What effect will the COVID-19 pandemic have had on cohesion within the EU and what lessons can be learned from the crisis to strengthen the bloc in the future? These are some of the questions addressed by the European Policy Centre on Thursday (18 February), a year after the start of the pandemic. EURACTIV France reports.
In an online conference organised in partnership with the European Council on International Relations (ECFR) and Connecting Europe, the European Policy Centre took stock of the strengths and weaknesses of European cohesion revealed by the crisis, challenges posed by the coming transition, and possible solutions to address them.
According to the European Policy Centre’s research director, Janis Emmanouilidis, “the EU has managed this crisis better than past crises, and better than people had hoped for”.
He explained that “we became aware very early on of the possible negative consequences of the crisis,” noting that the EU has shown unexpected resilience precisely because “expecting the worst is the best way to avoid it”.
“The reaction was rapid and solid, which is very important and shows there is cohesion and determination” in the EU, said Rui Vinhas, director-general for European affairs at the Portuguese foreign ministry.
Jana Puglierin, director of the European Council of Foreign Relation’s Berlin office, noted that cohesion in the EU was “stronger in 2019 than at any time since 2007.”
An “appetite for change” among Europeans
However, the crisis also revealed fractures within the bloc.
“There is no ‘French’ or ‘German’ opinion,” explained Mathieu Lefèvre, the co-founder, and CEO of Destin Common (More in Common France) – an organisation that analyses fractures within democratic societies and develops initiatives to address them.
According to him, there are pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics but also, and more importantly, what he calls Europe’s “invisible” and “forgotten”.
As many as four out of ten people feel lost or forgotten by the EU or their countries, according to a report published by More in Common France (Destin Commun) last September.
According to Lefèvre, this also indicates the existence of what he calls a “hope gap” – an “appetite for change in the EU” triggered by the crisis, but without citizens really believing in the capacity of their states to achieve these aspirations.
Puglierin said the pandemic has also exacerbated the various cohesion challenges at the European level that existed before, including, in particular, challenges in the south, the north, and in Central and Eastern Europe.
While the pandemic is said to have increased economic vulnerabilities in Europe’s South (Italy, Greece, Spain), threatening to widen the gaps with richer countries, the North’s wealthier countries (Sweden, the Netherlands, Austria) currently have some of Europe’s most pessimistic populations when it comes to their future prospects.
Frustrated with the countries of the South, often seen as dragging down northern economies, the North’s member states could therefore also gradually turn away from the EU.
Puglierin also stressed the risk of alienation of people from Central and Eastern Europe – who were even before the crisis among those least committed to discovering other European countries and cultures, something the crisis has only sharpened.
What about Europe’s ‘forgotten’?
To address these challenges, according to Lefèvre, cohesion should not be seen only as a technocratic term for EU policy, but also as a feeling of personal belonging, while Emmanouilidis stressed that the post-crisis period cannot resemble pre-crisis times and there needs to be a focus on the recovery’s “social dimension”.
Portugal’s Vinhas warned that “time is now of the essence” to put in place recovery plans.
“The Portuguese presidency aims to speed up the ratification of budgetary regulations and the approval of recovery plans by member states,” said Vinhas, noting that according to “our most optimistic estimate”, the first instalments of the cohesion funds could be disbursed as early as June.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]