László Andor, Secretary General of the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and former Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (2010-2014), argues that we now have a third chance for European solidarity in this politics COVID-19 focus.
In two recent crises, the European Union spectacularly failed to produce coordination and solidarity. First, with the euro area debt crisis, almost all wrong policies were tried before the path of shared recovery was found in 2012. Then in 2015, the refugee crisis exposed deep divisions that prevented the EU to act forcefully and save lives and the dignity of migrants. The reputation of the EU suffered both internally and worldwide as a result.
The 2020 COVID-19 response
While it might be just too counter-intuitive to assume that politicians learn from past failure, the 2020 COVID-19 response is turning out in a much more encouraging way. One can detect a significant if not compelling contrast between the austerity focused answer to the great financial crisis and the willingness to engage in counter-cyclical policies, job as well as income protection during the current “coronavirus recession”. This time around, not only progressives but also most liberal and conservative forces have also adopted or advocated Keynesian policies.
Suddenly, it became just very true what Richard Nixon said 50 years before: “We are all Keynesians now”. But allowing public deficits to grow well beyond standard ceilings was not the only policy: practically all European governments introduced either Short Time Work schemes (STW or Kurzarbeit), or wage subsidies, or new income protection schemes, or a combination of those.
The central element in the anti-COVID-19 strategy of European governments is the enforcement of social (or physical) distancing and the “lockdown”, at least in the first phase when the spread of the virus had to be brought under control with courage and determination. And in the absence of effective vaccination, our society has to be prepared for other lockdowns if needed. However, the patterns of the various lockdowns can differ, depending on many factors, including the intensity of the pandemic, the resilience of healthcare systems and economic considerations.
The first and second lockdowns
The first lockdown essentially was about saving the health systems of EU Member States, by avoiding a sudden rise of coronavirus cases, that would have been unmanageable by the hospitals. In March 2020, Italy found itself in the state of hyper-emergency, in which doctors had to decide who gets treatment and who should have less chance to survive. Within a few months, the epidemic has been tamed, and health capacities have been amended, so a new phase with fewer restrictions was allowed. However, the virus came back after the holidays, and the “dance” began anew, with a new round of restrictive measures.
The second lockdown cycle at the end of 2020, however, became different than the first one. What is at stake today is not so much healthcare but the education system and especially primary education. We all went to online teaching and learning in the spring, but this forced experiment shows that the performance is inferior to conventional schooling. Without an effort to partly restore standard forms of education, the next generations will suffer, and knowledge and skill inequalities will grow enormously. For a revival of education, and to allow parents to focus on work if they can, there will have to be a sacrifice elsewhere, and this not only needs to be coordinated but also publicly consulted.
Progressive governments – added value
For progressive governments, the COVID-19 health crisis and the resulting economic recession provided an opportunity to demonstrate their added value, and this indeed became widely acknowledged, especially in cases like Finland, Denmark or New Zealand. Sensitivity to the gender aspects of the crisis was one of the most important features of this special performance. The key is to emphasise policies that ensure the most vulnerable members of society have a safety net to rely on during the crisis, and that the restart of the economy is done with more social fairness and improving income distribution patterns.
Healthcare as well as public education are central parts of our civilisation or the “European way of life”. Hence, it is not primarily the overall consumption levels that will have to be restored after the pandemic, but the systems that support our social cohesion and enlightened values, with equality in the centre. The EU institutions, now committed to promoting the European way of life, have to play a role in forging consensus around this strategy. European coordination can help establishing similar policies and similar practices in social behaviour, by which the legitimacy of crisis response measures can be strengthened, and our chance to survive the pandemic and preserve our European civilisation at the same time will also improve.
The longer-term trajectory of the post-COVID-19 era
However, the question is not only about short-term survival but the longer-term trajectory of the post-COVID-19 era. Therefore, the EU must ensure that the environmental and social commitments outlined before the crisis will not get lost but reinforced in this new era. In the first phase of her mandate, Ursula von der Leyen has highlighted the Green Deal, with a single target to be attained by 2050. Then she came forward with a robust social agenda. She entrusted these policies with social democratic commissioners: the first one with Frans Timmermans and the second with Nicolas Schmit. Together, they have to ensure that the Green Deal and the social agenda mutually reinforce each other and show the way to the recovery. At the same time, a third progressive Commissioner, Paolo Gentiloni has the task to orchestrate the reform of EU economic governance and protect the recovery from premature cuts.
Well-engineered, the EU can find a way back to the spirit of “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth”. Its leaders will find partners in the new U.S. leadership, which also considers the COVID-19 pandemic a reminder that our most critical challenges flow across borders and can only be dealt with through coordinated action. Through transatlantic cooperation, a new chapter of multilateralism can be opened, with a strong focus on global sustainability and resilience.