For the EU to Survive, It Can’t Keep Failing

On March 4, two European leaders will touch down in Israel for a visit that should worry Europhiles and delight Euroskeptics.

Neither Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz nor Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen would state it so openly, but both are losing faith in the European Union’s ability to vaccinate the bloc’s people fast enough. So they’re talking to Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel (which leads the world in vaccinations), about ventures that could, in a pinch, get jabs into Austrian and Danish shoulders.

By now it’s no secret that the EU has made a mess of its campaign to procure and allocate vaccines against SARS-CoV-2. The bitter irony is that this effort — that is, the decision for Brussels to seize the reins from the 27 national capitals — was itself a reaction to an earlier failure for which the EU was trying to compensate.

Last spring, when the pandemic first threatened to overwhelm the bloc, member states followed their reflexes and put Nation First. The old shibboleth of solidarity became inaudible. Instead, countries temporarily stopped sharing masks and medical gear with one another and slammed their borders shut. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, admitted later that “we caught a glimpse of the abyss” — the abyss being an unravelling of the EU.

Around this time, I was among those who asked whether the EU still has a future, both as a practical construct and an inspiring idea. The reply from Eurocrats was the same it’s been since the 1950s: Europe always muddles through, and leaps to new levels of integration in response to every crisis.

Exhibit A for this “Europtimism” was supposed to be the aforesaid leadership role for the EU in managing the vaccine rollout. By having Brussels do the bidding, negotiating and allocating, the bloc was determined to prove that multilateralism and cooperation are superior to nationalism (at least within the EU).

Instead, the Eurocrats have unwittingly staged something like a parody of Brussels. The EU was slow to strike deals and timid in the haggling. Its regulators took too long to approve vaccines that came on the market, including home-grown ones. Brussels then reacted badly to production shortfalls. By contrast, no such problem has afflicted the U.K. Unsurprisingly, that’s been the occasion for some British schadenfreude — you may have heard that the country left the EU recently.

This latest attempt to strengthen the EU’s centripetal forces is thus backfiring, instead favoring the centrifugal trend. Slovakia is ordering vaccines from Russia, Poland is getting shots from China, and Hungary is dealing with both. (Neither of these jabs is approved by the EU.) Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban recently received a Chinese Sinopharm shot into his own arm — as signals go, the visit by Kurz and Frederiksen to Netanyahu is subtle by comparison.

This centrifugal pattern has also spoiled the Europtimists’ Exhibit B, the “Next Generation EU” fund. Worth 750 billion euros ($906 billion), this is a new recovery package, financed jointly by all member states and administered by Brussels, that’ll give grants and loans to those countries, notably Spain and Italy, that were hit hardest by Covid-19.

Meant to be an expression of solidarity, it’s also technically a one-off emergency measure. But Europhiles are hoping it could in time sprout into a fiscal union, thus supporting their thesis of integration through crisis.

The problem is that Next Generation EU was bought at a price that will prove unacceptably high. To get agreement on the fund, the EU had to overcome the veto threats of Hungary and Poland, the bloc’s betes noires. They objected to clauses about upholding the rule of law in the EU, which they stand accused of undermining.

Europe’s solution, as so often, was to dilute those disciplinary measures. Far from feeling chastened, Orban is becoming increasingly autocratic and uppity. This week he pulled his Fidesz party out of the center-right caucus in the European Parliament, to preempt any maneuvers by that group to exclude the Hungarian delegation.

The deterioration of democratic norms in the EU is its largest internal threat, even topping recession. As the historian Timothy Garton Ash told me, it’s “existential.” And yet, what the EU confirmed in the process of negotiating Next Generation EU is that it’s powerless in defending its liberal standards, just as it’s powerless in keeping member states from drifting away — and apart.

This is a general theme. Take foreign policy. The EU is now at the lowest point in its relations with Russia since the Cold War, and preparing a new round of toothless sanctions. But Germany, against the objections of other member states and the European Parliament, insists on completing a strategic gas pipeline between its Baltic coast and Russia. National egotisms keep sabotaging the EU’s diplomatic credibility.

So here’s a reply to the Europtimists. It’s not really true that the EU advances through crises, because it doesn’t solve them; it merely outlasts them. It survived the euro crisis a decade ago, but without completing the reforms — including fiscal, banking and capital-markets union — that would prevent a relapse. It made it through the refugee crisis of 2015-16, but without meaningful reform of European migration policies.

Since its beginnings in the 1950s, European integration was always at heart a vision for addressing the continent’s internal squabbles, especially the ancient enmities between member states such as France and Germany. In this sense — as a peace project — it has succeeded.

But along the way, the bloc has failed to turn itself into what French President Emmanuel Macron calls a “Europe that protects.” The EU cannot credibly defend its citizens against external threats, neither a military one from Russia or an epidemiological one from wherever the next virus jumps species.

For Europe’s national leaders, this presents a conundrum. If they make backup arrangements — either alone or with third nations — to keep their own citizens safe, they risk turning the EU’s irrelevance into a self-fulfilling prophecy. And yet they’d be negligent not to have a Plan B when Plan A is so unconvincing.

The optics of the visit by Frederiksen and Kurz to Netanyahu will cause controversy in Brussels. But if I were in their place, I’d go too. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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