The divisions exposed by the coronavirus have reopened fundamental questions about the ultimate aims of the EU. But now is not the time to answer them.
In addition to its staggering death toll and profound effects on global public health, the novel coronavirus has exacerbated tensions within the European Union. Long known for its tendency to stumble from crisis to crisis, the last decade has been particularly difficult for the EU. Building on divisions dating back to the financial crash of 2008, Covid-19 has hit hardest in the member states that suffered most during the eurozone crisis. Most notably, Italy and Spain had to shut down their economies, while simultaneously increasing domestic spending, before they had even fully recovered from the previous downturn.
For the member states at the centre of both crises, the north’s rejection of ‘coronabonds’ in the early stages of the current pandemic brought back powerful memories of the previous refusal by the ‘frugal four’ to countenance the creation of eurobonds at the height of the sovereign-debt crisis. This painful sense of déjà-vu was allayed somewhat—albeit temporarily—by the Franco-German initiative to create a €500 billion recovery fund financed through joint borrowing.
After its announcement by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in mid-May, this idea was taken up and developed by the European Commission. However, its failure to gain the approval of key northern member states at the June meeting of the European Council has dashed hopes of a breakthrough, at least for the time being.
In light of these developments, it does not appear as though the pandemic will provide an opportunity to bring about an ‘ever closer union’. And while there is a certain logic to proposals pushing for a resolution of Europe’s ultimate aim—its finalité politique—to press them at this time would be a mistake. Such initiatives would not only probably fail, but would also likely limit the scope of integration by setting goals that are too modest in the long term, as the rejection of the ill-fated constitutional treaty in referenda in France and the Netherlands in 2005 makes clear.
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The EU’s experience of continuous crisis over the last ten years has shown that the current generation of European leaders has neither the appetite nor the ability to push integration forward. The union would therefore be better served by muddling through the pandemic, using its existing playbook of crisis-management. It should set aside questions of its finalité until a later, more propitious time when a younger, more pro-European cohort of leaders has taken power.
The foundation of the EU and its subsequent development have been driven by powerful generational dynamics. Although the idea of unifying Europe has a long history, it only became politically conceivable after 1945. In the aftermath of two world wars and the atrocities of the Holocaust, ‘never again’ was more than just a slogan: it was an imperative for political change which enabled the pooling of sovereignty beyond the nation-state.
The founders of the European project in the 1950s had lived through the war as adults. Building on their memories of war and suffering, this cohort—including Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and Altiero Spinelli—established the first European communities, laying the foundation for the EU.
They were followed by the forty-fivers, who had come of age during the war. Building on the moral lessons they drew from the past, leaders such as François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl transformed the European Communities into the European Union through the development of the common market, the opening of European borders and the creation of the euro.
Since the turn of the millennium a new generation, unaffected by the memories of war and suffering which committed previous leaders to a united Europe, has come to power. The political views of this first cohort born after 1945 are defined by the prosperity of the first 30 years of the postwar era. Although integration played an important part in the Wirtschaftswunder (‘economic miracle’), the European Communities were not particularly visible to everyday citizens at this time. As a result, this period is usually perceived as the heyday of the nation-state.
In light of their formative experiences as young adults, the current generation of European leaders tend to calculate their commitment to the EU in economic terms. The contrast to previous cohorts is most visible in the handover of the German chancellorship from Kohl to Gerhard Schröder. Whereas the former, born in 1930, was committed to the EU as a result of his personal memories of World War II, the latter, born almost 15 years later, noted that being European was a matter of choice, not obligation. It is no accident that the growing support for neo-fascist, authoritarian, far-right populists on the continent in the last ten years is concentrated within this cohort of baby-boomers.
A younger generation
Given the lack of commitment to the European project displayed by the current leadership over the course of the previous decade, it is unrealistic to expect a breakthrough towards greater integration and solidarity now. Fortunately, muddling through the threat posed by the Covid-19 crisis may be good enough, as there is a younger, more pro-European generation ready to take power in the coming years.
This new cohort, born in the late 1970s and 80s, displays a strong commitment to Europe. Unlike previous generations, their European-ness is based on the experience of growing up on a continent of open borders. In addition to short visits, many members of this generation have studied in other member states through such programmes as the EU’s Erasmus exchange. The proliferation of study, work and romantic opportunities across the continent has created what the late Umberto Eco called ‘the first generation of young Europeans’.
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This cohort’s pro-European sentiments are foreshadowed by Macron, the first member of this generation to be elected to the leadership of a major European member state. He has unveiled many initiatives to tackle the challenges facing the continent at the supranational level and this upcoming cohort is deeply committed to the European project.
In light of these generational dynamics, supporters of deeper integration should not rely on the current, broadly Eurosceptic set of European leaders to resolve the question of the EU’s finalité. Although Macron succeeded in convincing Merkel to abandon her notorious political caution by supporting the issue of collective debt to help member states weather the coronavirus, it makes little sense to ask the current generation of European leaders to push beyond crisis-management.
Better to delay
While the institutions should not abandon their attempt to create a more democratic EU through initiatives such as the now-postponed Conference on the Future of Europe, it would be far better to delay resolving questions of Europe’s finalité. Once this new, more pro-European generation has taken power, they and their leaders can decide whether to push for a full-blown European republic, a United States of Europe organised around the existing member states or merely supranational economic governance through the creation of a European Ministry of Finance and a eurozone parliament to provide the democratic legitimacy for common debt and tax collection.
Regardless of the concrete form it takes, resolving the issue of the EU’s ambitions is better left to the future, when such initiatives are more likely to succeed and more likely to display the ambition the European project deserves.
Peter J Verovšek is an assistant professor of politics / international relations at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of Memory and the Future of Europe: Rupture and Integration in the Wake of Total War (Manchester University Press, 2020).