The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed all vestiges of the old neoliberal system. To ensure democracy survives in Europe in tact, the EU must not fall back to business as usual.
We will mourn many who have died as a result of COVID-19. However, there is one victim we will not weep over: the death of a neoliberal doctrine that has, so far, been hegemonic, decisively influencing policies around the world. It is a doctrine that has worked tirelessly to erode the clout of public administrations to their minimum expression, has encouraged them to seek maximum economic growth and has dramatically reduced the might of the common good. The warnings that we, the socially and environmentally-committed left, have sent regarding the social costs and the global risks of this shift have not been enough.
It has taken a crisis of this magnitude to clearly demonstrate the negative impacts of cuts to health services, and to make abundantly clear that global value chains which are supported by intercontinental transport and do not include their environmental costs are extremely fragile.
Today, even the most liberal of neoliberals calls for state intervention. But they are completely mistaken if they think the current situation may be a kind of parenthesis in which the state socialises the losses of this crisis (that is to say let society shoulder the burden), and, once it has been overcome, everything can return to where we were before. It would mean that we have not learned anything from this pandemic and would be a double punishment for the victims of COVID-19 and their families. It would be a waste of the individual and collective effort that this confinement has been. Or, even worse, it would mean ignoring the current health crisis and not preventing future ones that will inevitably come if we do not fight harder to reduce global warming.
Never again should any government be focused exclusively on maximising economic growth at any cost; instead, it should be maximising the well-being of its people and working to consolidate sustainable economic growth. Certainly, the priority today is to fight the pandemic and its aftermath, and we are aware that it will be necessary to socialise losses these collectively. But socialising also means distributing these losses fairly; that is, with a much larger contribution from those who have taken the biggest piece of cake in the past. If we do so, a temporary cessation of non-essential activity should not lead to a recession, such as the one that caused the unfair distribution of costs arising from the 2008 financial crisis.
The EU today has a golden opportunity to act in a proper manner and convince its citizens of its raison d'être. It can do so in the short-term by combining the freedom of indebtedness of member states with the European Central Bank’s commitment to purchase this debt. Also, it should make the repeal of the stability pact permanent and replace it with a prosperity pact that has to include, among other things, European taxes on carbon, on large fortunes and on the profits of transnational corporations.
Competent management of the current situation can give the EU the authority and the capacity to consolidate the European project and be, moreover, the arbiter of the democracy we need to survive. Because democracy is precisely that - the basis of the European project. Authoritarian attitudes, violations of fundamental rights or attacks on the separation of powers cannot take place. There can be no excuses or exceptions because the EU itself is at stake.
The virus pandemic must also be a lesson to be learned from by all political and social actors. The Greens-EFA group in the European Parliament will try to be an exemplary student. We hope that other political forces will also follow suit because otherwise, there will be no collective benefit. Let us all learn the lessons. Now is the time for all of us to row in the same direction.
- Philippe Lamberts is an Ecolo party Member of the European Parliament for Belgium. Oriol Junqueras is a Catalan Member of the European Parliament and the president of the Republican Left of Catalonia party
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