The role of the European institutions has been seriously questioned during the past two weeks. As a passionate European, this hurts to see. Despite the efforts of the European Commission to help and to intervene in the crisis, member states have decided rather to take a national approach and to focus less on coordination and solidarity. The fact that the European institutions are not being seen as problem solvers tells a relevant and consequential story. Moreover, recent developments speak volumes about how much trust national leaders actually place - undeservingly - in the President of the European Commission, the commissioners and their teams.
The Commision has the opportunity to step up its communications game, since nobody else is really standing up for Europe (locally as well as globally) in these critical times. Before we achieve “Global Europe,” let us secure “Community Europe.” The Commission should act without expecting any further mandate since Europe is, as Emmanuel Macron put it on Monday in regard to France, "at war." The continent is now, after all, the new global "epicentre" of COVID-19, so communication will be paramount and the way the EU does so on key issues will matter.
First, they should concentrate on EU values and delivery amid health concerns. More important than the political relations between member states and the European institutions is the sentiment that European solidarity is as scarce as medical masks and scrubs. The initial response to the Italian call for help is not something Europe should be proud of. The option overwhelmingly embraced by national governments to close borders also highlights the difficulty of coordination at the EU level: when panic comes, we go national. Maybe expectations are too high and the crisis too deep, but, at the end of the day, what remains is the perception that every country is on its own. Perhaps this impression is wrong or will be changed as events unfold. But this should be part of a serious conversation about what European solidarity means in good and, more importantly, bad times. Here again, the European Commission - and empathically, its leader - should lead in the months to come. In times of crisis, people follow examples: think Churchill (alas, Brexit!) not chilling out.
Second, the economy. More broadly, the entire debacle over medical products and equipment brings a key question about economic globalisation and global value chains. The COVID-19 pandemic brings to the fore the idea that Europe cannot externalise everything - a reframing of strategic autonomy to include this is in order. Maintaining production capacity and facilities for essential products is fundamental, and here the strategic interest is more important than the generous principles of open trade and free markets. It is hard to say what will be the dominant view at the end of the crisis, but, at this moment, everyone is asking for expansion of the State and for more state interventions, putting the EU and more widely, the liberal democratic economic model, under stress.
And this pertains not only to the health crisis, but also to the expected economic fallout. Stimulus packages are present in every discourse by decision-makers. Alas, some are less passionate at the wrong moment in time; compare Draghi's "we will do all that is needed" with Lagarde's non-memorable response, for instance. On new situational modelling, and the new social contract, the Commission should engage more with brains in national capitals.
Nationally, trust in mainstream politicians is again on the line. Reputations will be built or destroyed based on how effective the interventions will be, but also on how well the entire
process will be communicated. Honesty will matter, empathy will matter, and the capacity to give hope and inspire will make the difference between political winners and losers. This game will not be played out as part of the typical narrative of mainstream politicians versus Populists; this will be a test for democracy itself. What we are faced with is a dual test of leadership and management: inspire and solve problems on the ground at the same time. The Commission has the capacity to move forward, by using this crisis to become more agile and flexible - starting with communications - while adjusting policies. Von den Leyen can become a storyteller-in-chief, proposing pan-European solutions, in the months to come while so many national leaders continue lacking empathy in their response to the current crisis.
More widely, in society, in the online and remaining offline world, everyone has become busy proposing ideas to protect the people, but many have been knee jerk reactions or half baked, and they have come top-down with no consultation process. Businesses, media and civil society will have to do their fair share and work together with other actors. Their responsibility is tremendous and they will be judged for their contribution (or lack thereof). Those who will seek to benefit from people's misery in their current predicament will find themselves on the rubbish heap of history and will face bankruptcy at a pace similar to the spread of the coronavirus. Expect the economic quicksand started by the pandemic to last longer than the 2008-2009 period until markets stabilised.
Don't hope for the best; hope that it lasts for a year at most. However, whatever your plan will be, we should all start communicating beyond our horizons. Those that will have a plan beyond the fiscal year and will act swiftly using words that work will be awarded with the public's trust.
- Radu Magdin is a strategic communications analyst and consultant and former prime ministerial advisor in Romania and Moldova.
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