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How is the COVID-19 crisis serving the EU?

Future of Europe / COMMENTARY
Corina Stratulat

Date: 02/04/2020
In light of the ongoing pandemic, the Conference on the Future of Europe should be used to rethink and reform collectively Europe’s political, economic and social models. If the EU does not take the lead now, others could step in to set their own standards and rules instead.

The trigger of the European Union (EU)’s latest crisis is … a virus. Since December 2019, COVID-19 has caused a pandemic of global proportions, throwing the EU and its member states, once again, into deep crisis mode. While the coronavirus chaos is in many ways unprecedented, it bears the same message for the EU (and the rest of the world) as all of the preceding crises: Change or perish!

As if to indicate the kind of change that is required and prove that such a change is, in fact, possible, in the space of just a few weeks, COVID-19 has already prompted a dramatically different and previously inconceivable modus operandi for our polities, placing whole nations, economies and cross-border relations on partial lockdown. When resistance is not an option, change seems inevitable.

In previous crises, European leaders were perhaps too quick to ‘shoot the messenger’. This time, shooting the messenger – COVID-19 – is exactly what we need. However, it is more vital than ever that we do not ignore its message. To deal more quickly and effectively with challenges such as these, the EU and its member states should demonstrate the capacity for critical self-reflection and comprehensive renewal, when necessary. The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) should be used to this end.

“Everything [might have to] change so that everything can stay the same”[1]

For more than a decade now, the Union has battled a poly-crisis:[2] financial and sovereign debt crises; the migration/refugee crisis; Brexit; and shocks and pressures, both internal (e.g. the surge of populism) and external (e.g. Ukraine, Russia). Some, on occasion, looked like potentially terminal difficulties.

True, the EU managed to survive every time. But this was mostly thanks to hard-fought solutions that were often ad hoc, barely within the legal framework, and, worst of all, short of making structural progress given opposition from member states. Each crisis only threw Europe’s political, economic and social models further into question.

Again and again, we were guided to ask ourselves: Should we change how we run our economies and social affairs, how we frame immigration policy, how we organise political participation, or how the national and EU levels of decision-making interact? Yet, over and over, a deep attachment to unsustainable models has defeated any efforts to create meaningful change. Across Europe, politico-institutional engineering tried to make up for the limits of our sacred (national) representative democracy and economic orthodoxy.[3] It did not work.

It took a sub-microscopic infective agent – the coronavirus – to remind us once more that our polities’ dilemmas need structural fixing. Schengen is again gasping for air, democracy is being shamelessly subverted in the name of fighting COVID-19, economies are shaken, and the Single Market displays signs of malaise. Circumstances are very difficult at present, both for individual member states and European integration.

Nonetheless, even tougher times lay ahead, when Europeans will be called upon to manage, in the long run, the economic, societal, political and geopolitical fallout of the health crisis. That will be a critical solidarity test for the EU and its members.

Damage control should not be the default option, as before. New thinking is necessary to reassess and adapt our models and institutions to the modern, fast-paced, complex and unpredictable global environment. We must find the openness and courage to challenge our economic and political practices, our healthcare systems, our work standards, or the way we communicate – in short, nothing should be off-limits. Where necessary, rigid and outdated concepts or instruments should be reformed or discarded, and new means and tools should be designed to allow for quick and flexible reactions to crises. New contingency procedures and emergency decision-making and funding mechanisms are no longer elective but a matter of survival.[4]

The encouraging news is that if we can fundamentally reduce business activity and quarantine ‘borderless’ Europeans in their own homes for months, we can achieve anything.

Going ahead with the Conference on the Future of Europe

This reflection process should be promptly set in motion. Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis in Europe, the EU leadership was preparing a Conference on the Future of Europe, a two-year process of inclusive discussions about key European issues, to be held in innovative formats between various actors at different levels of governance.[5] This initiative offers the perfect opportunity to have tough conversations about wholesale reform in different fields and aspects of political and social life, and collaborate to co-shape our societies’ adaptation to 21st century realities.

Although the crisis has diverted attention away from the Conference, likely pushing the initially planned 9 May launch date further into the future, it has also reinforced the relevance of the exercise. While pre-crisis priorities still hold true, in light of recent developments, the areas of economic, health and foreign policy; financial affairs; and democracy require urgent attention and should top the CoFoE agenda.

In fact, the Conference should start with a fundamental assessment of the main (potential) consequences of the COVID-19 crisis for the member states, the EU and beyond. This exercise could be entrusted to a High-Level Advisory Group (HLAG) of experts, of the kind suggested in the EPC’s “Second draft blueprint for the Conference on the Future of Europe”.[6]

The HLAG’s conclusions could structure the subsequent discussions at different levels to help national and European politicians decide, together with citizens, the key thematic questions the Conference should address. An inclusive approach – allowing all levels and segments of society to participate, deliberate and provide input for the Conference – would give the outcome proper legitimacy.

Should the COVID-19 restrictions continue for much longer, the Conference – or, at least, its initial phase – could be adapted to function remotely, such as via the online portal the European Commission wanted to set up for this exercise. In the age of technology, with goodwill and ingenuity, postponing the Conference because ‘people cannot debate face-to-face’ is no longer an acceptable excuse. After all, exceptional situations call for exceptional measures.

The coronavirus crisis can help the EU and its member states refocus on what really matters and find the courage to think seriously about what should be done. It shows us that a fundamental change of behaviour and mindset is possible, even imperative. The Conference on the Future of Europe is a chance for the Union to think and decide collectively about how the required transformation should look. If the EU does not take the lead now, others could step in to set the new standards and rules – but they would do so according to their own values, which we might not share. The EU and its member states should not be afraid of critical introspection.


Corina Stratulat is Head of the European Politics and Institutions programme.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein. 

[1]     Di Lampedusa, Giuseppe Tomasi (1958), The Leopard, La Feltrinelli.
[2]     Zuleeg, Fabian and Janis A. Emmanouilidis (2016), “EU@60 - Countering a regressive and illiberal Europe”, Brussels: European Policy Centre.
[3]     Stratulat, Corina (2016), “The enemy within: are modern democracies afraid of introspection?”, Brussels: European Policy Centre.
[4]     Zuleeg, Fabian and Marta Pilati (2019), “A nimble and responsive EU? Predicting unpredictability: a new approach to EU policymaking” in “Yes, we should! EU priorities for 2019-2024”, Challenge Europe, Volume 24, Brussels: European Policy Centre, Ch.18.
[5]     Stratulat, Corina and Janis A. Emmanouildis (2020), “Second draft blueprint for the Conference on the Future of Europe”, Brussels: European Policy Centre.
[6]     Ibid.

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