Mark Leonard is director and co-founder of the pan-European think tank European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Ivan Krastev is co-chair of the ECFR, chair of the Center for Liberal Studies in Sofia and a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. The text is based on a study by the ECFR.
The Covid-19 crisis created both a “European moment” and a “nationalist moment”. The Heads of State or Government negotiated intensively (and socially distant) in Brussels for four days and nights in July, until they reached an agreement on the EU reconstruction fund after a heavy battle.
This was celebrated as a milestone on the road to a more integrated Europe, in which the individual member states transfer responsibilities to Brussels.
The European Commission is now taking out joint loans for all EU countries. This is celebrated as the ‘Hamilton moment’: just as former US Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton once succeeded in transferring individual states’ debts to the responsibility of the US federal government, European heads of state and government now have a big step towards unification. States made by Europe. At least that’s the argument.
The EU recovery fund in the corona crisis is a breakthrough
The recovery fund is actually a real breakthrough. However, justified pride in the carefully reached agreement should not lead European political leaders to overlook the warning signs of this “European moment”.
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Surveys on behalf of the European Council for External Relations (ECFR) in nine European countries, which make up two thirds of the European population, show one thing: the strong demand for coordinated action at EU level to help individual countries emerge from the crisis Recovery and ensuring Europe’s survival worldwide are based more on disappointment than support for existing institutions.
Actually, Europeans are disappointed with the EU in the corona crisis
We conducted the survey at the beginning of the summer. The results show that during the Covid crisis, Europeans felt completely abandoned by EU institutions, multilateral organizations and Europe’s closest allies. 63 percent of respondents in Italy and 61 percent in France said the EU had not proven itself in the crisis situation created by the pandemic.
Many were – rightly or wrongly – disappointed with the EU’s initial response. But at the same time, the crisis created the belief that a more powerful Union is the only chance for Europe to play a decisive role on a global level in the future.
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Our results also show that the confidence of Europeans in the United States fell victim to the pandemic. Only about 2 percent of Europeans surveyed believed that the US had been a “helpful ally” in the fight against Covid. More than 70 percent of traditionally pro-American Danes and Portuguese said they are now more critical of the US. 68 percent of the French, 65 percent of the Germans and 64 percent of the Spaniards also expressed this opinion.
The desire for more Europe is linked to the crisis in transatlantic relations
The crisis in transatlantic relations is not only due to Europeans’ aversion to Donald Trump, his “America first” policy and his explosive Twitter account. It is also based on the US response to the pandemic, which shook many Europeans. They find the US too weak and dysfunctional and no longer trust the country to defend the Western world.
At the same time, Europeans have become skeptical and suspicious of the future of the EU-China partnership. The pandemic and Chinese policies in Hong Kong have revealed China’s ugly authoritarian face. China has made every effort to divert its responsibility for the outbreak of the Covid crisis.
And Beijing has done everything it can to sow discord within the EU. In all European countries except Bulgaria, China’s assessment has deteriorated as a result of the crisis. This was even the case in countries like Portugal and Spain, where Chinese fans and protective equipment were sent.
Only if EU countries work together can they face pandemics, intimidation and climate change
The fear that the world could slide into chaotic conditions after Covid-19 has shown Europeans: only if they work together at the EU level can they effectively combat pandemics, superpower intimidation and climate change. Our surveys show that a majority in every country is convinced that the crisis demonstrates the need for more cooperation at EU level.
When asked, Europeans clearly state what they expect from cooperation at EU level: a European Union that tightens controls at its external borders, returns at least part of the production of essential goods to Europe and tackles climate change resolutely.
Given the difficulties EU countries had in purchasing personal protective equipment in the early months of the pandemic, Europeans are calling for medical supplies to be produced in Europe again – even though this translates into higher prices. It is hoped that the trillion-euro financial package will be able to fund top projects that make Europe visibly safer, from vaccines and drug supplies to massive investments in solar energy and digital innovations. And that such projects ensure the economic viability of Europe in the Covid-caused tsunami of uncertainty.
Citizens want Europe to produce important goods in the EU again – even if it becomes more expensive
The Covid crisis has confused the divisions in Europe between nationalists calling for national solutions and cosmopolitans calling for common global leadership. On the one hand, many nationalists seem to have recognized that European cooperation is the only guarantee of preserving the interests of individual states.
Here is a remarkable rethinking: despite the emergence of populists in recent years, not one in five respondents thinks that cooperation at EU level has gone too far. On the other hand, during the crisis, many cosmopolitans recognized that Europe’s best to maintain its values is to strengthen its own “strategic sovereignty” rather than relying on global multilateral institutions.
The division between nationalists and cosmopolitans is no longer clear
But this “European moment” should not hide the fact that there is no majority in Europe for more EU integration – not even a passionate minority. What European citizens think today is strongly reminiscent of what the British historian Alan Milward argued in his book The European Salvation of the Nation-State: The aim of the European project was to strengthen, not weaken, national sovereignty.
Milwards’ analysis focused on the fact that in the 1950s the affected countries wanted to free their respective states from deep-seated internal conflicts. The call for ‘more Europe’ in 2020, however, is about protecting the nation-state from outside pressure. The data we have on hand suggests that European citizens want to enable Brussels to keep their nation states relevant.
The “Hamilton moment” could turn into Euroscepticism
This paradox is sobering. The general public wants more action at EU level because it believes the EU has failed in the first phase of the crisis. The wish is not based on the assumption that the EU has proven to be a problem solver.
If politicians at national and European level do not act decisively and quickly, this “Hamilton moment” could give way to a new wave of Euroscepticism.
People don’t want a perfect union or a new European constitution. No, the desire for “more Europe” is rooted in a deep-seated fear of citizens losing control in a dangerous world. It’s about strengthening national sovereignty. This is a Europe of destiny rather than choice.