Handling the Covid-19 coronavirus situation seems to be one of the biggest challenges of our post-’89 new world – but also a possibility to rethink and recalibrate European co-operation and maybe the entire European project. The end of a period and hopefully the beginning of another one.
Ruling by decree in a war-style fashion sounds heroic and gives evidence to citizens about their respective states’ social responsibility, and unquestionable dedication to the public good. No one can deny the importance of a firm stand on the part of public authorities in emergency situations. Fighting an unknown virus, however, effectively and with lasting results, cannot be managed by national armies. Especially not when the health services are unprepared, unequipped and improperly financed; when nurses and doctors are forced to treat patients without masks or proper protective equipment and are themselves infected and so become distributors and not exterminators of the pandemic. Soldiers in uniforms and in armored vehicles might be needed to hold back potential upheavals and to guarantee basic services and supplies; but they cannot detect the whereabout of viruses or stop an unforeseeable and non-visible spread or prevent the next wave or next generation of viral attack. Neither can they stop the return of business-as-usual, which is going to happen the first possible moment the pandemics relaxes only to come back.
The virus knows no borders
Meanwhile, European nation states prepare for war, close their borders and consider a general state of emergency with, if possible, curfews and the mightiest countries of the world declare that the end to the danger is approaching and call for a return to work, suggesting that the economy (world economy they mean) needs to be in motion, otherwise we really don’t have a future. But even the weaker, most exposed nation states (like most of the EU member states) agree tacitly: borders de facto are semi-closed. Goods, guest workers on a daily base commuting across borders, politicians with their experts and assistants (forgetting or not forgetting pandemics rules), families with multiple citizenships, returning ex-migrants, etc. are allowed to travel. This is understandable. There is no other way. One cannot stop the world moving and interacting. But while declaring war on the virus and keeping parts of their populations home for an unpredictable amount of time, they claim and wait for assistance from the over-criticized European Union and watch helplessly the partisan decisions of multinational companies and their consequences on populations that are in lock-down. In other words: they acknowledge their extreme limitations in the medium- and long-term to find solutions to the crisis. This is, however, not at all new. The Coronavirus has only made this more obvious and undeniable than any time before.
To be citizens of a value community
The ‘comeback of the nation state’ emerged from the anxiety and helplessness of societies exposed to crises, threats and catastrophes that supranational institutions, eminently the EU, were supposed to handle. In the lack of credible, accountable and enabling institutions, and in the light of escalating crises, people have turned back to what seems to be plausible, controllable and most rational for them: to their national governments. Nation states offer, albeit falsely, social services, shelter, jobs, and safe life, and not least the possibility of democratic control in a community of belonging. The need for the co-existence of these material and socio-psychological conditions are perfectly understandable in the current situation. The problem arises when the nation state cannot deliver on its promises.
The paradox of our post-’89 epoch is that the promises of enlarging European integration are based, among other factors, upon the unenforced cooperation and pooled sovereignty of its member states that have recently re-discovered and vehemently propagated their sovereignty. In other words, the undeniable malfunctioning of the EU is the failure of nation states and so also our failure to live cooperatively in a larger trans-national framework.
Among the disturbing and self-contradictory narratives of global mobilization and national protection, there is little to nothing to be heard about a real, sustainable future. No other time seems to be more appropriate to consider seriously existential questions about ourselves as Europeans, citizens of a value community and jointly built and maintained supranational and intergovernmental institutions.
Questions for a new start
Why don’t we start to reconsider then our future in the light of conflicting and co-existing old and new realities? How to combine indispensable global production and connectivity with more local and regional sustainable economies? Why not produce and distribute what we can, and could well, in the not so distant past? Why not to say farewell to a good portion of unnecessary consumption? To get rid of deadly truck convoys on our overstressed highways? To diminish radically our flights to faraway countries for short business meetings and conferences? Why not re-consider our entire outdated and ineffective educational systems and introduce new ways and forms of knowledge creation and distribution based on our splendidly sophisticated IT? Why not cooperating empower health care systems by making them more socially tailored and responsible to anticipate new waves of pandemics and other global threats? Why not re-consider the habits, rules and regulations of our financial, economic and legal systems, the inequalities and disparities of incomes between poor and rich regions and countries, between women and men, and generally between the weaker and stronger players of the global and European single market?
In other words: why not start to negotiate a new pact/compound/contract at different interconnected – local, regional, European, etc. – levels?
Sustainability of the European project
The European nation state – however heroic and honest its determination is to combat the Corona virus and other unforeseeable viruses and further calamities – cannot do the job alone. Without new ways of institutionalized and spontaneous cooperation, in other words, without new forms and rules of democracy, there is hardly any solution for the sustainability of the European project.
Europe proved to be capable of renewing herself several times during the past centuries. The wake-up call of this Coronavirus sounds like a final call. Creativity, the potential for innovation, dormant cross-border solidarity, new solutions for further democratizations are available in abundance and waiting for debate, deliberation and implementation.
We not only need to defend our achievements such as Schengen, we need to further develop them. A more coordinated across frontier approach could make border-restrictions unnecessary, we could easily share expertise and perspectives and overbridge the gap between well-defined national politics and harsh local realities.