European integration has been the topic of academic research almost since its inception. This is no different since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Different measures are taken by different institutions of the EU, in the name of emergency, nevertheless affect European integration. While it is commonly accepted that the EU was unprepared and its response was late, the conclusion reached in this article is that its later actions actually contained the risk of disintegration by a multidimensional response of both intergovernmental and supranational measures. Similar to this, while the European solidarity that reinforces integration was damaged in the beginning, it also created the circumstances for its mending. It can be predicted that European integration will conserve itself or deepen, following the end of the crisis. Especially further integration on the fields of health and emergency administration can be expected.
Keywords: Covid-19, EU, European Integration, European Central Bank, European Commission, Council of Europe, Solidarity, Economic and Monetary Union.
After one year of its first detection in Wuhan, China SARS-CoV-2, commonly known as COVID 19, continues to shape daily life. Similar to any crisis, different nations approached the problem within their abilities and the different circumstances they faced: New Zealand as an isolated island with a rather small population could issue a nationwide lockdown and the virus was in control in a comparatively small period of time. South Korea heavily invested in testing and tracing and controlled the virus by summer; however, the situation is changing at the moment with a rise in cases.
Even though the European Union is not a federation and thus cannot be called one country, due to its free movement of people, goods, and services it was more vulnerable to the virus as a whole and had to coordinate its response as a whole to be effective. Unfortunately, this was not the case in the beginning: the EU was not prepared for the virus, it underestimated its consequences, was late to respond and according to some its response was ineffective (Bongardt & Torres, 2020, p. 1). The responses were mainly centered around solidarity and preventing an economic clash within the union.
This paper’s concerns is not how or where the EU response went wrong but rather analyzing its implications for the future of the EU. When the history of the EU is read, there cannot be found disintegration on a great level after a crisis. But this does not mean that there cannot ever be such an occasion. The paper will try to answer the question “Will the responses regarding COVID-19 cause further integration in the EU?” by analyzing the role of the intergovernmental and supranational institutions, the role of the European Central Bank (hereinafter ECB) and European solidarity with the case of Italy; through different headlines of newspapers and the ever-expanding research on the topic.
A Brief History of European Union
The European Union, which is a well-established organization, plays a prominent role both for the European continent and for the rest of the world from past to present. In fact, the idea of unity goes back to Rousseau and Kant. Both of them advocate establishing a union in order to ensure peace in Europe (Çınar, 2017, p. 72). However, As Sören Philipps states in his article, European integration (institutionally) started with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951, April 18 (Phillips, 2009, p. 205).
The fundamental purpose of the establishment of the ECSC was to ensure peace in Europe. Well, how was ECSC established? It all started when European thinkers and leaders put forward the idea that countries in Europe should gather economically and politically in order to maintain peace. After the Second World War, it was stated that a supranational institution related to coal and steel production should be established under the leadership of French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, and the main reason for the presentation of the idea was the desire to end the tension between France and Germany, which are the key components of Europe. As it is stated in the Schuman Declaration, war between historic rivals France and Germany is “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible” thanks to the ECSC (Schuman, 1950). Then, the ESCS was established with the participation of six crucial countries which are Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Italy, and Federal Germany (EU, n.d.).
Through the success achieved with the ECSC, peace was provided in Europe both economically and politically. In addition, the Treaty of Rome was signed on 25 March 1957. The aim of the treaty was not only for the union to cooperate on coal and steel, but also to link the economies of other sectors. With this treaty, the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community (EUROTAM) were established. However, this treaty entered into force on January 1, 1958 (Treaty of Rome (EEC)).
Then, on 1 July 1967 “The Merger Treaty entered into force, thus fusing the executives of the European Communities (ECSC, EEC, Euratom). From now on, the European Communities will have a single Commission and a single Council” (EU, n.d.). One of the most important agreements that make up the existence of today’s European Union is the Maastricht Treaty; it is also known as the Treaty of European Union (TEU). The treaty was signed in 1992, 7 February. It plays an essential role for the EU since “under the treaty, the European Union is officially created” (EU, n.d.). The treaty created the EU because it established “a three-pillar European Union structure”. The pillars respectively were the European Communities (ECSC, EEC, and EURATOM), “Common Foreign and Security Policy” and “Cooperation in Justice and Home Affairs”.
Another important event is to have a decision to make the currency of the union “Euro”. On February 28, 2002 “Euro” became the only currency between twelve European Union member states (EU, n.d.). The last important stage in terms of the agreement in the European Union is the Treaty of Lisbon. It was signed in 2007 but entered into force in 2009. Basically, with this agreement, it was aimed to eliminate the bottlenecks in the EU’s decision-making mechanisms and to achieve a more democratic and effective functioning structure of the Union (EU, n.d.).
European Commission vs. Council of Europe
To understand how the actions of the Commission or the Council of Europe may affect integration of Europe, one needs to know their structures and who has more power where. The Council of Europe consists of ministers from each member state. These ministers each form a council to discuss legislation and the issues that become dreadlocks are solved in the bi-annual meetings of the presidents/prime ministers as, again, the European Council. Thus, even though the institution still requires a strong level of consensus seeking, the Council carries more of an intergovernmental weight. This means that in this institution member states have more power over the proceedings. However, the Commission, where governments only send a commissioner to the institution and where acting on behalf of all of Europe and the European institutions are encouraged and enforced to an extent (through nationally diversified cabinets for each commissioner) can be considered as the supranational body of the EU, pushing for more integration. In theory, the well-being of the whole Union depends on a balance between all institutions but from time to time some institutions may overpower the other in terms of legitimacy or effectiveness. This can be seen especially in different areas of competences such as the different pillars. While COVID was not a structural crisis, like Brexit or the Eurozone crisis, it did create tensions between member states and affected important areas of integration in the name of crisis management (Salvati, 2020, p. 2-3). This effect will be analyzed through the different actions of institutions.
First and foremost, it needs to be noted that health is neither an exclusive nor a shared competency in the European Union (Roloff, 2020, p. 29). It is completely in the control of member states and this was the reason why initial responses varied: Every country responded according to their own health system capacity. What disrupted this was the uncoordinated closure of borders and the partial disruption in the free movement of goods, which includes medical supplies. This is where the Commission intervened first and reminded member states of their obligations (Roloff, 2020, p. 30). Other than this, European Commission as the supranational body of the EU had very limited cards up its sleeve as member states refused to accept the Commission’s coordinating role during the response (Salvati, 2020, p. 10). One of the things Comission did manage was the temporary suspension of the Stability and Growth Pact. Stability and Growth Pact (SGP for short) is a set of macroeconomic rules states have to abide by in order to protect the stability and growth of the economic union, as per the name. This suspension was criticized as it could amplify the divergence between different economies and cause inequalities in the long run between member states, which in turn can endanger the single market and/or the economic union (Salvati, 2020, p. 11). This decision can be interpreted in two ways in terms of the authority of the Commission: It can be used as an evidence to show that member states are bound to the decisions of the Commission so much that even in times of crises, they cannot make decisions about the economy that would affect the whole Union, without the authority of the supranational body. Or it can be interpreted as the inability of the Commission to make any effective decisions except giving more power to the states (Salvati, 2020, p. 11). Another action taken by the Commission was the SURE action (support to mitigate unemployment risks). It is, as Salvati explains a “Commission loan-based programme for sustaining national insurance systems” (Salvati, 2020, p. 12). It is of utmost importance due to its capacity of around €100 billion and how it increases the amount of interdependence and integration among the members (Salvati, 2020, p.12). However, what should not be disregarded is that SURE action is purely emergency based and does not create permanent integration in the way a treaty does (Salvati, 2020, p. 12).
The Council’s biggest achievement during the crisis can be the coordination of the comprehensive economic policy response with the Eurogroup, that aimed to “support economic activity and prepare the ground for recovery” (Eurogroup, 2020). By April 2020, the aggregate amount of discretionary fiscal measures used to strengthen the health sector and the support affected workers were up to 3% of the EU GDP (Eurogroup, 2020). The other economic measure they decided upon is the recovery fund that will fund programmes designed to kick-start the economy through the EU budget (Eurogroup, 2020). Even though these create an image of the Council being in control, actually in most of the press releases they published it is stated they “welcome the Commission proposal”. According to the structure of policy making in the EU, only the Commission can make proposals and if the Parliament and the Council approve, then it becomes law. It seems to be similar during the COVID crisis. While the Council of Europe does have exclusive deciding rights in certain areas such as common foreign policy, during the time of crisis they only provided a scope of leadership and relied on the Commission.
While cooperation between different institutions of the EU provides the best results, especially in times of crises, one can actually see an increased role taken by the Commission. As European Parliament proved its minimal role during emergencies (Salvati, 2020, p. 11) and the Council awaiting Commission proposals, the Commission seems to gain more discretionary power during the crisis. And as some believe, despite criticisms of its ineffectiveness at the beginning, the Commission may come out with more powers at the end of the pandemic (I. Grigoriadis, personal communication, 21 February 2021). This would mean, from a functionalist point of view, more integration. However, it is still early to declare definitive results and the ongoing problem of democratic legitimacy in the EU should also be answered before equating “more power to the Commission” to “more integration”.
European Central Bank
ECB was established by the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1998 and it consists of nineteen European Union Member states which “have adopted the euro as their common currency” (Bondarenko, 2015). Born alongside the monetary union, just like a nation’s central bank, ECB controls the amount of money in the market and thus important economic tools such as the interest rate. It is almost a common opinion that in Europe’s response to COVID, ECB carried the bulk of the weight. This is because, after public health emergencies were handled the most important aspect of the response included providing constancy in the economy and preventing a recession that would affect all of Europe. In this section what ECB did to create this opinion and what it means for integration will be discussed.
ECB, due to its unique structure, managed to make difficult choices quickly without getting tangled up in the politics of the situation. The results of these choices are five-fold. Firstly, the ECB tries to keep borrowing affordable by keeping interest rates at low levels. Then, it took steps to support access to credit for firms and households. The ECB did this by increasing the amount of money banks could borrow from the ECB. During the pandemic period, they tried to solve the temporary financing problem of the banks by offering instant borrowing options at appropriate rates. Another response was to increase the lending capacity of banks. Compared to the past, banks were supported by being less strict about capital during the pandemic period. The last response was to try to maintain financial stability thanks to international cooperation (EU, 2020). The issuing of Eurobonds, as they are commonly known, to ensure liquidity was approved within the €750 billion worth Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEEP) (Bluth et al., p. 4). It can be described as an asset purchase program with certain eligibility criteria for both public and private sectors which was extended until the Governing Council decides the COVID crisis is over (Salvati, 2020, p. 10). Even if this purchase program is emergency based it can prove itself to be a crucial step in the creation of a fiscal union, which did not follow through with the monetary union as some members were opposing it at the time (I. Grigoriadis, personal communication, 21 February 2021).
As it was stated before the measures taken in terms of the role and future of the member states of the European Union may have various consequences. The emergency measures taken were discussed in many angles during the COVID-19 period. Through the successful crisis management of the EU countries, the strength of social insurance and national service approach can be confirmed. In addition, thanks to measurements, trust in politicians can improve positively. On the other hand, the negative side of the measures taken is that the politicians’ nationalist sentiments and approach towards national solutions increase. As an example, Hungary’s nationalist attitude towards emergency measures is an indication that it is possible for European countries to take an illiberal path (Brendebach, Maduro, & Tassinari, 2020, p. 4). Therefore, further segregation may occur because of the emergency measures and economic aid are conditioned.
On the other hand, just like with any other European institution, a question of legitimacy and integration arises at this point: Can the technocratic institution of ECB create integration on its own? Technocracy refers to “a form of governance where those with political power are appointed on the basis of their scientific expertise” (Horton, 2020, p. 1896). A proof for the technocracy of ECB can be the backgrounds of its presidents, as they worked in various positions such as but not limited to the minister of finance or governor of national central banks for their respective countries. Even if the acts of ECB may not bring more integration, it certainly contained the risks of stalemate and disintegration in this process (Salvati, 2020, p. 16). Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that ECB is not subject to democratic political supervision and this may delegitimize EU’s decisions in the eye of the public (Salvati, 2020, p. 16).
European Solidarity in Crisis?
One of the most important non-institutional parts of the European Union is the European solidarity. This term indicates both a shared history and culture, common goals and the willingness to work towards those goals with cooperation. European solidarity can be seen as an emotional bond that legitimizes and/or enforces integration. But with each political crisis, in addition to the governments and the institutions of the EU, the European solidarity is tested as well. COVID was no exception: In certain countries COVID was more destructive in terms of economic or lethality. The one that has been most vocal about this, has been Italy. Mario Draghi, the president of the ECB from 2011 to 2019 and the current prime minister of Italy, stated in August 2020 that “the solidarity that should have been a spontaneous act, was the result of negotiations” and both the government and the citizens felt abandoned by Europe (Loewener & Mioni, 2020). Adding on to this was the suspension of the free movement of people and thus a decrease in revenue for economies heavily revolving around tourism, just like Italy’s is (Brendebach, Maduro, & Tassinari, 2020, p. 4). But considering that both France and Spain suffered to a similar amount but did not raise concerns at the same level as Italy makes one suspect there is more to the story rather than just the supposed-failure of the European solidarity.
There are mainly two reasons for the resentment Italy feels towards the EU. First one is based on the past: EU-Italy relations did not go sour in one night, and previous disputes are important to understand the country’s reaction amid the COVID crisis. As the Great Recession of 2008 hit the markets the whole world economy was affected in a domino effect. Due to the interconnectedness of the economy through the Economic and Monetary Union (hereinafter EMU) once the crisis hit the EU from the South, the whole Union had to deal with the first real test of the EMU. During this period, with the bailout agreements and their tight austerity measures as written by Germany (Martín-Estudillo, 2018, p. 176), the EU became a synonym for economic decline and problems (Loewener & Mioni, 2020). Thus, when the country declared a state of emergency by 31 January and an immediate European response was not seen, most citizens and the government perceived it as an inherent European problem, once again causing disarray in their country. Even though the mismanagement of EU in the first weeks that involved events such as the concerns at the highest political levels about hostile takeovers of financial assets, the Franco-German ban on the exports of medical supplies, unverified news about how other European countries were taking masks from the purchase of Italy from China fed into the narrative of European antagonists; EU did declare solidarity with Italy and supplied the country with essential medical aid (Loewener & Mioni, 2020). Why this narrative gained the support it gained can be explained based on the political environment of Italy: Mainly, the government used the EU as a scapegoat to distract the insufficiencies of Italy while managing the crisis as a means to gain political support.
The other reason for the government and people’s fierce response is because extra-European aid was perceived more important. This can be linked to the fact that foreign sources of aid, especially China, managed to use social media more effectively to make their acts of generosity more public and Italian media establishment themselves covered news of extra-European aid more (Loewener & Mioni, 2020). This, again, may be related to the expectation that EU solidarity is a guarantee and extra-European aid is a more precious act of help. As a result, EU then proceeded to create a solidarity tracker online, to show what kind of aid has been given to which country when and in what amount .
It is true that EU was slow to answer the crisis in Italy and this caused a very unique kind of tension with Italy which even diffused to the public: “According to a survey of 1,000 Italians conducted in April by Tecné, 42% of respondents said they would leave the EU, up from 26% in November 2018” (BBC, 2020). But thinking about the Brexit equivalent for Italy still seems as a quite exaggeration since great measures have been taken since the beginning of the pandemic and currently the populist voices are on the downside in Italy (I. Grigoriadis, personal communication, 21 February 2021) with Mario Draghi as prime minister by a coalition of center, center-left and right parties. It can be predicted that Italy will continue to be a part of the Union and European solidarity will mend itself over time.
To sum up, what has been said up to this point, Europe’s response to this unpredictable and dangerous crisis started too late. It was considered as a national problem when it had the very real potential of becoming an EU problem due to the Schengen agreement, and it did. Member states failing to create a common roadmap and acting on their own in different levels definitely intensified COVID as a crisis. However, when the problem was recognized a series of solutions followed pursuit.
Economic actions added onto great acts of solidarity, such as offering places for most affected patients in hospitals and intensive care (Roloff, 2020, p. 30) actually made impressive progress on the way. Europe’s response to COVID has been fragmented, meaning it had both supranational and intergovernmental solutions. Both the Commission and the Council used initiatives when needed. What these say for integration is another matter: It would be unfair to say that all these actions were only possible because the emergency the situation brought made it possible and there will be no integration resulting from this period of time.
After all, some of the mechanics that were implemented after the Eurozone crisis are still in effect. In addition to the possibility for the adoption of some of the Corona measures, so to speak; the Union may find it helpful to increase its role in the health sector so that it can put certain obligations for member states in situations that desire a common response (Roloff, p. 35). Another possibility to achieve this can be using a strong, united EU voice while negotiating with multinational pharmaceutical companies to support the improvement of health infrastructure on the national level (I. Grigoriadis, personal communication, 21 February 2021). Or instead of a new health competency, the crisis management capabilities of the EU can be improved, thus increasing the role for the EU anyway. As Robert Schuman states “Europe will be forged in crisis and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises”. There seems to be no reason why this foresight by a great mind could be proven wrong now, after being correct for decades. But for the foreseeable future, the United States of Europe remains out of reach and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises. There seems to be no reason why this foresight by a great mind could be proven wrong now, after being correct for decades. But for the foreseeable future, a United States of Europe remains out of reach, and this means individuality within the Union will continue to cause problems in times of crises.
Zeynep Ece SOLMAZ
European Studies Internship Programme
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