When faced with a crisis such as COVID-19, the EU looks paralysed but is this case of it not being given the right powers to act properly? And how do we learn from this? Conor McArdle discusses.

For the first time in my life I cannot travel freely throughout the European Union. This is a sobering thought because an inherent right I have enjoyed all my life as a European Citizen now longer applies. This suspension of my right is ultimately temporary and will be eventually re-instated, yet it raises the question what Europe will emerge from the lockdown?

Thus our time in isolation allows us to reflect on ourselves but also our socio-economic structures and our increasingly connected union and indeed the greatest strengths of the EU in its connectivity has been its undoing in the face of COVID-19. Once the virus was in the espresso bars of Milan, it was only a matter of time until it spread to Dublin’s Pubs.

The relative stability we have enjoyed since the financial crash has allowed us the luxury of taking for granted our stability and within this luxury as Fintan O’Toole outlined in the Irish Times, we become perversely attracted to the politics of risk such as that of Brexit and Trump. Suddenly however when faced with a legitimate threat that can’t be dealt with by a late night deal in a Brussels board room, the thrill of risk disappears and instead is replaced by legitimate fear as O’Toole states “it’s like paying to go on a roller-coaster ride of simulated danger only to find that the vehicle really is out of control.”
Once again we see the Eurosceptics gleefully rounding upon the EU who decry it as an all-powerful, all conquering super state then in the same breath, sneer at its inability to act in the face of crises.

No punch behind the power

Europe is found wanting simply because nation states have not furnished it with the powers to react to fast paced situations such as COVID-19. The EU is a large ship with numerous internal workings but when faced with an obstacle in the way, the course can only be altered slightly, not swiftly turned as such is the nature of the hulking behemoth that makes up the members system. The simple reasons why the EU is struggling to deal effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic is that health is a closely guarded competency by member states and there is very little reference to health care in the treaties. To put it simply, the EU does not have the tools to deal directly with this issue.

Thus, the Union is looking to what it can do and ultimately, deal with the elephant in the room that is finance. As our economies grind to a halt, an economic downturn is inevitable with the bitter memories of the euro-zone down-turn remaining fresh in the collective European memory. The US approach was swift, difficult and ultimately effective while Europe in contrast, lurched from crisis to crisis as it did not act decisively again, not because of lack of want but because lack of ability. There is a currency union but ultimately not a fiscal union.

Limited in ability

Brussels is again faced financially with limited scope of application yet is attempting to implement measures, notably 750 Billion euro as a support package for member states and the implementation of the “member state escape clause” to allow each state to violate spending restriction. Outside this clause is Europe’s ability to control the bed rock of the union which is the single market, even while borders close, goods will move allowing vital medical equipment to be manufactured and transported through the “green lanes”. The most notable action within competencies is the closure of the external and Schengen Borders to non-essential travel and repatriation of EU citizens.

But the Paradox that ultimately exits is that when Europe is faced with a crisis, we lambaste the Union for its inability to act and then subsequently defy any opportunity to give it the powers to act. Once the Pandemic ends, and it will end, we will be faced with another challenge the redefining of our socio-economic structures and our union, we cannot and must not retreat into the mistakes of the past, we must ensure we prepare Europe for the next catastrophe as Jean Monnet Stated “People only accept change when they are faced with necessity, and only recognize necessity when a crisis is upon them.”

We have a necessity to reform the European Union and strengthen its competencies in the wake of this emergency so that we can respond to the next one. Once this terrible situation passes, the voices will grow louder for less Europe when in fact to preserve our way of life and the plethora of rights we have become accustomed to the only solution is more Europe.

Conor McArdle
Conor is a Masters Student studying for an LLM in Human Rights Law and is Secretary of Queens University Belfast Young Fine Gael. Conor is also a member of the European Youth Parliament.

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