Pro-Europeans need to go on the offensive and ensure Euroscepticism doesn’t gain any ground during the current crisis, argue Seb Dance, John Howarth and Mike Buckley.
Anyone who’s agonised over a jigsaw during the lockdown, or attempted a particularly complicated Lego structure will appreciate the adage that it is far easier to destroy than it is to create. What can take hours or even days to painstakingly put together can, in a matter of seconds, be pummelled back to a pile of plastic bricks. And there are those who get disproportionately more joy out of the destruction than they do from the creation.
What is true for Lego is ultimately true even for some of the things we might otherwise take for granted. The kind of things that, in normal times, sit quietly in the background underpinning the way we live our lives but without much fanfare or thought. One such example might be the European Union itself. It was not much of a surprise when Britain became the first member state to toy with the idea of leaving the EU. For sure, Euroscepticism exists in every Member State, even among the founders. There are countries like Denmark and the Czech Republic which have their own entrenched opposition to key aspects of the project, such as its single currency. But few thought that the most obviously Eurosceptic country of all, the UK, would actually opt to one day walk out of the club, albeit half-heartedly and without any real idea of where to go next. But it did, and the rest is, almost, history.
It would be a massive mistake to rest on the correct observation that Brexit has done more harm than good to Eurosceptic movements across the rest of the continent. There is no doubt that longstanding opponents of the project such as Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen have changed the language they use. Overt opposition to EU membership itself has been dropped in favour of a much more limited ambition; either leaving the single currency or simply dialling up the anti-EU rhetoric. Some now even like to claim that the nationalist would-be leaders of their respective countries have actually changed their minds on the merits of membership. It is of course not true. They want and need the EU to fail now as much as they always have. They are just a little smarter, perhaps, in the way they try to sell themselves.
The COVID-19 crisis has caused many people to wonder whether or not the EU might be on the brink of collapse. The rhetoric of those who had, in the wake of Brexit, retreated on some of their more strident calls has also, correspondingly, now become much harsher. The sudden closure of borders – without coordination or consultation with neighbours, the lack of apparent solidarity from other Member States to countries like Italy, who were desperate for material and financial assistance in the early days of the pandemic, and the frustrating inability of the EU institutions to coordinate an initial and effective financial response has fed this feeling.
It’s not the first time we have been here. Tales of the EU’s death have been somewhat exaggerated over the years. It was supposed to have come under intolerable strain following the 2008 financial crisis and the terms placed on debtor countries by the infamous troika.The perennial summer refugee crises were similarly supposed to put an unfixable break on the relationship between North and South. These crises have severely impacted on trust and perception of the EU’s strengths and competencies, but that strain has, for the most part, been temporary. Majority support for membership of the EU has remained consistent even in countries like Greece. For each of these crises, the answers are nearly always the same, though often realised in different ways. It is almost always a failure of the individual Member States to show sufficient solidarity combined with a collective failure to endow the EU institutions with the necessary powers to coordinate.
The curiosity of the nationalists’ position can be seen in the case of Salvini where he lambasts the lack of support from other countries whilst simultaneously decrying the weakness of the institutions to act. He knows full well that one flows from the other, and that the inherent contradiction in his position can be covered up by bemoaning “the EU”.
Bit by bit responses to the crisis have improved and the direction of travel is the right one. But COVID-19 is a mega-crisis, and it’s probably not the only one that the EU will face in the next decades. The EU has actually weathered its storms surprisingly well, largely because there is no credible alternative. But the immense changes that society is facing: from climate change, to automation and information wars mean that the challenges will only keep on coming. If the EU can be imagined as an elastic band, each crisis stretches that band as a test of its capacity. Unsurprisingly, the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis is perhaps stretching it more than most.
As with any material, elastic has a limit to how many times it can be tested. The EU constantly reforms itself and adds additional capacity, but if the challenges come too thick and fast and the elastic is stretched too far, it can and will snap. The way that progressives and internationalists defend and protect the EU is to get one step ahead, to anticipate the challenges ahead and to prepare the response. We know the Right feed on fear. They understand that people want certainty, comfort and security. The easy answers that nationalists offer don’t provide anything like that; they provide only the illusion. The threats that people face are real. Blaming them on others and proposing isolation as a solution is easy, but the reality is that we can never hope to face those challenges properly unless we do so together with the increased capacity that the EU provides.
Knocking down a structure might offer momentary satisfaction, but it is not worth the years and years it would take to pick up the bricks. The EU took generations to build. It is slow, often tone-deaf and most citizens are a long way from feeling a natural affinity to it. But how much better would it be to invest the time in building it up further, strengthening its capacity, developing its flexibility and enabling it to grow from each challenge to face the next with greater confidence. The choice is before us.
Seb Dance and John Howarth (Politics Without Borders) are former Labour MEPs. Mike Buckley is Director of campaign group Labour for a European Future