The cohesion imperative

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Brussels, Belgium, flags in EU Council building. [Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis]

At the start of 2021, we already know that European cohesion will be put to an unprecedented test. But if we remain focused, this crisis has the chance of being the one that makes Europe, instead of breaking it, writes Pawel Zerka.

Pawel Zerka is a Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). 

IMF has updated downwards its already gloomy output projections for the euro area and the EU’s main economies. Italy is going through a period of political instability exactly at a time when it should focus on preparing plans for spending billions of euros in EU grants.

Meanwhile, slower vaccination will lead to longer lockdowns and higher costs for European economies.

Plenty of things can go wrong. Violent anti-curfew protests in the Netherlands are only a minor warning that the patience of European citizens has its limits. After all they have endured in 2020, they might find it hard to wait many months more for a comeback to the pre-crisis normality.

A gap between reality and expectations can be more explosive than the reality itself. And Europeans were already told – hastily – that the worst will soon be over.

Voters may castigate some governments, especially if they conclude that the latter have disappointed their trust in a moment of truth. But apart from this re-evaluation of political sympathies, which characterises healthy democracies, there’s also plenty of room for populism and conspiracy theories to flourish – and for the revival of national animosities.

Some politicians may be tempted to capitalise on citizen discontent, fan the flame of public concerns about vaccines safety, or even put European nations against each another.

They could blame their fellow Europeans for being too possessive about vaccine supplies, too slow with vaccine rollout, too clumsy with the recovery spending plans, or too reckless with how they managed their economies before the crisis.

But whether the divisive discourses will indeed bring Europeans apart, or not, depends on how national and EU leaders behave – and whether they give reasons for citizens to feel frustrated, abandoned, and deceived.

This is exactly the moment when European cohesion (arguably among the least sexy concepts in the EU’s newspeak) needs to be brought back in. It did not have many devotees among European leaders as of late. But, with the COVID-19 crisis far from over, they can no longer afford to ignore it.

Many tend to look at cohesion through a narrow prism of the EU’s cohesion policy, which aims to reduce disparities in the level of development between regions. But cohesion could also be understood more broadly: as the predisposition of the EU countries and societies to work together.

Seen in this way, it was stronger in 2019 than in 2007, the year before the global financial crisis.

An extensive analysis, published recently by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), shows that COVID-19 hit at a time when cohesion in the EU was particularly strong. In other words: Europeans entered the pandemic well prepared to stick together as part of the EU, with robust economic and political ties between member states and a lot of trust among the citizens.

But this perhaps one of the reasons why, on the eve of the crisis, European politicians were able to shift their attention to other priorities. In response to Trump’s follies and China’s assertiveness (and as a way for the new European Commission to differentiate itself from predecessors), geopolitics and sovereignty became the new game in town.

The case for a sovereign and geopolitical Europe is still robust, despite a much friendlier new partner in the White House. But, as things stand today, cohesion deserves to be rehabilitated as an equally important objective.

In practice, this means, for example, that concerns about rule of law in some member states should not be overridden by the imperative of geopolitical unity. A rethink of the EU’s competition policy, while it could be justified on the grounds of great power rivalry, should be carried out with utmost attention, lest it disrupts one of the mechanisms for the EU economies to catch up with the rest of the bloc.

And the goal of cohesion defined in a narrower way – as reduction of economic distance separating the less developed EU members from the wealthier ones – cannot be abandoned.

In many ways, international challenges increase (rather than replace) the demand for European cohesion. It would be difficult to expect the EU27 to be united on foreign policy if governments stopped trusting each other, if economies were not structurally synchronised, and if citizens did not value European cooperation.

Currently, the COVID-19 crisis poses a triple challenge to European cohesion:

In the south, the economic collapse can translate into a growing frustration among populations, and their scepticism about the European project.

In some countries of the east, health emergency serves as an alibi for a further crackdown on civic liberties.

Meanwhile, citizens and governments in the north could lose patience with less affluent member states, seeing them as constantly needing bailouts or suffering from corruption and weak rule of law. They could prefer an integration in narrower circles.

European leaders need to act responsibly in this delicate moment. Less affluent members need to ensure that their countries do not waste the opportunity for modernising their economies, thanks to the EU’s massive spending plans for next years.

They should not let the domestic political turmoil derail this process. Economically less affected countries should show they understand the sense of urgency that their fellow members have in accessing the recovery funds. And Brussels should avoid scoring more own goals, as it did with the vaccine deals controversy.

Out of the two possible worlds, the one in which Europeans blame the EU for the hardships of the COVID-19’s endgame is no doubt preferred to the one in which the different European nations jump down each other’s throats.

In this sense, Brussels leadership on the recovery plan and the purchase of vaccines, even if not perfect, has at least reduced the risk of intra-European spats. But a third way should be explored in which the ongoing crisis, rather than inevitably leading to tensions, becomes a moment of reflection on the best ways to stand together and move forward.

If we remain focused, this crisis has the chance of being the one that makes Europe – instead of breaking it. Even if it takes more time than we ever imagined.

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