The European Non-Union

Dr Oliver Hartwich
7 April, 2020

We all know those newspaper segments which feature a previously famous person. And then we read these articles wondering why we have not heard from them for such a long time, and sometimes we may even be surprised to hear that they are still alive.

Well, it is time to introduce the political equivalent of such a feature. To start with, I would like to know what the European Union is up to these days.

A long time ago, probably until February this year, we all thought the EU was a powerful multilateral organisation. Indeed, 52 percent of Britons found it so oppressive they had voted to leave the EU in 2016.

In these strange corona times, however, the EU is nowhere to be seen. Okay, that is not fair. You can still find the EU and its organs if you look for them. They are even keeping themselves busy.

The EU Parliament will hold a special sitting next week. The EU Commission issues regular media releases related to the crisis. The President of the European Council Charles Michel tweets about his Covid-19 phone calls with the presidents of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. He also likes hashtags like #WhateverItTakes, #together and #StrongerTogether.

Despite all this demonstrated busyness, hardly anyone still takes notice. Not of the European Parliament, the European Commission or the European Council. In the greatest crisis since World War II, the European Union does not play a leading role. It is the nation-states that have taken matters into their own hands.

The EU previously aimed to regulate even details of everyday life. But now that its members are enacting serious limitations on cross-border travel, the EU stands by as if it had nothing to do with it.

It is not just that EU members were closing their borders to varying degrees. They barely managed to give early notice to each other when they did. Of course, they did not consult with the EU, either.

It is not just people who experienced restrictions. Several EU members have also taken steps to prevent the export of medical equipment to other countries, including their European neighbours.

These policy measures would have been unthinkable only a few months ago. Remember how former British Prime Minister Theresa May failed to get any concessions from the EU on access to the common market? Back then, the EU argued that the ‘four freedoms’, that is freedom of movement for people, capital, goods and services, were fundamental and inseparable. Well, not anymore, it appears.

In the corona crisis, it is every country for itself.

Italian hospitals and ICU wards are bursting at the seams, whereas German hospitals are empty. In preparation for the expected wave of Covid-19 patients, the German health authorities had told hospitals to put everything else on hold. The big wave of hospitalisations still has not arrived yet (and maybe it will not come), but in the meantime, in Italy and Spain patients are dying in their hundreds because they do not get the medical care they need. Is that European solidarity?

Or is it European solidarity that Germany rescues its economy while watching its neighbours’ economies go to the wall? Berlin’s package of subsidies and credit guarantees stands at well over a trillion Euros. The total programme for Italy is a measly Euro 25 billion because Rome cannot afford more. It would even be in Germany’s self-interest to help Italy out economically. But calls by prominent economists like Hans-Werner Sinn for Germany to donate large sums of money to Italy unconditionally and unilaterally are falling on deaf ears.

Of course, there will not be jointly issued government bonds in Europe, the so-called ‘corona bonds’. Northern European countries, not just Germany, see them as a pathway towards debt pooling. Given the expectation that sooner or later some Southern European countries will slide into default, the chances of issuing such bonds are slightly more than zero.

While the health situation is dire, the common market suspended, the Schengen free travel area is a faint memory and fiscal solidarity a mere idea, Europe’s politics have turned ugly as well.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has just received parliamentary consent from his ruling party to suspend democracy. According to the just-passed law, the government can extend the emergency indefinitely because of the pandemic – without the consent of Parliament. It is now also given the right to “suspend the application of certain laws by decree”, to fail to comply with fixed standards and to “introduce other exceptional measures to guarantee the stability of life, health, personal and material security of citizens and the economy”.

With this rule by decree, parliament suspended and elections abolished for the time of the emergency, Orbán has effectively become a dictator. Fittingly, there is now also a law to punish the spread of fake news with up to 5 years in prison and leaving one’s quarantine with up to 8 years.

The Hungarian government maintains that none of these measures are anything to worry about. Parliament could withdraw them (sure, except Orbán’s party holds a two-thirds majority) and the pandemic could end (but it would be up to the Prime Minister to decide when).

While Hungary has thus turned itself into a temporary dictatorship, what does the EU do? The same EU that always liked to pontificate about its democratic and liberal values? The answer is not much.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen only managed to issue a general statement that it was “of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values as set out in the Treaties.” She did not even mention Hungary by name.

Hours later, after much pressure, von der Leyen then added that she was “particularly concerned with the situation in Hungary.” That would have sent shivers down Orbán’s spine – or maybe not.

If the European Union lets Hungary’s behaviour pass, it calls into question the foundations on which it stands. It also encourages every other country to disobey European law and do whatever it pleases.

Watching Europe’s political disintegration is surreal. The political structures, built over more than 60 years, are all still in place. There is a giant apparatus in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxemburg in various EU institutions. And yet it has no practical relevance in the continent’s mega-crisis.

Drawing an analogy fromEuropean history, the scenery reminds of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476. Then as now, all the structures of its former power were still there. But they were hollowed out and weak.

In the Western Roman Empire’s case, it was the barbarian soldier Odoacer who finished off the ruins of a once-proud Empire. In the EU’s case, the coronavirus seems on track to achieve the same result.

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