Pandemic Politics: Can COVID-19 Kill the EU?

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When all is said and done, the COVID-19 pandemic might very well wind up being regarded as the straw that broke the European Union’s back. The pandemic caught Europe flatfooted, so to speak and the EU response has been less than inspiring, or beneficial for that matter. Instead of demonstrating its strengths, events of the past month have instead put the EU’s deficiencies on full display, and highlighted the body’s failure to meet the needs of its member-states in the midst of a global emergency. There’s no leadership coming out of Brussels, and certainly no sense of responsibility among the wealthier EU members, or a humanitarian desire to hand out billions of euros to prevent nations such as Spain and Italy from collapsing under the strain of COVID-19. Loans and bailouts, on the other hand, are perfectly fine, as we’ve seen in the last week.

To be fair, the European Union is making an effort, yet it has resulted in far less than what some of its hardest-hit member states want or need. Individual EU governments are increasingly reluctant to come together and provide material goods, and funds. France is calling for unity, while looking to Germany, as is much of the EU, for a solution to Spain and Italy’s woes. Berlin has been reluctant to provide one, with many Germans viewing it as Europe expecting their country to pay the COVID-19 bill. Spain and Italy have requested aid to help boost their damaged economies after weeks of lockdown, including ‘coronabonds’ to fund the recoveries. Germany, and the Netherlands refused. German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted Spain and Italy apply to the European Stability Mechanism instead. Given that Southern European nations believe ESM is what helped caused so much economic hardship in Greece, its not likely that either Spain or Italy will apply.

The origins of the bad blood between Southern Europe and its neighbors to the north are found in the 2008/2009 fiscal crisis. The wounds inflicted there have never really been fully repaired. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has ripped them open again, and the bad blood between the southern and northern states is flowing once more.

Only this time, the feud carries the potential to burn the entire bloc to its foundation.

Hungary’s Parliament Gives Orban Absolute Power

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Today in Budapest the National Assembly, which is Hungary’s parliamentary body, approved the government’s request for the power to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time. The new legislation gives extraordinary powers to Prime Minister Viktor Orban, effectively placing him in sole command of Hungary with absolutely no oversight. The move was made to give the government all of the necessary tools to effectively combat COVID-19. Many nations across Europe and other parts of the world have allowed their governments to assume emergency powers in the pandemic, but none have taken a step as drastic as Hungary has. The National Assembly has essentially handed Orban the keys to the kingdom without any assurances he will give them back when the pandemic comes to an end.

The new legislation extends the present state of emergency now in effect. It lays the foundation for jail terms of up to five years on individuals, and organizations hindering measures to curb the spread of the virus or spreading false information that could upset people or hinder the fight against the virus. Human Rights groups, and opposition parties inside Hungary fear Orban will use this to neutralize domestic journalists and media outlets opposing the Orban government.

The legislation also gives Orban the power to bypass parliament when making decisions, eliminating the body’s ability to act as a check on possible abuses of power Orban. The Constitutional Court will retain the power to review government actions, however, the court is filled with justices loyal to Orban, so its ability to provide objective oversight is questionable.

Even though Orban and his allies have promised the emergency measures are temporary and will pose no threat to democracy in Hungary, his opponents inside of the country, and across Europe aren’t so sure. The European Union has not responded to events in Hungary today, and given the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be some time before that happens.

On a final note, what has taken place in Hungary is a textbook example of what was discussed in the previous blog post. Actions taken during the pandemic will certainly produce far reaching consequences once things return to normal, whether leaders, and citizens realize it or not.

Looking Ahead to the Post-Pandemic World

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Right now the world’s focus is centered on the COVID-19 pandemic. Media coverage is virtually 24/7 at this point and that does not appear likely to change in the near future. Coverage is also directed at how the pandemic is affecting a media organization’s home city, region, and nation. Pandemic coverage is largely ignoring international events except for reporting the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in nations around the world. The pandemic dominates global attention at the moment, and rightfully so. What is not being discussed at length right now is what the world might look like down the line when life finally returns to normal.

Despite the fact it has received little press coverage, how this pandemic is going to bring about some unpleasant, and surprising consequences for a number of supra-national bodies, relationships between certain countries, and the overall geopolitical realm. This is most evident in Europe at the moment where the European Union’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been two steps behind that of many of its member-states. Even more critical is the aftereffect the lack of EU leadership could have on Europe when all is said and done. Along with this, the pandemic is straining many relationships between European nations, especially in regard to the aid and responses to the pandemic’s explosion in Spain and Italy. Then there is China, and the Middle East where the pandemic is having a direct effect on energy production.

It is safe to assume the geopolitical order could be reshaped entirely by COVID-19.

These are topics we’re going to examine in the coming week and beyond as the Post-pandemic world starts to take shape and come into focus.

 

Pandemic Politics: In the Absence of EU Leadership….

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While the Continent grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Union is struggling to step up and provide the leadership one would naturally expect from a supra-national body in a time of crisis. Instead, the supposed advantages of the ‘One Europe’ concept which have been extolled by the EU for well over twenty years have turned out to be little more than a bill of goods. The moment has arrived when EU member-states are looking towards Brussels to take the lead in the fight against COVID-19. To their dismay they’ve found nothing even resembling leadership. As the pandemic’s grip on Europe tightens, the weaknesses of the EU are in the spotlight. Brussels has failed to provide coordination of efforts or to take the initiative in developing, and implementing measures to fight the virus.

Instead, EU member-states are looking internally and developing national solutions. Border control is the issue where this has been seen most. A number of member-states have taken firm control of its national borders and imposed selective closures or other necessary actions, in complete disregard to Schengen, and EU recommendations regarding border control. In the early days of the crisis, as it became apparent how grave the situation could potentially become, some member-states decided to unilaterally hold back from exporting medical equipment to Italy, the EU nation that has suffered most from the pandemic. The message being projected from these actions is not ‘One Europe’ but something more along the lines of ‘When the going gets tough, nation-states will revert to form and look out for itself first.’

EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen has missed the opportunity to get out in front of the crisis. The vacuum that has developed in the absence of EU leadership and ability to organize COVID-19 strategy directly led to the nation-first approaches cropping up around Europe. In the words of a European Parliament member, the reaction of the Commission, and the EU as a whole has been “Too late, too slow, too little.”

As the crisis continues to play out, EU leadership has to be wondering how the fumbles, and missed opportunities of today will affect the political picture in Europe in the aftermath of COVID-19.

Pandemic Politics: EU Prepares to Close Borders

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Just days after pressing its member-states to keep their borders open amid the coronavirus outbreak on the continent, the European Union has thought better of the idea. With the number of coronavirus cases skyrocketing since the weekend, the EU has announced plans to implement a 30-day ban on non-essential travel in the Schengen Area. Better late than never, I suppose. The travel ban is not a complete lockdown, instead designed to minimize the movement of people around Europe as much as possible. It will also include a more stringent closing of Europe’s external border for 30 days, similar to the plan the United States put in place last week.

Part of the EU’s motivation in proposing bloc-wide travel restrictions is political. A number of European nations have been implementing unilateral control restrictions to their borders. Brussels is looking to develop a more coordinated EU-directed approach to borders, and in the process bring all of the member-states in line beneath an umbrella policy. The EU response to the expanding coronavirus crisis has been criticized for being too slow, and limited in many regards.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president has said the restrictions will last 30 days initially, and could be extended if the situation calls for it. The move has received considerable support from France, and Germany. Both nations are grappling with growing numbers of coronavirus cases right now, and Germany at least, has indicated the crisis could last for months, not weeks as originally hoped.