The Journal of European Social Policy has launched a blog, intending to consider some of the implications of the coronavirus pandemic for Europe. The first entry is a dialogue between some leading scholars about the prospects for the EU, in what Frank Vandenbroucke calls an ‘existential moment’. Unfortunately, the editors haven’t quite grasped yet two of the most basic principles of blogging: put the blog where people can find it, and keep things short. The link to the site is here , and as that link is 379 characters long, here is a shortened form to pass on: https://bit.ly/3eNzEge
The dialogue did set me thinking about the role of the EU in this crisis, and that of course is its purpose. I think it’s fair to say that the experience of Brexit has shifted my view of the EU, and the answers I might give to several key questions are different from those I would have given in the 1990s (my 1996 article on “Social Policy in a Federal Europe” is accessible here).
First: what is the EU? 25 years ago, I would have said that it was a set of political institutions aiming to establish common laws and principles across nations. The EU had asserted ‘exclusive competence’ in a range of areas, and its member states had acceded to the general principle that some things were beyond their power or capacity. Now, I would describe the EU as little more than an association of states, where every joint action, regardless of the nominal powers of the Union, has to be negotiated and is liable to be locked in limbo.
Second: what responsibility does the EU have to its citizens? In the 1990s, the answer seemed clear: the EU had made a commitment to offer to each and every citizen of the Union a set of rights and statuses that were distinct from, and not dependent on, the actions of its member states. That is what the European Charter of Fundamental Rights said. It has become clear, from the process of Brexit, that this guarantee was worthless: the EU has simply abandoned its commitments to sixty million European citizens. The Union, it seems, is nothing more than a club, and if a member state doesn’t wish to subscribe to the rules of the club, the citizens who live there can’t expect to have access to the facilities.
Third: what does it mean to say the EU works on a principle of solidarity? The idea of solidarity is central to the arguments made by the contributors to the JESP dialogue – Bea Cantillon, for example, complains that “The lack of solidarity is a shameful mockery of all the great principles enshrined in the Treaties.” The European view of solidarity was always, I think, more nuanced than this. European solidarity would be built, not by the adoption of universal European rights and policies, but through the establishment of networks of mutual responsibility, both within and across national borders; generalisation happens slowly and incrementally. In the context of the current crisis, however, Vandenbroucke argues, I think rightly, that the EU already has the powers it needs to act.
In the current context, solidarity requires large-scale ‘disaster relief’. The European treaties not only make this possible, they even demand it: Art. 222 TFEU stipulate that the Union and its Member States shall act jointly in a spirit of solidarity if a Member State is the victim of a natural or man-made disaster; Art. 122 TFEU makes financial assistance to members states threatened with severe difficulties caused by natural disasters….
If this is not happening, it is only another mark of the unwillingness of the EU to accept direct responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. The contributors to the dialogue are fearful that the EU may not survive this crisis, if it remains inactive. If it does nothing, it may not deserve to survive.