"We modern civilizations, we too know that we are mortal.
We had heard tell of whole worlds vanished, of empires foundered with all their men and all their engines. (...). Edam, Nineveh, Babylon were vague and splendid names; the total ruin of these worlds, for us, meant as little as did their existence. But France, England, Russia... these too would be splendid names. (....) We are aware that a civilization has the same fragility as a life. The circumstances that could send the works of Keats and Baudelaire to join the works of Menander are no longer inconceivable; they are in the newspapers."
(Paul Valéry, The Crisis of the Spirit), 1919)
The COVID-19 pandemic, as with each crisis affecting Europe, comes with its array of articles, podcasts and op-eds concerned with the same question: will it finally break the EU?
The current crisis is certainly a real test for Europe. It plays against the backdrop of existing tensions - uncertainty about European solidarity, East-West divide or the rise of populism to name a few - which it heightens. It provides an opportunity for authoritarians, as in Hungary, and reopens unresolved fundamental debates about fiscal solidarity, notably embodied by the much-needed “coronabonds.” It sees increased Chinese activism and disinformation prying apart Europeans while Americans - once "the best Europeans" as Konrad Adenauer remarked to Dean Acheson - are looking inward.
Yet, it is still puzzling to see commentators fall back on the "will the EU break?" line of enquiry. It sometimes almost seems to reflect some deep seated disbelief that such a strange political experiment survives.
Pundits wondered if the Eurozone debt crisis would lead to the dissolution of the European Union from 2011 to 2016. Of course, it could also have been the rejection of the European constitution in 2005. Or the migrants crisis in 2015 (or 2018 or 2020). Maybe populism and the Far Right? If not that, Brexit was surely the last straw? Or the Yellow Vest movement in France? Possibly a combination of all that? In 2016, the Wilson Center even surveyed the different arguments for the "fall of the House of the European Union."
Of course, I must hasten to add, I do not wish to pick upon anybody specifically. Titles are often more dramatic than the nuanced articles and many are phrased as questions rather than assertions. Catchy headlines are necessary to exist in a crowded media space. At the political level, dramatic pronouncements help sharpen the focus and spur action.
However, the European Union has now a pretty good track record of adapting to crises that should have broken it. If anything, it should be given the benefit of the doubt. It has managed to survive the 'No' vote in the 2005 referenda, the migrants or the debt crisis to name just a few. In over half a century, it has adapted to very different geopolitical conditions; from the early Cold War that saw its inception to the “end of history” of the 1990s and today's world.
Yet, if the EU has managed - more or less successfully - to survive these crises, it's not because it is an inevitable fact of history or thanks to some sort of special providence. It took leaders and thinkers to rally - or improvise - and find their way, often messily.
As Paul Valéry exclaimed with regards to European civilization, we cannot take the EU for granted. Black swans do happen. Unforeseeable events change the course of history (think 9/11) and longstanding world players, like the USSR, disappear. Two months after Brexit, it would be foolish to suggest that the European Union cannot be profoundly affected by hitherto unthinkable outcomes.
There are many ways in which Europe could fail. European nations might be overrun by populism, fall into economic decline, be picked apart by rivals and competitors. The institutions of the European Union might see their budget and competences rolled back and become empty vessels for idle political discussions and byzantine comitology.
Yet, the most frightening failure would be to bury the idea of Europe, as well that of a transatlantic community, abandoned as a romantic concept that did not deliver in times of crisis. Populists are likely to ride the wave of hardships and revive the narrative of the border as a protection from foreign-born diseases to migrants and outsourcing.
In 1919, Paul Valery's main concern was the "Crisis of the Spirit" that would result from the war and the economic crash. "The military crisis may be over,” he wrote- “The economic crisis is still with us in all its force. But the intellectual crisis, being more subtle (...) will hardly allow us to grasp its true extent." Today, the intellectual and political fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be the biggest threat to Europe.
Saving the idea of Europe calls for insightful analysis that gives the public a measured perspective. This requires being wary of easy narratives, especially when they reinforce our pre-existing conceptions (as well as abstaining from easy tropes such as quoting philosophers worried about civilizational decline) but also being clear-eyed about specific risks and challenges.
Thus, if I have just one plea, it is the following: let's see the EU for what it is. A unique political project, successful in bringing peace and prosperity to Europe, incomplete, notably in terms of fiscal solidarity or geopolitical clout, fragile and to be defended, but also able to adapt and muddle through. Benevolent skepticism may yet be our best asset to see through the geopolitical implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Olivier-Rémy Bel is a Visiting Fellow at the Atlantic Council where he focuses on Europe and transatlantic security issues. He most recently served as a Europe and Africa staffer to the French Minister of Defense, Florence Parly. He previously worked on European defense and French-American cooperation for the ministry of defense.
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