March 2020: An insidious virus is spreading across the world, dragging tens of thousands of people across the European continent into a battle to the death. Most European countries secure their borders; millions of homes lock their front doors. Hellish scenes unfold, fueling fears of infection. In Europe, a catastrophe is unfolding, but there is no common answer.
The loudest cry comes from Italy, affected very early on by the virus. Cries for help go unanswered and bitter reproaches ensue. The EU is slow to react: the fact that the Brussels institutions do not have the “competences”, or formal powers, to act in the field of public health does not impress anyone. When, soon after, an economic depression looms, doomers begin to predict the end of the EU.
Then suddenly the union began to show remarkable dynamism and resilience. The pandemic has brought misadventures, mistrust and fierce clashes of all kinds, but it has also mobilized unforeseen forces and brought about enormous political upheaval. In the summer of 2020, the bloc’s presidents and prime ministers made two sweeping decisions: the EU would buy vaccines centrally and it would establish a massive coronavirus recovery fund. We no longer spoke of “skills”. The EU has reinvented itself. How was that possible?
During the Covid-19 disaster, more than in previous crises, political decision-making followed public demand for action. All the citizens felt threatened in their own bodies. The disease was nobody’s fault. This crisis was so overwhelming – the weird lockdowns, the massive layoffs, the geomedical “divide and rule” by China and the United States – that “Europe” had to do something in response. Pandemic desperation forced the union to take a form it did not have before.
Day in and day out, European societies count and bless the sick and the dead, listen to televised proclamations from monarchs, presidents or prime ministers, sing from balconies and applaud medical staff at night. These were intensely lived moments of belonging.
At the same time, neighboring states have moved closer than ever to their suffering, lockdown rules, intensive care policies and death rates. Leaving aside pandemic empathy; observing other countries had its uses at home. The media have compared their own governments with others. Why was Austria testing more aggressively than France? Why were more people dying in Britain than in Greece?
But in the EU, with its single market, its currency and its common borders, it went beyond comparison. The decisions next door had a direct impact on people’s lives. What if Germany injected billions into its own economy and Italy couldn’t? What if Sweden took a lax stance on Covid and kept its borders open? What if Hungary accepted a Russian vaccine? Certain national audiences hastened to tell their neighbors: this decision which is yours, it is also our business. Conversely, several national leaders reached out to a wider European audience. This interaction was new.
On the other hand, the financial storms from 2008 had been appeased in a top-down fashion. Governments, alarmed by central bankers and experts, have had to convince reluctant parliaments of the need to take drastic decisions to save the banking system and the currency. The audience watched, not asking for anything. The economic freedoms introduced by Brussels machinery from 1957 were also granted from above, as a favor, and not extracted from below as a request. In the pandemic, however, primacy returned to the public for the first time.
Recognizing the dynamism of the situation and mobilizing to act for the public, these are the responses that we demand of our political leaders. Hence the condemnation of the early Brussels defense. When history strikes, the lack of formal powers is no excuse. What counts is the capacity demonstrated in the situation to engage in an “event politics”, that is to say identify and counter a shock affecting all citizens, improvise and persuade at the time; and, by extension, to anticipate events and increase the resilience of the system. Such cases do not require legal skills but rather the acceptance of personal and political responsibility.
Few leaders were more aware of this than Angela Merkel. The pandemic was the last major European crisis in her 16 years as German Chancellor, and her performance has been masterful. By Easter 2020, she could feel how the dividing lines were hardening, how political struggles for solidarity were breaking out between northern and southern Europe. Daily, she read reports on how Covid-19 economically separated the heart of the euro zone and its Mediterranean periphery (a risk for German exporters). And that’s how she decided on May 18, 2020, after careful consideration, to take the plunge. On behalf of the Federal Republic, she assumed responsibility for an EU coronavirus recovery fund of 500 billion euros, to be disbursed in the form of grants, not loans. What had remained taboo during the dangerous eurozone crisis suddenly became possible.
Merkel has demonstrated a seismological sensitivity to undercurrents and aftershocks in the public sphere. This unique ordeal could produce lifts and landslides, abrupt emotional eruptions. “Our country is dying,” leaders in Rome and Madrid told him – and therefore pandemic aid could not be conditional; that would be humiliating. Nor was it possible to ignore the fact that Italian public confidence in the union was plummeting and that for two out of three Italians leaving had become an option.
Changes in the public sphere are pure politics. The result is not just the sum of objective forces (such as a country’s trade balance, arsenal or technological capabilities). They are also and above all a matter of humor and feeling, of gratitude and resentment, of memory and expectation, of words and stories, expressed in balances for the most part unstable and shifting majorities. Yet that is no reason to consider the mood of the public to be fickle. It can be read, felt and influenced. In addition, public opinion is able to dismiss or shatter many supposedly objective realities, as it turned out during the pandemic.
In March 2020, Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra insensibly proposed that the European Commission investigate the lack of financial buffers in Italy and Spain. It was a rude blow aimed at garnering applause from the Dutch audience, but it caused boos and hisses from all over Europe, and Hoekstra had to run away, having misjudged the nature, size and mood of its European audience.
Other actors have actively sought a larger European gallery. Southern Europe has revived an old desire for the euro crisis: a call for the issuance of a common debt. It did so in the classic way, in a letter dated March 25 from nine heads of government to Charles Michel, the President of the European Council. Much more effectively, a few days later, local politicians in Italy bought a full page advertisement in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung to call on the German public to support “corona bonds”.
It is sometimes claimed that because we do not all speak the same language, there is no European public space. It’s absurd. Applause and shouting are universally understood. The audience politicians deal with is not just the voters whose verdict they submit every few years.
During the pandemic, the European public discovered its role. It has become clear that our lives and our health are a matter of public concern. We want politicians who protect us, save lives and chart a course for the future. This growing emergency call drowned out the usual whistle of every Brussels initiative as unwelcome interference in national affairs.
A European res publica has translated from a shapeless task into a political decision. At a time of great vulnerability, a pandemic war of words has made the European Union stand up for what its people hold most dear and given it new political strength.