In spring 2020, Europe was struck by a virus. COVID-19 has paralyzed the European Union and the political turning point of the COVID-19 crisis will drag on Europe—on the EU—for a long time to come. The EU displayed a bad picture, at least in the first weeks of the crisis. It has proven to be largely incapable of action and that it is far from being a solidary union. The Schengen Agreement expired, the arteries of the internal market have been interrupted, and—as if overnight—the borders were closed by national heads of government. Contrary to all rules of the internal market, medical material was confiscated at borders. Europe, its ability to act, its solidarity, was being cut off, cut up, and fragmented from national borders like never before in the post-war period.
While COVID-19 completely ignored the closed borders, it was the European citizens who suffered its effects—independent of their nationality. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) will have to examine some interesting cases when the first COVID-19 wave is over, because it remains to be clarified why in COVID-19 times one could still travel from Munich to Berlin with good reason, but not from Vienna to Paris. Only some exceptions were made for commuters or in urgent family matters. Despite the efforts of the European Commission to re-open borders quickly, this only happened step by step in June 2020. In addition to that, many fundamental rights were restricted in almost all EU member states—on an often rather dubious legal basis—for the sake of the health and security of its people. There was—and still is—a lot at stake. The sad truth is that the EU did not have the capacity to act in this crisis and therefore can only organize solidarity to a limited extent. This is not least due to the fact that there is no such thing as a real European democracy. COVID-19 offers an opportunity to pause for a moment and think about what a post-COVID-19 European democracy could look like—if the union survives the virus. To do this, however, one would have to allow the debate about another European Union again. That is exactly what has not happened in recent years. The EU reform debate has been suppressed, to say the least, for years, as the union in its existing form has been built with no alternative. Although the EU has practically had a continuous decade of crises since 2008: banking, Euro, government debt, austerity, refugees, populism, rule of law, and legitimacy crises—is there anyone who, against this background, expected European capacity to act in times of COVID-19?
Central to the process of European integration in the past 70 years was that situations that featured a lack of solidarity were always followed by the communitization of structures, specifically the communitization of those areas of life in which solidarity was lacking in times of crisis. Even though the initial response from the EU looks unpromising and has been driven at the nation-state level, the crisis may yet lead to new forms of solidarity through communitization.
A real European democracy has one necessary—if not sufficient—condition: the equality of citizens before the law. Classically, “one person, one vote” is the key requirement for a democracy and the composition of a single electoral body. General, secret, direct, and equal elections thus constitute, in the words of famous French sociologist Pierre Rosanvallon, “Le Sace du Citoyen”—the “sacred” of the citizens (Rosanvallon 1992). In current European discussions, where the term “European citizen” is used numerous times, it is often neglected that the notion of citoyen means more than sharing values or feeling European. The notion of citizen always must have a legal underpinning and precisely this is the problem of the EU, as the notion of European citizen, though granted in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, has remained normatively empty. The Maastricht Treaty promised a de facto “Union of States” and “Union of Citizens.” Yet, only the former materialized. Take, for a concrete example, British citizens affected by Brexit. They would—in theory—have stayed European citizens, if it already had a legal reality, despite the fact of the United Kingdom leaving the EU as a state. This more crudely demonstrated that today's European citizenship is an empty shell. Focusing on the notion of “European citizenship” when thinking about ways and steps to change and improve European democracy thus is crucial.
At the moment the analysis of the COVID-19 crisis has to be closely linked to the politicization of European citizenship in regard to the further development of European democracy. The ongoing debates on the provision of public goods, for example in the health sector, for all European citizens alike, refer to the violation of democratic principles in the current institutional structure of the EU. With breathing masks as well as with basic security or interest. Citizens do not compete! Citizens should not compete! Of course, from a market-fundamentalist viewpoint citizens are supposed to compete as this apparently drives better service provision. However, this perspective has dominated the process of European integration far too long. Above all, the fact that European citizens, the actual political subjects of the European Union—in contrast to goods in the European single market and money in the euro area—are not equal before law is highly problematic. In the EU, the citizens are essentially addressed either only as consumers or employees, but not as citizens. The general principle of political equality does not apply across the European Union, which is why the EU is a hybrid legal community, but not a common legal area (Bogdandy 2018). The general principle of equality, however, is the necessary, if not sufficient, condition of any democracy. If you take the term European citizen seriously, you have to establish a European citizenship that is independent of national components. One could take the 70th birthday of the EU as an opportunity to introduce the general principle of political equality for all European citizens. Therefore, enforce for all citizens in all areas of life what has long been true for goods and money in Europe, namely legal equality. We need a politicization of European citizenship so that we really and finally become European citizens and not just European consumers or workers.
Solidarity—or more so the lack of solidarity—has seemingly become an omnipresent term in the times of COVID-19. In spring 2020, solidarity in Europe meant once again only solidarity within the nation-state. European solidarity was nowhere in sight. France and Germany proposed a plan including rescue pacts and direct aid to help those countries especially affected by COVID-19 in May 2020. The Merkel–Macron plan covered a total of EUR 750 billion aid payments, of which EUR 500 billion was direct aid and EUR 250 billion loans. The tugging and bickering for money that was common for the EU began once again. The burgeoning hope for corona bonds was buried in no time; the direct help especially for the southern Europeans severely affected by COVID-19 from the so-called the “Frugal Four,” a northern European alliance among Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, and the Merkel–Macron plan immediately, especially in conservative circles, met with political, legal, and legitimate reservations. The crucial phase of the lockdown was hardly over, and the EU went back to business as usual.
Europe has repeatedly been hit by crises in the past two decades. The EU has produced many losers and many disappointments among EU citizens. What has changed is that crises are the pretext for renationalization today, whereas in the past they were an opportunity for Europeanization. Europe has long lost its utopian potential, a dream of itself. In his book Memory and the Future of Europe, Peter Verovšek (2020) explains that the EU in which we have lived for the past 70 years is ultimately only the result of collective European memories. The war experiences were so terrible that it was possible to formulate a dream of Europe. Above all, however, it was possible to turn this dream of Europe into practical politics, to justify it. In short: it was always possible to institutionalize European solidarity in stages, after painful experiences. It was the so-called founding fathers of the EU who made these European treaties without looking at survey values.
Central to the process of European integration in the past 70 years was that situations that featured a lack of solidarity were always followed by the communitization of structures, specifically the communitization of those areas of life in which solidarity was lacking in times of crisis. First the coal, then the market, then the money. So what is the next step? With the communitization of coal and steel, all those goods were put under common European control and administration, which were needed for the production of tanks and war equipment. At the time, communitization was only carried out under the highest political pressure, and only as much as necessary. A good 20 years later, after the currency turmoil of the 1970s, which had caused great damage to all European economies, the idea of creating a common European currency was born as a lesson from the painful competition in Europe. The dissolution of the Bretton Woods system at the beginning of the 1970s in the wake of the oil price shock had previously led to the fact that European countries were in a reciprocal spiral of devaluation or revaluation and inflation, with each devaluation of the lira, for example, upgrading the deutschemark while increasing the pressure on prices and wages. This realization of mutual dependency once again led to the institutionalization of solidarity in Europe, in order to avoid the damage in the future caused by the currency competition of the 1970s. The answer was the parallel communitization of European markets and European currencies. The internal market was decided in 1986 and realized by 1992 by enforcing equal rights for goods. Any product that was the battle of the ECJ of the 1980s that was legally manufactured in one EU country should be allowed to be sold in any other EU country. The motto was no discrimination of goods by nationality. Nobody here believes that this was a simple battle: the Germans claimed the “best beer,” the Italians the “best pasta,” the Greeks the “best sheep cheese,” the French the “best champagne and cognac,” and wanted to ban the introduction of other, comparable goods from Europe in their supermarkets or to discriminate products by nationality. Today the EU is no longer about equal conditions for goods or capital, but about full equality of rights for European citizens.
Now, more than ever, Europe needs “institutionalized solidarity.” “Institutionalized Solidarity” in the definition of French sociologist Marcel Mauss, writing in 1920, is the de facto definition of a nation: those citizens, who accept to be in a system of solidarity, which is legally instituted and not put into question (as it was in Europe during the Greek crisis, where solidarity was precisely not yet institutionalized, but a more or less random political choice, mainly by the German Bundestag) form a de facto nation (Mauss 2017). Much of what Europe is discussing these days—a Eurozone parliament, a Eurozone budget, and so on—points to the fact that Europe, in essence, is subtly, below the surface and in a way, unadmitted and unintendedly, discussing its own nation-building in the definition of Marcel Mauss. Who now argues that after COVID-19 in Europe everything must remain as it is, that all rescue packages are only temporary; whoever argues that COVID-19 should not be an excuse to change things in Europe structurally and permanently is the gravedigger of Europe, whose great strength was to draw “lessons” from this in every moment of their history. This crisis is therefore probably the last litmus test for European solidarity, in the health sector as well as in the economic sector. If it fails to appear, the EU is likely to disintegrate.
Whoever wants to make the EU crisis-proof after COVID-19—whatever that means at the moment—has to think about other political, institutional, financial, and budgetary structures. The question is whether such a moment is given by COVID-19 and whether the currently acting heads of state and government are trying to use this moment to change the European Union for the better and establish a real European democracy, or if everything will stay the same.
Bogdandy, Armin von. 2018. Beyond the Rechtsgemeinschaft: Reframing the Concept oft he European Rule of Law. MPIL Research Paper Series, No-02.
Mauss, Marcel. 2017. Die Nation oder der Sinn fürs Soziale. Institut für Sozialforschung, Frankfurter Beiträge zur Soziologie und Sozialphilosophie, Bd. 25, Frankfurt am Main: Campus-Verlag.