their e-summit on 23 April, leaders agreed to support struggling economies through the European Stability Mechanism (the ESM, hated for imposing austerity on southern Europe during the eurozone crisis) and some combination of grants and loans issued through the EU budget.
It is therefore tempting to predict the EU’s failure. Yet today, as before, the euro-gloomsters make three crucial mistakes.
First, they mis-categorise the enterprise. The EU has fewer powers than a federal state and more responsibilities than an intergovernmental organisation. Even some valid criticisms of it exaggerate because they do not make fair allowances for this hybridity. You can reasonably argue that national health policies should be pooled at an EU level in the future. But you cannot reasonably argue that the EU, which has almost no power over member states’ health policies, “failed” to properly manage responses to Covid-19. That misreads both the function and the scale of the EU’s powers. You might as well argue that your bottle opener “failed” to heat your flat properly.
Second, the euro-gloomsters subject the EU to standards that other polities are spared. Yes, EU leaders talk a lot about solidarity and European values, sometimes sincerely. But that does not mean they do not also have their own electorates and national interests, just as leaders of the US states proclaim their belief in their union while standing up specifically for those who elected them. Even as I write, US state governments are trying to outbid one another to buy medical equipment. Some have talked of closing their borders. Rich states have grumbled about payments to poorer ones. Yet no one asks if the US is about to “fall apart”.
Third, in their obsession with this binary scenario, the euro-gloomsters miss a more interesting question: how are the complicated pressures on the EU changing it? The same mistake was made in the eurozone crisis, which prompted too many articles about the EU’s collapse and not enough about the huge structural shifts that were taking place, shifts that looked impossible beforehand and have changed the EU utterly.
A similar dynamic is playing out today. You can point to the absence of coronabonds and say that the EU is doomed. But far more insightfully, you can look at the other previously unthinkable things that it is now doing. The ESM programmes in its coronavirus rescue package will be shorn of the intrusive conditions that made them so unpopular in the eurozone crisis. The package also includes common unemployment reinsurance, until recently a glint in federalist eyes. And the EU is almost certainly on the path to a permanently and drastically higher budget; where weeks ago leaders were squabbling over fractions of percentages now there is talk of it effectively increasing by half or more.
Even on the shibboleth of mutualised debt, the union is edging in the right direction. Angela Merkel may have stood firm against coronabonds but she has departed from all German orthodoxy by agreeing to a milder version of that idea: the European Commission issuing debt backed by the EU budget. And perpetual bonds – debt with no maturity date – are now also a serious part of the discussion in a way they were not before. Big structural taboos are being broken, in ways that will change the future of the European project.
There remain very many useful, pressing questions about the EU. Is the borderless Schengen zone sustainable in the age of Covid-19 or will we see a return to national borders? Is the virus rescue package a small step towards the fiscal federalism that will give the union its best chance of a cohesive future, or is it a flop? Will disaffection in countries such as Italy express itself in shifting alliances within the EU?
All are so much more pressing – and, frankly, interesting – than the easy, abstract, clicks-driven question of whether the EU is doomed. It probably isn’t. Ask those questions instead.
This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave