• J.S. Mullen

Trouble in Europe

How Covid - 19 is causing turmoil in the European Union and sowing the seeds of future dissension

In the post Covid – 19 world many things will change, and for the better. Easily foreseen and long forecast, as the world economy stumbles toward ruination and millions of lives further hang in the balance, the truth that the world is hyperconnected and stands perpetually primed for just such an outbreak as Covid – 19 (or worse) has finally been accepted.

Unfortunately, although as the true extent of the developing pandemic become known Europe’s leaders and institutions tried to react and adjust accordingly, these late stage reactions, accurate though they were in many cases, could not offset the general, woeful unpreparedness of state governments individually, nor the lack of an effective, coordinated, international strategy laid out beforehand.

Covid – 19 has revealed many chinks in the world’s armor, ways in which the global infrastructure and institutions failed, or impeded, the effective preventive handling of the spread of the virus. Clear lines of communication and joint-cooperation, so necessary in combating the special challenges that are handling a global health pandemic, are difficult to maintain, particularly among the many countries who have no regular contact or formal relationship.

It is for this reason that among the most disappointing reactions to the Covid – 19 outbreak has been that of the European Union. The single largest market area the world over, the European Union is subsequently among the most important governmental blocs. And their response to any crisis sends a signal to other world leaders, organizations, and institutions. Europe must help lead, and for this reason the European Union and its member states should seriously scrutinize its current institutional arrangements and perhaps reconceptualize its mandate, in light of the present pandemic. For while it is understandable that among disparate governments there should be confusion and lack of coordination in policy – if only initially – the European Union and its members can plead no such defense.

As the impending danger of the growing disaster became clear, the individual states of Europe rushed immediately into action, all moving in their own directions – at the same time calling on the European Union for assistance. In response the European Union quietly allowed member states to abandon all pretense to EU charter, member state financial standards. Unlimited borrowing by each state won the day. Apart from the problems that come from letting member states (or any state) finance unlimited amounts of their own debt, this newfound buying power was quickly loosed on a not likewise magically expanded supply of vital medical care equipment, personal, and facilities. Accusations of hoarding between various member states of the EU began almost immediately – threatening to stir feelings of ill will one senses are suppressed only by the present, desperate feeling of common humanity. Once the crisis has come and gone expect the acrimonious resentment of the Greek debt fights to resurface among those countries whose citizens wind up helping foot the bill for their less affluent European neighbors.

Make no mistake, long term most of the debt taken on by the poorer, peripheral countries of Europe will be engineered away – transferred, taken on by citizens of the wealthier, more prosperous Germanys and Hollands of the continent – something that has not escaped attention in domestic German and Dutch politics. The so-called “coronabonds” are already just such a surreptitious attempt.

It must be accepted that the optics are difficult: you’re going to lend someone else money during a crisis so they can buy scarce medical supplies you could really use yourself. Then, later, you will undermine your own currency and savings rates continuing to finance and extend their debt.

While this has all been going on, of course, the European Union presiding absently over the protectionist squabbling and fiscal libertinism of its children – it has also turned all but a blind eye to the blatant authoritarian cloak donned by Hungarian Supreme Leader, the formerly democratically elected Prime Minister, Victor Orban, in the wake of the pandemic.

Crisis will strain institutions. That is to be expected. But fiscal responsibility and commitment to democratic government are the two bedrocks of the EU. If in the greatest hour of peril both can be chucked if convenient, what is the EU really – and what is its role in handling such crises?

This disaster should help bring Europe closer together. But I fear poor foresight is leaving the seeds of future conflict to grow out of the fertile soil of the mishandling of this present pandemic.

J.S. Mullen

March 2020

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