Reconciliation of procedural and distributive justice in the EU hinges on citizens’ support.
The massive economic repercussions of the coronavirus crisis have put inequality and distributive justice within the European Union high on its political agenda. After the European Council, in the early hours of July 21st, reached a compromise on what was described by the New York Times as ‘a landmark spending package’, it is hard to imagine that the coming Conference on the Future of Europe will only scrutinise questions of procedural justice, related to the institutional setup of the EU.
The conference offers a chance to realign distributive and procedural justice in the union. Success will however depend on the reconciliation of different narratives about the EU and its past policies.
The eurozone crisis led to a geographical bifurcation of perspectives. For many citizens in northern Europe, deficient policies and administrative capacities in southern member states were to blame for their poor economic performance and high public debts. Citizens in the south, by contrast, stressed the negative consequences of austerity measures, unjustly imposed on them by the ‘troika’ (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund). In their view, high-risk private lending by northern banks and excessively positive northern budget and trade balances, enabled by the euro having a value below that to which the prior northern national currencies would have appreciated, aggravated the crisis. ‘Moral failings’ were thus identified on both sides—and for as long as southern and northern worldviews remain incompatible, it will be difficult to reach agreement on the future of Europe.
The coronavirus crisis has simultaneously been a prism and a catalyst for Europe. It has again unveiled the economic inequalities and contrasting perceptions of their causes. It was also a universal shock, however, demanding a powerful, common response. While the recovery fund sends a strong signal of solidarity, a reconciliation of procedural and distributive justice will depend on the agreement of European publics as well. If the discourses continue to differ, that will be a challenge, as the reluctance of northern member states’ citizens to accept stronger redistribution is likely to persist.
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For instance, while the German government has enacted an important shift, in comparison with its positioning during and after the eurozone crisis, German public opinion remains more hesitant towards financial solidarity, as data collected by the Excellence Cluster on the Politics of Inequality reveals. Among other issues, the survey, ‘Covid-19 and social inequality’, records German citizens’ disposition towards European solidarity during the lockdown of late April. In a policy paper published with Das Progressive Zentrum Berlin, we detail the most important results.
The survey—which also included an experimental design—shows that European solidarity is conditional. Specifically, it depends on the type of need, the cost of help and, ultimately, on the perceived ‘deservingness’ of recipients.
First, the type of need matters, with health-related risks evoking the strongest solidarity. Large majorities of respondents—across the different German partisan camps—supported immediate measures of medical help, such as the provision of ventilators or facemasks. In contrast, financial support is considered more problematic—the supporters of the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland and the economic-liberal Freie Demokratische Partei especially remain strictly opposed. While, across all other parties a (slim) majority supports financial help, this changes if asked about ‘coronabonds’, which find little support across all party support groups.
This is surprising given the external causes of the crisis, for which seemingly no one was directly to blame. Whether the more recent political developments, around the negotiations on the recovery fund, lead to a more positive evaluation of such measures is open for further investigation, but financial transfers are likely to remain a critical question in the north.
Secondly, and importantly, the costs arising from an act of solidarity have a major effect on individuals’ willingness to help. Unsurprisingly, higher costs make citizens more reluctant to contribute.
Thirdly, our experimental design reveals that past institutional behaviour, such as misguided fiscal or health policies, such as irresponsibly shrinking the health sector, have an impact on citizens’ willingness to help. Perceptions play a strong role here: citizens are more inclined to help if they perceive need as a result of bad luck, rather than of poor efforts. Our study reveals that such deservingness also matters in the European context—more so for financial than for medical aid. Thus, while the impact of past institutional failure on health solidarity is limited, the coronavirus crises has not erased strongly-held attributions of past fiscal failures.
The survey shows citizens acknowledge the fact of policy interdependence and solidarity exists when it comes to guaranteeing basic needs, as in the case of a medical emergency. A focus on costs is certainly counterproductive for increasing support for solidarity—something populists in the north have figured out, as highlighted by statements from AfD members of the Bundestag in the plenary debate on Germany’s EU presidency.
Thus, while Eurosceptic reactions to the coronavirus crisis in the south have (paradoxically) triggered a debate on a fairer Europe, Eurosceptics in the north still keep inflaming the narrower discourse on the communitarisation of debt. For Covid-19 to become a game-changer, more persuasion and ideational leadership will be indispensable to reconcile the European public interest with (national) public opinion.
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How can the dilemma of respecting democratic responsiveness (also in the north), while at the same time promoting the common European good, be solved? First, the EU’s benefits and potential must be defended with more political commitment than during the eurozone crisis. A return to the classic, laisser-faire ‘permissive consensus’ of the 1970s, from the current ‘constraining dissensus’ imposed on pro-European political elites by reticent publics steered by Eurosceptic parties, seems neither feasible nor desirable.
The way forward may consist in deliberating and working with a participatory European citizenry. In addition, the EU must deliver good policies that make citizens’ lives better—populists will have a harder time in a more just, greener and wealthier Europe. Solidarity is no one-way street and aligning distributive justice with procedural justice will contribute to a better Europe for all.
Dirk Leuffen and Sebastian Koos are respectively professor and assistant professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Konstanz (Germany). They are principal investigators of the cluster of excellence 'The Politics of Inequality'.