The coronavirus crisis is still far from its culmination, both in Europe and in the world, but many politicians and commentators - and, no doubt, citizens - have already realized that the European Union has failed in this matter and that its negligence can lead to the collapse of the EU. Although the first statement can still be accepted, the second is still erroneous. So, what will coronavirus mean in the short and medium-term for the European Union?
In connection with the coronavirus, the media and political funeral of the European Union might have occurred too early, even before all European governments realized that coronavirus is not a very strong flu. The Russian, American or British press did not hide the grief due to the slow and awkward reaction of the European Union - even last week it speculated that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could become infected from the EU negotiator regarding Brexit, Michel Barnier, but the capitals also expressed criticism members. Of course, it was Rome, as well as Vienna and Prague. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, rhetorically trying to defend, for example, the free internal Schengen borders, was perhaps the most ridiculed politician in Europe on some days of March.
So the European Union project failed? The answer depends on what we consider the European Union. If, as politicians do in the domestic arena, we restrict it to supranational Brussels institutions, such as the European Commission or the European Parliament, then the union has by no means failed. Bodies in which representatives of Member States do not make decisions, do not have any executive authority to act in the event of such events, remained. The European Commission does not represent the Government of the European Union with the aim of declaring a state of emergency. The European Parliament is not a parliament that can authorize the government to proclaim or continue measures to overcome this crisis.
Nevertheless, the assertion that the European Union has failed has nevertheless been grounded. The European Union is not just the European Commission. The European Union is the Member States and their ability to host and coordinate their activities on accessible platforms. And states could work better in this. The coronavirus crisis could not be solved centrally in the European Union. The idea that the European Commission has several secret giant hangars with curtains, respirators, and fans, not only goes beyond the legal capabilities of the commission but also goes beyond the real possibilities of any considerations of any headquarters of a quasi-federal unit. But intergovernmental coordination and communication could be much better. The European Commission also did not sabotage the recent European Council video summit at which states could, if they wished so, agree to create European bonds in order to offset the effects of the crisis on the economies of member states.
Federation or disintegration?
The assertion that Brussels failed must be correct, “the interstate parts of European integration have failed.” Passionate Eurosceptics, apparently, would also not have a smile on their faces, because if interstate agreements do not work, what else can work in the European Union? However, after the initial shock, which, incidentally, was received and also suffered by various bodies of national states, the European Union platform proved to be a fairly effective international regime. The states conduct dialogue and debate together, despite disagreements on some issues, avoiding more serious conflicts, and trying to find joint solutions. Examples are collaboration on the repatriation of citizens or the offer of hospital beds for patients in more affected countries. This proves that European integration is built on a solid foundation.
European integration has overcome a number of crises - even in its ancient past, when, for example, France boycotted the actions of the institutions of the European Communities for six months in the 1960s. In the era of Charles de Gaulle. Moreover, the coronavirus crisis is not its problem, it wasn’t caused by integration. If someone claims that this is a tax for the Schengen area and free borders, he turns a blind eye to the fact that the disease has spread dynamically and also spreads to countries outside of Schengen. The assertion that viruses know no boundaries is trivial, but the repeated tendency of some former or current politicians to free such genies from very unsightly bottles does not stop repeating this.
However, thinking about the impact of the crisis on European integration is logical. In academia, European integration is often explained by the theory of historical institutionalism.
It briefly argues that the behavior of institutions or political processes is firmly rooted in models that have been established in the past and that determine current and future decisions. Thanks to these formulas, it is difficult to radically change something, especially political institutions that create their own memory, generate their own interests, and are resistant to fundamental reforms. On the other hand, in historical events, there are so-called critical crossroads that open the way for new solutions and new opportunities. But the coronavirus crisis cannot be called a crossroad - because of it, the European Union will not turn into a more rigid and centralized bloc and will not break up. Changes will happen anyway. However, this might be a change that the virus would make to the integration. Coronavirus only accelerates and exacerbates it.
First, why the European Union will not become more centralized or break up due to the crisis. Member States do not want any of these scenarios. And it is precisely the states that continue to remain the main subjects of the European integration, the privileged position of which affirmed the name “kings of treaties.” They will remain after the crisis, they will become the mouths of the politicians who now stand behind them. Since no government of any member state faces a public challenge to its actions - on the contrary, the public massively approves and supports the progress of governments in the European Union, the coronavirus will not cause a political earthquake in domestic politics. And we should not expect cardinal changes from the national politicians in terms of focusing attention on political priorities and decisions. The European Commission, even if it were stronger and more confident than under the leadership of Ursula von der Leyen, does not have any options for centralizing the union after the crisis.
The future is diverse
So what will post-crisis European integration look like? Due to the fact that this is in the hands of Member States, it will be diverse and different. For centuries, European Union demonstrates different rates of integration. In the end, the mentioned Schengen has never touched all countries, which also applies to another key element of the European Union, namely the Eurozone. We might expect that further enhanced cooperation will revolve around it. This could be easily done without interfering with the Lisbon Treaty, the fundamental right of European integration. Member States have demonstrated the ability to conclude intergovernmental agreements using the institutions and framework of European integration several times. States that want to work more closely in one place or another will do so without the consent or participation of all. It can even be assumed that, due to the crisis, the especially wealthy Western European states will not want to constantly argue with everyone with politicians such as Viktor Orban, who, in addition, abuses the crisis to further strengthen the illiberalism in the Hungarian political system.
Decision-making practice regarding European integration is traditionally based on hyper-consensus. And this is likely to turn into a regime where collaboration and participation become more voluntary and flexible. Do you want to collaborate and adhere to certain standards? Okay. If not, then do not stay flexible without financial injections from the union. This is not about megalomaniac and bizarre projects, such as building a federal Europe or a European person, which is often intimidating by Eurosceptics, but about specific measures, such as strengthening the protection of the external borders of the European Union or, ultimately, creating other mechanisms for the European Union to respond to the crisis type Covid-19.
In light of the foregoing, a few words should be said about a possible Czech position. It won’t be in flying colors. The current reaction of Czech politics and its understanding of European integration in the context of the coronavirus crisis does not cause much optimism. Prime Minister Andrei Babish sharply criticizes the union itself, appealing that there is no support. Thus, he himself casts a shadow over recent legal disputes regarding the corrupt distribution of EU subsidies in favor of his companies. The President of the Czech Republic continues to adhere to his pro-Russian and pro-Chinese positions. Thanks and praising them for their support, while criticizing the European Union for inaction. These events can throw the Czech Republic to the periphery of Europe, as a whole it will not affect especially for the EU, but for the Czech Republic, this is a loss of position in the European community and transformation into a kind of Hungary.
Read the original text at Hospodářské noviny