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“The European Union has proven its resilience in times of crisis”

campus.leben series: “Coronavirus – Ask the Experts” / Part 9: Interview with Tanja A. Börzel, Director of the Center for European Integration at Freie Universität

May 07, 2020

The populists’ call for a return to the nation state does not appear to be an effective means of fighting pandemics or for dealing with the economic and social consequences they produce, says Professor Tanja Börzel.

The populists’ call for a return to the nation state does not appear to be an effective means of fighting pandemics or for dealing with the economic and social consequences they produce, says Professor Tanja Börzel.
Image Credit: shutterstock.com/khaleddesigner

What changes has the coronavirus pandemic brought about? How has it influenced the lives of individuals? What impact is it having on society, politics, the economy, research, and culture? In this interview Jonas Huggins speaks with Freie Universität’s Professor of European Integration Tanja A. Börzel about the European Union’s reaction to the pandemic. Professor Börzel is also director of the Cluster of Excellence “Contestations of the Liberal Script – SCRIPTS”, together with Michael Zürn.

Professor Börzel, there seems to be a common impression that during the Covid-19 pandemic, nation states are responding quickly, while the European Union is blocked. Is that true?

Professor Tanja A. Börzel has been professor of political science at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science, Freie Universität Berlin, since 2004.

Professor Tanja A. Börzel has been professor of political science at the Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science, Freie Universität Berlin, since 2004.
Image Credit: SCRIPTS

It is true that the member states responded individually to the coronavirus at first. But we have to keep in mind that the European Union only has a limited capacity to respond. The EU is not a state: It can only take actions in specific areas agreed upon by the member states. It has few powers when it comes to health-care policies or disaster response. That could change after this crisis. Up until now, the European Union’s role has been to support and coordinate action among the member states.

The European Union’s financial strength is equally limited because it has no source of revenue of its own. It is completely dependent on contributions from member states. At this point, the EU finance ministers have agreed upon a series of important measures. The EU will help member states finance short-time working compensation amounting to 100 billion euros. In addition, 37 billion euros from the EU Structural Funds, which have yet to be used, will be made available to fight the pandemic. The European Investment Bank is supporting businesses with 200 billion euros in additional loans through guarantees, and member states can obtain loans totaling up to 240 billion euros from the European Stability Mechanism.

Italy and Spain have clearly voiced their desire for so-called corona bonds, but Europe remains divided on the issue. Does that show that the interests of nation states carry more weight than European solidarity?

Corona bonds, like Eurobonds, pose some serious legal problems, since EU treaties do not permit the communalization of debts. By giving countries that are already deep in debt access to loans at lower interest rates, they could exacerbate the underlying problem of high public debt. Helping Italy and other member states with economic recovery is not just a question of solidarity, it is also a question of fairness. In order for the internal market to work, everyone must be able to compete on equal ground.

The coronavirus crisis intensifies the structural inequalities between member states. As a countermeasure, Germany would have to reduce its trade surplus as well as support the economic recovery of other countries to overcome the competitive disadvantages they now face, but which they did not cause themselves. This is also very much in the interest of the German economy actually, not only because of sales markets, but also because of supply chains.

Which is why we are seeing some shifts in the debate here. A proposal is already on the table to use the EU budget to borrow money as collateral and give it to member states that have been especially hurt by the coronavirus pandemic as aid or grants for economic reconstruction – perhaps this will bring the unfortunate debate over corona bonds to an end.

In my opinion, European solidarity should not be confined to economic recovery. The thing that is really missing from the whole discussion, for instance, is more solidarity for the people in Greek refugee camps. They are currently living in inhumane conditions, as the European Court of Human Rights has asserted. It is almost too horrible to even think about what an outbreak of the virus will mean for the people in those camps. A coalition of the willing, including ten EU countries and Switzerland, has agreed to take in a total of 1600 unaccompanied children and youths. But so far, of the 1600, only twelve have made it to Luxembourg and less than 50 to Germany.

Some media outlets have noted criticism that blames the European Union’s austerity policies, which meant reduced spending on health-care systems, as part of the reason why the pandemic has taken such a toll. Is there something to that?

That makes sense intuitively, at least at first glance. Public care structures certainly did not fare well during the years of austerity measures. However, I don’t know of any data that shows that the EU was directly responsible for weak health-care systems. Studies show instead that health care is way down on the list of where governments try to limit spending – second only to defense budgets perhaps.

There are many reasons why health-care systems were not well prepared. Italy’s system, for example, has been wrought with shortcomings for many years. The fact that in Lombardy, one of Europe’s wealthiest regions, the hospitals reached their capacity limits so quickly cannot be explained simply by European austerity measures. The local government there has had its priorities wrong for a long time. It’s a cheap move to pass the blame: While the United States accuses China of being responsible, in Italy we see people pointing fingers at the EU.

During the crisis, borders have been closed, and some countries imposed export bans on certain goods. What sort of long-term damage might be in store for the Schengen area and the internal market?

European integration and its open borders policy probably made it easier for the virus to spread early on. It was the right decision to limit mobility, not only between member states, but also for domestic travel as well. But I don’t see any long-term threat to the Schengen Agreement here. A lot of the economic damage during the coronavirus pandemic is due to the closing of the borders. The German automobile industry, for example, relies on suppliers in Northern Italy. That’s the basic idea behind integration: The European economy is now so closely intertwined that there is a very strong interest in maintaining the free movement of goods in the common market.

There are new concerns about maintaining the rule of law, especially in Poland and Hungary. Can the European Union prevent people from exploiting the crisis to undermine democracy?

Problems with the rule of law in Poland, Hungary, and other countries were around before the coronavirus pandemic. EU institutions could have orchestrated a more vehement response well before the pandemic came. For example, it could have expelled the European People’s Party (EPP) Fidesz – Viktor Orbán’s party – instead of just suspending its membership. Now it seems as though Orbán is being rewarded for his anti-European Union, authoritarian political practices.

For pandemic aid, paid for through the EU Structural Funds, distribution is determined by the cohesion policy, which means money flows to economically weak regions. Based on this distribution key, Hungary is set to receive a great deal more support than Italy, even though Italy was hit much harder by the pandemic. We should reconsider whether, in the future, EU funds should go to countries that oppose its fundamental principles of democracy and rule of law.

But that won’t be easy because the EU is a law-bound community, whose rules and procedures are established by its member states. The Visegrad Group – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – is not likely to approve any changes to the criteria for allocating EU funds. It is difficult to drain a pond if you have to get the frogs’ permission to do so first.

During the pandemic, many basic rights have been limited. China, for example, seems to have contained the virus better than the United States or Europe. Many critics of the European Union would like to see nation states play a stronger role even if it means compromising democratic processes. Does the crisis strengthen their arguments?

As a matter of fact, the type of government – autocracy or democracy – does not give any real indication of how well a country will manage the crisis. On the one hand, not all autocratic countries have been effective in their approach to the pandemic – take Iran, Russia, or Nicaragua for example. On the other hand, stable democracies like South Korea and Taiwan have been exemplary models of how to fight the pandemic.

Populism might play more of a role than regime type. Democracies with populist governments, such as the UK, the USA, and Brazil, are having huge problems managing the pandemic.

The renowned political scientist Francis Fukuyama has pointed out that there is a connection between a delayed response to the crisis and low confidence in the government. Populists not only have little confidence in scientific experts, who they often accuse of being part of the so-called “cosmopolitan elites,” they also undermine people’s faith in political institutions themselves.

Our Cluster of Excellence SCRIPTS investigates challenges to liberal concepts of order and liberal institutions. These contestations to the liberal script can arise through autocracies and populism. In the coming months, we want to explore how these contestations behave during a pandemic and what kind of political and social influence they have.

The new European Commission under Ursula von der Leyen has developed an ambitious program. Will the Commission be able to carry out their plans?

Priorities will certainly have to be set, and some issues will probably be put on the back burner in order to deal with the more pressing economic and social consequences of the pandemic. But the crisis might provide an opportunity to advance some of the Commission’s objectives. For example, we are now seeing very clearly how important digitalization is, and that is one of the main topics that the Commission wants to address.

All of my courses this semester are taking place online. Students in São Paulo or Tbilisi might actually have a better Internet connection than their fellow classmates in rural regions in Germany. I think, digitalization will take a big step forward thanks to the crisis.

The European Union has gone through quite a few crises in recent years. Do you think that the pandemic puts the future of the Union in danger?

I have been teaching European politics for over 20 years. During that time, the EU has been in crisis mode almost constantly: The European Union’s constitutional crisis, the financial crisis, the bank crisis, the euro crisis, the Greek crisis, the immigration crisis, the Brexit crisis, the populism crisis – and now the coronavirus crisis. People kept speculating that Europe would fall apart if the European Union didn’t manage to make the jump to a United States of Europe.

Actually, the European Union has proven its resilience in times of crisis again and again. Its reputation does it a disservice. It is better than that, but people have such excessive expectations for the EU: The EU does not have the same power that states do when it comes to regulatory authority and finances. And yet, politicians like to blame the EU for problems in areas where the EU has no authority – while those same politicians refuse to grant the EU those powers. But that is nothing new.

I am confident that the EU will also manage to handle this crisis. At least the populists’ call for a return to the nation state does not appear to be an effective means of fighting pandemics or for dealing with the economic and social consequences they produce.

Jonas Huggins conducted the interview.

The original German version of this article was published on April 27, 2020, in campus.leben, the online magazine of Freie Universität Berlin.

Further Information

Read all the interviews in the campus.leben series “Coronavirus – Ask the Experts”: