The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed both EU’s strengths and weaknesses – and underlined the gap between perception and reality, between ambition and achievement.
Far from being the almighty bureaucratic behemoth of Brexiteer imagination, the EU has revealed the limits of its supranational power and allowed national governments to gain the upper hand across a range of issues.
These, inevitably, include the economy where the boldness and innovation enshrined in the €750bn Recovery Plan (#NextGenerationEU), approved late last year and consisting of grants and loans, have yet to materialise.
The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated existing divisions between relatively prosperous, stable north and poorer, weaker south and the plan, coupled with the next seven-year budget (MFF), worth €1.2trn, has yet to spring to the rescue. It has been held up.
Member states have yet to benefit from the breakthrough agreement to enable the European Commission to raise money on the markets, that is incur mutual debt, for the first time.
However, the strict budget deficit and debt limits of the Stability & Growth Pact have been suspended and may not return in the same form. At the same time, investments in future technologies – the digital and circular economies – in efforts to catch up competitively on the US and China have been delayed.
The recession has also exacerbated inequalities, including poverty, with reliance on food banks rising dramatically, with demand up as much as 50%.
Action plans to combat gender inequality, discrimination against the disabled and other infringements of the Charter of Fundamental Rights exist on paper by and large. The pandemic has at the very least stalled the decline in income disparities that saw them fall to their lowest levels since 2007.
The EU is built on solidarity but the pandemic has dented internal and external solidarity most notably in the vaccination roll-out programme. The idea of centrally coordinating vaccine production and distribution has taken a hit, with Brussels unable to guarantee the millions of doses promised on time.
Member states in eastern Europe have been tempted to sign deals with Russia for its (relatively unproven) Sputnik V vaccine. Early on in the pandemic borders were closed and export controls imposed. The scale of vaccine dose exports to poorer countries, including through the COVAX facility, is disputed but below target.
Critics have also pointed to absent or inadequate solidarity in EU measures on migration that are meant to help and/or deter large numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers coming to Europe. The New Pact on migration and asylum, designed to promote better internal and external cooperation and to complete reform of the Common European Asylum System, is deadlocked between national governments and MEPs.
Though the number of would-be migrants has declined from the peak of 2015, hundreds, even thousands, end up in huge detention centres, often living in appalling conditions – a state of affairs exacerbated by the pandemic.
Critics argue that the proposed new screening procedures that seek to process asylum-seekers at borders within days, sending many “home” under the returns procedure, will create even more such centres. They also point to increased illegal pushbacks of genuine refugees.
EU claims to be a beacon or model of peace, democracy and the rule of law are also under challenge. The much-vaunted Recovery Plan was only approved when initial ideas of tying pay-outs of grants and loans to observance of democratic norms/rule of law were effectively watered down to the point of meaningless.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said that breaches “cannot be tolerated” but Poland and Hungary have continued to cement political/one-party control over, say, the courts and independent news media.
The European Parliament has pinpointed deteriorating positions inside Bulgaria. Yet none of these big recipients of EU largesse is expected to push it to the point of expulsion or exit.
Brexit and Euroscepticism
Brexit and relations with the UK remain a huge bone of contention but fears that British withdrawal from the EU would set a precedent that others would follow are unfounded so far.
In several EU member states (Italy, the Netherlands, Germany) eurosceptics, populists and/or the Far Right have lost support while outright supporters of leaving the EU have changed their minds.
Key tests of democratic opinion and euroscepticism will take place in both Germany and France, with general elections in the former in September 2021 and, combined with a presidential vote, in the latter in May 2022.
Angela Merkel, who is stepping down as German Chancellor, and French President Emmanuel Macron, who is facing a likely reprise of his run-off against Marine Le Pen, have given a new momentum to the EU. If both are replaced it may well falter or at least take considerable time to recover.
This actual and/or pending changing of the guard comes when the EU is facing significant challenges in foreign policy – the new Biden administration in the US, Russia, China and Turkey to name but four of the biggest.
While Europe has warmly welcomed Joe Biden in place of Donald Trump, the new American President could prove difficult over issues such as trade and competition. Though Germany under Merkel remains relatively friendly to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the EU as a whole is creaking under Moscow’s divide-and-rule strategy ahead of elections to the Duma in September 2021.
Europe, equally, seems unable to consistently handle a China bent on external aggression and domestic trampling of human rights, not least in Hong Kong and towards the Uyghurs.
Finally, Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, may be weak economically but is a growing thorn in Europe’s flesh over migration and oil/gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean off Cyprus.
Often described as a strange institutional beast, part inter-governmental, part-federal, part-confederal, the EU is constantly evolving.
Arguably, the pandemic saw national governments, notably the European Council (of government leaders), take on greater power and control to the detriment of the Commission and Parliament. The EU’s democratic development in coming years is the greatest issue it faces and one that remains entirely unresolved.
The EU agreed in late April 2021 to enshrine in a European Climate Law the commitment to achieve climate neutrality or the zero carbon economy by 2050, a world first. At the same time the EU27 has agreed to reduce GHG emissions by “at least 55%” by 290309 on 1990 levels. MEPs had wanted a target of 60%.
But the 2050 target is not a legal obligation for each of the 27 member states and no target has yet been set for 2040. So EU ambitions to take on a global leadership role in the run-up to and during the #COP26 summit in Glasgow in late 2021 face a serious test, with the US under Joe Biden also determined to set the pace.
Net zero by 2050 would limit the rise in the Earth’s temperature to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels but there are indications that this ceiling will be breached before then. So, the EU, along with the US, has a great deal of diplomatic work to do at Glasgow to persuade China, the world’s biggest polluter, and others to adopt bolder and swifter timetables.
Scotland, meanwhile, has an extremely rich and well-protected environment, which is famous throughout the world and is crucial to ensuring we have a robust economy and society. It is vital that we protect this for both present and future generations. Working with the EU is key to achieving this.
By its very nature the environment transcends political, legal and man-made boundaries. As a result, cooperation between EU Member States and between the EU and the rest of the world is essential if we are to tackle challenges which impact on us all. These range from droughts and floods, to pollution and threats to Europe’s rich natural capital and biodiversity.
Addressing these challenges requires collective action involving the EU, national, regional and local governments, businesses, NGOs and ordinary individuals. This has to include outreach to our international partners so that action is taken on a global scale.
The EU protects our living environment and has some of the world’s highest environmental standards. Environment policy helps green the EU economy, protect nature, and safeguard the health and quality of life of people living in the EU.
Electricity delivered from renewable sources accounts for a greater proportion of gross electricity consumption in Scotland, than across the EU overall.
Scotland – 97% (2020), EU – 32% (2019)
As the world population continues to expand, pressure on the Earth’s finite resources is growing at an unprecedented rate and global environmental challenges become more pressing.
More action is needed to ensure that:
- Air, oceans and other water resources are kept clean.
- Land and ecosystems are used sustainably.
- Climate change is kept to manageable levels.