Saturday, 4 April 2020

Corona: We are all dinosaurs now

When the chips are down and things need to get done the EU goes on the backburner. It doesn't have much in the way of its own resources (and rightly so) thus it cannot be expected to act in the same way as a government. All it really do right now is ensure it doesn't get in the way. Bilateralism and intergovernmentalism is king right now and it doesn't conform to the rigid boundaries as defined by EU institutions.

The fundamental mistake the EU makes, though, is believing it can and should respond in the same way as a nation state - because that it central to its ambitions. The head of the European Commission apologised to Italy on Thursday for a "lack of solidarity from Europe in tackling its coronavirus crisis, but promised greater help in dealing with the economic fallout".

This is in response to the PR disaster from a couple of weeks ago. Just over 48 hours into a nationwide lockdown to contain a coronavirus spread, Italy was slapped with an $8.5 million fine Thursday over tourism-boosting grants that the EU’s top court ruled illegal.
The dispute dates back to 1998 when Sardinia, an island off Italy’s southern coast, was seeing a drop-off in the number of domestic visitors as flights to other European destinations had become cheaper.
Though the European Commission signed off on an aid scheme in which the Italian government would subsidize hotel-building costs, it made it a condition that companies would have to apply for the financial support before they ground broke, to ensure the aid was actually needed for the project.
Five years later, the commission received a complaint that work had started on projects before companies had submitted their applications.
There has been widespread dismay in Italy over Europe's response to the pandemic, starting with an initial failure to send medical aid, followed by a refusal amongst northern nations to endorse joint bonds to mitigate the cost of recovery.
The far-right League party has jumped on the discontent to call into question Italy's continued membership of the 27-nation bloc, while even staunch pro-Europeans have expressed consternation at the lack of empathy and support.
Unsurprisingly the UK's Daily Express (among other populist eurosceptic vessels) jumped on this as evidence of the EU smacking Italy when it's down. If anything this is just a lack of sensitivity as you might expect from the dead hand of bureaucracy which doesn't tend to factor in current affairs in the execution of its routine business.

They perhaps should have had the good sense to put proceedings on ice but then in fairness, it has taken a couple of months for nation states to wake up to the gravity of Corona and that same sluggishness is obviously going to manifest in EU institutions not on the sharp end on the crisis. You can't expect empathy from bureaucratic institutions any more you expect it from the chair you're sitting on. This is why tabloid wailing over edge cases created by welfare reform doesn't wash with me.

This won't be the last case of its kind where the EU will make itself easy meat for populists. The problem being is that the most useful thing most EU institutions could do in these such instances is shut up and get out of the way - which means accepting its irrelevance, which is something it doesn't want to do and doesn't feel it can. Corona is an existential threat to the EU. If it can't be useful at a time like this then a great many will be asking what it is actually for.

As far as the EU is concerned, Corona calls for "more Europe" so that it does have more power and more resources in order to respond in a meaningful way. Europhiles will argue that its failures are the consequence of national sovereignty. This, of course, is at odds with the tides of European politics where the EU is overreaching. 

This week we see the ECJ has ruled that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic breached their obligations under EU law by refusing to take in refugees. The ECJ says in its ruling that these countries had failed to accept their share of 120,000 asylum seekers who had arrived in Italy and Greece, under a relocation programme agreed by the European Council in 2015. It also finds Poland and the Czech Republic guilty of failing to fulfil their obligations under an earlier Council decision with regard to 40,000 migrants. The ruling confirms an opinion by an advisory body to the court last year.

The reaction to this is predictable. The BBC accuses Hungary of "xenophobia". "You do know that you don’t have an immigrant problem in Hungary” Emily Maitlis tells Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó. The subtext of the response is clear. Eastern Europe doesn't have an "immigrant problem" and they would very much like to keep it that way - and when they're literally on the front line of the mass migration problem, finger wagging western European liberals can basically go fuck themselves. Britain, Italy and Germany are free if they want to, to turn themselves into multicultural slums with immigrant enclaves where the writ of government doesn't reach - but Eastern Europe is not obliged to share in this deathwish.

At the best of times it's pretty tone deaf to expect Europe's poor frontier to share in the burden but at the height of a global pandemic where European solidarity is virtually nonexistent, you can be forgiven for thinking the EU's days could be numbered.

As it happens, I'm not convinced the EU is faced with extinction. The doomsayers have been predicting its demise for as long as it's been around yet it continues to limp on. And limp on it will - just without a sense of purpose or direction, lacking ideological impetus it once enjoyed when the founders were calling the shots. The EU is now a very different animal. 

Throughout the Brexit campaign I argued that the EU sought to become a supreme government and to a considerable extent, it very much is one - ensnared by its own "ever closer union" dogma. But it isn't the same EU that existed when British euroscepticism was at its peak. 

As it happens, true blood euroscepticism is long dead. I'm not sure when it happened but as Ukip flourished into a national movement, beyond the control of its progenitors, euroscepticism as a movement became a toothless support group for conservatives who found no comfortable home in either Ukip or the Tory party. Most of the old guard are retired or pushing up daisies. The same is true of the EU as we knew it. It's now run by a new breed of bureaucrat not born in the shadow of World War Two.

The EU that exists now is one mainly concerned with cementing its global trade hegemony. The vision of European statehood is dead.  Now it is just a power apparatus for a particular strain of elites who all subscribe to roughly the same basic assumptions about trade and sovereignty, using climate change and other bogeymen to advance that agenda.

You might have thought that Brexit would have given the EU reason to pause and reconsider, but instead they've doubled down on trade hegemony as their reason for being. Trade is the fashionable subject and the lefty ideals of mother Europe have taken a back seat to endless tedious discussions about rules of origin and food regulation. The dream of European Union is dead. Now it seems to be scaling back its ambitions to become a global super regulator and trade superpower.

But where Brexit didn't dent their hubris, Corona just might. So many of our underlying assumptions about trade and governance are contingent on there not being a highly contagious deadly pathogen. In just a few short weeks many of the certainties of the single market have evaporated, not least when much of it depends on free movement of labour. All the while laws pertaining to employment are going to need a complete rethink in order to adapt to the new economy where flexibility and fairness are once again in conflict. 

Then there are under the hood systems related to national and local government procurement which will now have to undergo more robust stress testing, not least to ensure health services can get what they need in emergencies such as this. In the wake of Corona member states are going to take their own mitigating measures and EU law will have to go on the back burner.  EU institutions can complain but they can only enforce so much as it starts to unravel. 

A new treaty was always on the cards following Brexit but now there will need to be a new one to take into account the necessary institutional reforms, but also take into account the political sea change if it is ever to be ratified. Whether it listens or not remains to be seen but it would be most ironic if Corona brought about the sort of looser European trade bloc that Britain would want to be a member of. If there was ever an argument for delaying our full departure then it's that. There is an opportunity here if the vision is right.

As it happens I don't think the EU will listen because it's not capable of listening. It will simply lumber along as usual in search of a purpose, hoping for better times when it might regain political momentum. One thing is clear though. Corona has made political dinosaurs of us all.

So much of our politics is now redundant. There's not much difference between the Tory free traders and the Corbynistas. Both are stuck in timewarp where their core assumptions about how things work are decades out of date, while the eurosceptics and europhiles are similarly obsolete. Their age has passed. Joining them on the scrapheap now are the progressives and the globalist neoliberals (whatever they are) and in the post-Corona era even the assumptions about an ascendent China hang in the balance. 

We're not done with Corona yet. There's no telling how bad this could get. If it's going to knock first world developed economies flat on their backsides then it's going to have a devastating impact elsewhere even in parts of Europe which are not remotely equipped to handle the virus, let alone the economic and political fallout. The new politics will be a politics of necessity and our institutions will have to form up on the new realities according to the threats and opportunities of the times.

In respect of that, it is difficult to see how the UK can negotiate a new relationship with the EU being that we don't know what we are forging a relationship with or what its future role in Europe is to be. The trade wonk narratives that dominated the discussion over the last four years are obsolete, and the withdrawal agreement itself may need a rethink. Boris Johnson was already suggesting there wouldn't be checks in the Irish sea. He would not now be without considerable support in abandoning the Northern Ireland protocol entirely in light of new developments and reordered EU priorities.

Many of the certainties underpinning our political activity are no longer there. A great many of our indulgences are no longer affordable and must give way to pragmatism, focussing on more fundamental needs. Right now people need an income, shelter, medical treatment and whatever security we can still afford ourselves. Anything else is a throwback to the pre-corona era - all the while the political landscape will be a constant state of evolution. Back in December we had a unified government with a strong majority and an enfeebled opposition. On the flip side of Corona things could look very different indeed, especially now the opposition is getting its act together.

Until we have a new normal, most of our political narratives are useless. We all have bigger fish to fry than our usual pet hobby horses, and from Corona will arise a new political language and new divisions that shatter the left/right/leave/remain axis. Uncertainty is the new certainty. Of that, I am certain. 

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