Image: EU-BREXIT courtesy Live Trading News - Photo: 2020

COVID-19 and European Union – For Whom The Bell Tolls

Viewpoint by Manish Uprety F.R.A.S. and Jainendra Karn *

NEW DELHI (IDN) – While reading observations of Douglas Webber, Professor of Political Science at INSEAD in his article “Why Brexit Has Not and Will Not Trigger EU Disintegration,” made one speculate on whether if one had applied the principle of Co-evolution to the EU, the conclusion would have been different.

The fundamental premise of Co-evolution is that organizations evolve in relation to their environments while at the same time these environments evolve in relation to them. And events like COVID-19 have enormous impacts that dwarf everything else.

One of the main reasons for Britain to move out of the EU was that the organization severely undermined the ancient British parliamentary democratic principle of ‘‘No Taxation without Representation’ which is firmly fixed in British thinking and is the bedrock of the British Parliament. Brussels never had that essential quality of democracy and its detractors called it a Daylight Robbery where the British taxpayers’ money was going to keep an unelected bureaucracy of powerbrokers in the EU fat and rich, stuffed with the finest Belgium food and beer, in order to achieve nothing.

UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak reiterated on April 9 “We Have Left” firmly, and that BREXIT cannot be stopped. The UK government is cementing the final terms of trading agreements with the EU.

The naive political “scientists” are so programmed to think superficially and anachronistically, in labels that they wanted the U.S. to not be a colony of Britain but wanted Britain to be a colony of Brussels. Therefore realists like Nassim Nicholas Taleb have always taken political scientists and their lot with a pinch of salt.

For any international cooperation to be sustainable, international organizations need to be not only beneficial to the stakeholders but also trustworthy. Stakeholders, especially major powers, must be willing to yield short-term gains for the purpose of increasing the incentives of long-term cooperation. As EU countries struggle to control the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis has laid bare the not only continent’s political and economic fault lines but also lack of solidarity between European nations.

EU was always like a banquet of the unequals where some were more unequal than the others. In addition, the EU lacked the decisiveness of a State to deal with emergencies e.g. in the case of Public Health. The EU is not a state and does not have an executive that replaces the executives of the member states. Article 168 of the EU Treaty clearly states that the EU’s role is simply to “encourage cooperation” on health issues, and that any EU-wide action should “complement national policies”. So it cannot act in any emergency as the matters of public health are primarily the responsibility of individual member states. Disparate member states would have disparate needs in the times of desperation as CoVID19 has shown.

The impact of COVID-19 on Europe has been nothing short of a catastrophe with over half a million infected and the number of dead being in tens of thousands. In early March, when Italy requested face masks and other medical supplies through the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism, EU Member States responded with a stoic silence. Italy not only didn’t get any support from the EU, but also Germany actively banned the export of masks and ventilators requested by Italy. No EU country stepped up in response to Italy and the vast EU machinery found itself irrelevant.

Recently, despite formal requests from other countries in the EU to help with rising numbers of infected, Belgium announced that it will not take additional COVID-19 patients from abroad.

In Germany, French people have been insulted and had eggs thrown at them. So much so that German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had to condemn aggression towards French people travelling into border areas, which has flared amid the COVID19 pandemic.

One cannot help but empathise with David Cormand, a French politician and member of the European Parliament who noted that such inaction is “a worrying signal from the European Union as the organization has to demonstrate its usefulness. However, one has the impression that it is too little, too late.”

Though Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, formally apologized to Italy for failing to respond more quickly but such statements from European babudom have failed to quell the discontent.

In a way it is history repeating itself for any objective observer and for the detractors of supranational structures like the EU which was akin to a politico-economic daydream of Maastricht, Netherlands in 1993 with ‘Ode to Joy’ as an anthem that has slowly turned into more of a nightmare. Friedrich Schiller, the German poet who wrote the poem “An die Freude” in 1785, later in his life was very contemptuous of it and dismissed the poem as typical of “the bad taste of the age” in which it had been written.

During the Second World War, as the allies invaded Italy, Germany stamped its authority on Italy as they didn’t want to give up Italy. In 1943, the Italians were glad to see the invasion of Italy by U.S. and UK led forces as Mussolini had an alliance with Hitler. Italians were relieved with the arrival of the Americans and the British led forces.

2020 is a similar situation and if Italians decide that they had had enough of the German dominion of Europe, they might join the British very soon thereby triggering the end of the EU because others will follow suit.

As realisation would dawn on other member states of the EU that they have only their own government to count on in the times of crisis, the EU would find it increasingly difficult to justify its authority, legitimacy and competence which are rooted in a nation.

On the other hand, the U.S. and UK welcome any country that leaves the EU and would be keen to develop a trade, economic and strategic partnership with them. The very incentivisation of the process would be a strong motivating factor for the member states to quit the EU. The European Union will not survive this attractiveness of secession from the EU.

It will have other implications as well. So unlike as Webber argues, the trivial issues of Scottish independence and Northern Ireland breaking away from Britain would go to a backburner, and there might be a consolidation of ties in the constituent regions of Britain. BREXIT in the shadows on COVID-19 would mark a basic transformation in the way businesses have been conducted rather than a return to business as usual. In addition, there is a genuine risk now that the example of Britain moving out would unleash a contagion effect among other member states that could destroy the EU.

Should that happen it would prove two potent ideas developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb viz. Intellectual yet Idiot and No skin in the Game. It also underscores Taleb’s contention that the inclusion of the word “scientist” in “social scientist” is indeed extremely hilarious as influential people do not have to face the consequences of their bad ideas.

In the face of an unprecedented economic crisis unleashed by COVID-19 where growth will be severely affected, businesses shuttered and millions of people out of work with increasing risk of job losses, salary cuts, failing businesses and bankruptcy, every country in Europe sooner or later would find its own government in the end responsible for every dimension of the crisis.

The COVID-19 will leave EU needing an economic boost more than ever. Would interventions like incentives help? Mary Kaldor herself had lost faith in interventions, and in 2009 had said that “The international community makes a terrible mess wherever it goes.”

Though Ursula Von Der Leyen has proposed making the next EU budget a stimulus programme such public investment programmes have very doubtful outcomes such as the Juncker Investment Plan, designed to aid recovery from the 2008 crash and the proposed Horizon Europe research and development funding programme. In addition, ever widening rift between southern countries like Italy and Spain, and more fiscally conservative northern countries like Germany would take its toll on the EU.

The failed experiment of the European Union would prove Taleb’s argument that the transformation of local cultures in the name of modernity, democracy, environment and other virtues is a crime that the “intellectual-yet-idiot” is perpetrating.

But one can always empathise with Webber and his certainty which seems more like a misunderstanding of incomplete data as these are times of megatrends and megashifts. To capture a bigger picture in these times is always a big challenge especially of irrational decision makings of the past such as the EU which was always an aberration as its constituent members had nothing in common.

The looming dismemberment of the EU would be in tandem with the characteristics of Co-evolution where multiple organizational elements are permanently changed. The change is mutual both in the organization and the environment in which it exists. All this is organically derived and is unplanned and unpredictable, derived at the edge of chaos that BREXIT and COVID-19 have unleashed. Therefore it gives the process its unique characteristics and distinguishes co-evolution from intended or induced strategy.

The bell tolls for the EU for sure and there are very serious doubts about how it would muddle through, stumble or take bold steps to deal with the crisis. But there is always a hope for its constituents as neighbours get along much better than roommates. Hence this transformation of the EU would be toward betterment and a natural order of things.  [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 April 2020]

* Manish Uprety F.R.A.S. is an ex-diplomat and Jainendra Karn is a senior Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) leader.

Image: EU-BREXIT courtesy Live Trading News

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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