Algis Krupavičius. Delegitimization or is the European Union withdrawing?

Pandemic surrounds us. More than 2 billion people around the world are now in self-isolation. The world closes up, though China is gradually opening up. But Europe has closed off. Perhaps except Sweden.

The coronavirus drama is rapidly developing in namely Europe. So far, based on its statistics, Europe is far ahead of both the USA and China. After two world wars, Europe was the place in the world, where more than 60 years, the largest transnational integration project ever was being implemented. Over time, it had several names, but currently, it is the European Union. The optimists of this project have for a time even seen the mirage of a United States of Europe on the horizon.

However, instead of it, a molecule appeared – the coronavirus. A molecule, which might even be too small to see with a common microscope. But it has made Europe into a place, where “the rescue of the drowning is left to the drowning.” And so Italy, Spain, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and so on have closed up. Even though Europe has for a time now wanted to be an example of open societies for the whole world.

Things are different now. In a public opinion survey from early last week in Spain, Italy and France, we can see that a large majority of these countries’ citizens favour the strict self-isolation measures imposed by their governments. In Spain, they have the support of 87% of respondents, Italy – an entire 90% and France – 88%.[1] In Lithuania, some time ago, 66% of respondents viewed the government’s actions positively. There is almost no doubt that in essence, we would see a very similar public opinion picture across European countries. Its name is “the return to nation-states.”

Is the European Union helping overcome the crisis? This is a question that was also asked of the Italians, Spaniards and French. Most (61%) of Italians answered that the EU is not helping and only 24% thought that it is.

In France and Spain, opinions on this matter varied more. 46% of the French evaluated the EU negatively and 31% positively, but the distribution of opinions was in the negative for the European Union. In Spain, it was not a majority, but still, only 43% that thought the EU is helping to overcome the crisis, while 34% – that it isn’t. But there were significant expectations for EU help. In a 2016 Eurobarometer survey, an entire 89% of respondents said that they would expect help from the EU if a natural disaster struck their country. That the EU’s cumbersomeness during a pandemic is and will be viewed critically by most EU country societies (perhaps except such hyper-Euro-optimists like Lithuania) probably is not in doubt.

So where is the European Union today? Some EU policy observers say that the European Union has withdrawn. Others think that it might not have withdrawn yet, but its actions regarding the pandemic are too little, too late. And it is hard to disagree.

A few examples. Brussels. March 9. Monday. Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s press conference to mark the European Commission’s first 100 days. There is a single paragraph in the president’s speech regarding the pandemic. In it is the message that the EU is monitoring events in Italy, there could be a notable impact by the virus on societies and economies and actions must be coordinated. There’s also the notion that the Commission’s coronavirus response team (an entire five European commissioners in it: Lenarčič, Kyriakides, Johansson, Vălean and von der Leyen herself) alongside the member states are beginning to discuss preparations for the potential crisis, risk evaluations, measure coordination, diagnostics, treatment and vaccine research financing, joint public procurement, for example for protective equipment. Bureaucratically it’s all seemingly correct. But outside the windows of the EC’s offices, there are already 144 thousand infections. The centre of gravity for these is rapidly shifting from China to Europe.

To be fair, it is necessary to note that in regard to the speed and scope of EU institutional response to the pandemic, another question should be posed – what is it that the EU can do here? And from there, a whole slew of answers arrives. Healthcare policy is the remit of member states. This crisis has no precedent. It is global. Finally, what can EU officials do in response to the crisis? Tim King, an analyst at POLITICO, wrote: “What EU officials like Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen can do to respond to the coronavirus is only a pale imitation of what national leaders can do.”[2]

The EU passed a 37 billion euro plan, which is being compared to the Marshall Plan. For countries with economies of the size of Lithuania’s, an extra 1.5 billion euro injection, when we ourselves intend to allocate 2.5 and later on 5 billion euro, is significant. And it is indisputable. Especially when the European Central Bank, European Stability Mechanism have far greater financial tools. Thus, the EU has capacities here.

Nevertheless, the direct EU billions look a little different int eh context of larger states. In order to safeguard its economy, Germany approved a 750 billion euro bailout package, France declared a 45 billion euro injection into its economy and a guarantee for bank loans up to 300 billion euro, Spain formed a 200 billion euro bailout package.

Even the most pandemic struck Italy has planned a more than 350 billion euro aid programme for its economy. Neighbouring Poland approved a 47 billion euro national budget package to resolve coronavirus issues. Jointly, based on very preliminary calculations, approximately a 2 trillion euro burden of overcoming the crisis will land on member states.

By the way, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki even clashed with the EC, stating that, “So the flexibility that the EU is proposing is certainly a good step, but so far the EU hasn’t taken any new measures. It’s evident that in this particular case, the EU doesn’t act as fast as the nation-states, doesn’t act as fast as Poland.”[3] Without going into details, Morawiecki is completely correct here.

And these verbal exchanges continue. On March 26, von der Leyen explained at the European Parliament plenary session that, “When Europe really needed to be there for each other, too many [countries] initially looked out for themselves. When Europe really needed an all-for-one-spirit, too many initially gave an only-for-me response. When Europe really needed to prove that this is not only a fair weather union, too many [countries] refused to share their umbrella.”[4]

It seems that the EU is experiencing a crisis of delegitimization or the loss of legitimacy. It has been difficult to come to terms in even the small EU member state leaders’ circle. Even if the EU was fairly effective in resolving the 2008-2010 crisis, was active in the face of the 2015 migrant crisis and so on.

Why is the EU so passive today? We can probably find a number of reasons, but one of the most important is the lack of political leaders at top EU institutions. Without a doubt, the excuse can be made that the European Commission has been recently formed, European Council president Charles Michel is also new and the entire European Parliament has just begun its term, thus it is hard to expect political leadership from them. Nevertheless, it’s worth disagreeing with such an attitude. It seems that Brussels politics are faced with continuing problems of political leadership.

A few facts. The European Parliament elections are, it is no secret, viewed as second rate. This status is firstly displayed by low voter turnouts in them. The appointments of senior EU institution heads have long been ill with the disease of “democratic deficit.”

Five years ago, some competition emerged through the spitzenkandidat procedure to become head of the EC, but in 2019, due to political dealings in some large EU countries, this was ended. It’s also no holds barred regarding appointments to the European Commission, where the convenient, but not necessarily competent are wanted. Finally, we have a result when the EU’s top institutions hold not second, but third or fourth echelon politicians. They are typically not leaders, their credo is bureaucratic politics. Or politics with pre-written rules. However, in times of crisis, rules often fail to work or must at least be adapted to circumstances. One Lithuanian crisis manager also repeated for weeks on end that all is well, that we are working based on an algorithm, ergo pre-written rules. Of course, as usual, we can find exceptions everywhere, including among EU politicians, but exceptions only confirm the rule. And if the EU can just somehow find leaders, then perhaps the Union won’t withdraw.

Algis Krupavičius is a professor at Vytautas Magnus University.