At least in their rhetoric, the European Commission seems to have understood the significance of this crisis, but Quaker MARTIN LENG says a greater international effort is needed to save the world.
When coronavirus struck Europe, the EU was mid-way through negotiating its Multi-Annual Financial Framework (MFF), a broad-strokes agreement between Europe’s leaders about how the EU will spend its money over the next seven years. Buoyed by a relatively healthy economy and imbued with a sense of purposeful unity by Brexit, the EU’s member states had been edging towards a deal – until Covid.
Italy, struck early and mercilessly by the virus, quickly found itself in need of material, financial and political solidarity from its fellow EU member states. In late March, Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte called for flexible access to emergency credit via the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), an intergovernmental organ established in the wake of the Eurozone crisis to provide rapid loans to countries in economic peril. The catch? The liability is pooled among Eurozone countries, including the Netherlands and Austria, which publicly balked at the idea of burdening their taxpayers with ‘Italian debt’.
Their counter-offer was that any ESM loans should be conditional on an Italian commitment to sweeping public sector reform, as well as cuts to government spending. Insisting on these conditions – originally drawn up in the wake of the Greek financial crisis – went down well in the Hague and Vienna. But for many across the Mediterranean it brought back bitter memories of the years after 2008, when miserly northern bureaucrats imposed brutal neoliberalism and European ‘solidarity’ felt more like debt bondage. By May – with tens of thousands of EU citizens dead, and tens of millions unemployed – any semblance of a common structural response to coronavirus seemed a faraway prospect, and old north-south wounds had been thoroughly salted by counter-accusations of Protestant stinginess and Latin profligacy.
Then, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron stepped in with a plan which the Financial Times called a ‘very big deal for Europe’ – the EU itself would raise a 500 billion euro recovery fund on the financial markets, to be distributed as grants among member states to address the fallout from Covid. The EU has its own healthy credit score and could raise the cash, but common debt on this scale would be unprecedented: Germany itself has long resisted so-called ‘Eurobonds’, and this crossing of the Rubicon by Berlin was felt to be an historic milestone on the path to a true Eurozone fiscal union.
By the end of the month, the Franco-German proposal – now worth 750 billion euros and branded the NextGeneration EU Recovery Instrument – formed the heart of the European Commission’s plan to relaunch the EU economy along more sustainable lines. In addition, the 1.1 trillion euros MFF proposals were dusted off and redrafted to pump as much money as possible into social and economic cohesion – bracing for the economic shockwave to come.
There is also an emphasis on the European economic sovereignty, yet another tacit admission that globalisation has been irreparably stalled by coronavirus. These are huge sums, and big ideas – the detail of the Commission proposals suggests radical changes to our economic life will be needed to respond to this ‘defining generational task’.
So far the Netherlands has been muted about the Commission’s plan; Austria has gently floated a preference for loans rather than grants, but has not been dismissive outright. The lukewarm response is seen as favourable to an eventual deal, given the countries’ previously vocal hostility to common debt. Germany’s weight counts for a lot, it would seem. But ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’, and the fate of the EU’s coronavirus response ultimately lies in the hands of the member states who must agree to them, unanimously, at the European Council in July.
Only time – and a political tug-of-war – will tell whether the EU is capable of genuine solidarity during an unprecedented crisis. If not, southern Europe’s faith in the European project – already eroded massively during the economic crisis – may be snuffed out permanently. The stakes could not be higher. But a lack of compassion is not the only existential threat facing the EU as a union of values.
Its pre-Covid MFF proposals were riven with worrying proposals for anyone who subscribes to the idea of the European peace project. Vast sums were set to be funnelled into military research and development, hard-security capacity-building in the developing world, and stricter border controls – often with limited democratic oversight. And sadly, our colleagues at European Network Against Arms Trade (ENAAT) report that ‘despite difficult negotiations to come, EU funding for the military is likely to be barely impacted by Covid-19’. It seems that – despite the vast burden on our public services and skyrocketing debt – European governments still feel the need to channel billions of euros to the military-industrial complex.
The facts are clear: Covid has changed the world. Its impact has forced us all to reassess the assumptions on which our societies are built: which employees are ‘vital’ and ‘skilled’, what our working habits should look like, what our economic priorities they are, and how fragile and unequal our economies have become in pursuit of profit. Germany and France made it clear last month: in terms of radical change, nothing is off the table. Now is the time to embrace a better vision for Europe and the people living here – and it’s our last chance to rethink our societies and economies before climate change becomes irreversible.
At the European Council next month, a courageous commitment to each other is vital if we are to preserve the European project, our economic wellbeing and our planet. EU member states must respond to coronavirus with a truly radical agenda for change, built on a foundation of generosity and sustainability. And our solidarity must also extend beyond our borders – our governments must refuse to feed the international war machine at a time of so much senseless death, and re-commit to the ideals of the EU as a peace project and example for the world. As we call on Europe’s leaders to embrace peace and compassion, we are once again reminded of the relevance of our values in moments of great change.
Martin Leng works for the Quaker Council for European Affairs, an NGO based in Brussels which represents the voice of the Quaker community in European politics