The central problem of the European Union (EU) today is that the primary allegiance of its people is to their home countries, not the EU. To overcome this shortfall, the EU essentially buys support for its agenda: In return for the free movement of people, EU members receive unfettered access to the European single market. The coronavirus, however, threatens not only the European populace but the idea of the EU itself.
The EU proved an attractive arrangement so long as Europe’s economy expanded and globalization (read: immigration) remained manageable. The twin blows of the Great Recession and the war in Syria hit Europe hard last decade, however. As the European economy slowed, the structural imbalances between northern and southern Europe grew wider and deeper. Just as the EU’s biggest asset— its economy—lost some of its attractive value, a surge of Arab, Afghan, and African immigrants further overwhelmed authorities. The upshot has been a wave of anti-establishment sentiment in elections across the continent. Nationalism, not supranationalism, is the ideology with momentum today.
Into the breach steps now the coronavirus. It is wreaking havoc on an already brittle and unequal European economy while highlighting the downsides to globalization, like the accelerated transmission of disease. This will further embolden nationalist parties, especially as leaders grasp for national, rather than European, solutions. To date, for example, the German government has promised to do whatever it takes to maintain stability but has provided minimal support (and supplies) to Italy; meanwhile, China is reportedly selling Rome key equipment. The European Central Bank is now undertaking emergency measures, but for Mediterranean countries that are already grappling with weak economies and high incidents of infection, the intervention comes late. The result will be a further erosion of confidence in the EU.
The coronavirus may also accelerate a shift in the global political economy. In decades past, the U.S. acted as the importer of last resort, absorbing huge European surpluses. Over time, this has created a European dependency on exports to America. Now, Europe is equally addicted to China. If the coronavirus substantially slows global markets or leads to a Sino-American standoff, the export economies of Europe (especially, Germany) will be hit hard. The coronavirus may very well signal the beginning of the end of Europe’s export-led economic model.
As the economies of Europe suffer and the downsides of globalization become apparent, anti-establishment leaders will have an opportunity to seize the advantage. This is the setting in Europe as we barrel toward the high-point of the coronavirus pandemic.
Read in Eurasia Review