Politicians, experts, pundits and members of our households are all engaged in a lively discussion over the cause, the course, the potential consequences of this modern-day plague, as well as over the means of combatting it. Most arguments focus on health and economic aspects. We have been pondering the question of who is about to suffer the biggest losses. However, talk of the political and ideological nature of this crisis have also been on the margins of the main debates.
Whenever a major international crisis occurs, the prevailing opinion is that the world will never be the same. The Covid-19 crisis is no exception. However, I find it hard to keep track of how many times I have heard such claims over the past 50 years. For example, there was the ice age threat when the hole in the ozone layer was looming over us because of the use of deodorants and CFCs in our refrigerators and AC units.
After the fall of communism, the end of history was supposed to await us followed by worldwide welfare and the rule of liberal democracy. Unfortunately, what we got instead was a left-wing-liberal parody of democracy and, in the end, nothing really changed.
The world was supposed to undergo a radical transformation after 9/11. We were meant to change our attitudes fundamentally after the death of Pope John Paul II. Then, following the ground-breaking developments that shocked the world’s financial system, we were supposed to rethink our approach to consumerism and our overdependence on credit. The changes in the Islamic world, the birth of ISIS and the war on terror also served as harbingers of inevitable changes in international relations. Russian imperialism – that initially scented blood in Chechnya and then in Georgia and Ukraine – would supposedly force a more realistic approach to European security.
Merely a few months back, Brussels intended to impose severe restrictions on certain European economies in the name of climate protection. We were to give up meat, stop taking planes and so on. Europeans were supposed to change their way of life dramatically. We were also expected to take in millions of so-called refugees from other continents. Finally, we were to create special privileges for people of the LGBT community.
Unfortunately, neither the great crises, nor the great political and social movements have radically changed the way we live. Several developments led to a short-lived reflection, a moment of silence or a quiet protest. One crisis would simply be replaced by a new one. In the end, the international community would yet again focus on the struggle over power, resources and prestige. What will it be like once the dust of the pestilence settles? Optimists yet again foresee a radical change on a global scale. Given the nature of … the human nature, I would not go that far in my predictions. The need for certain adjustments is obvious though.
To start with, we should evaluate the direction of globalisation. Most of all, whether it is inevitable or if we can renationalize numerous aspects of politics. Should the pursuit of economic growth and innovation lack any kind of regulation? Should we agree to a diluted sovereignty and lack of accountability to national authorities? Will we expect national governments to be responsible for key aspects of security? In today’s Europe, there is no opposition to the primary role of national governments in the field of healthcare.
Draconian measures have already been adopted. No one questions methods such as closing national borders, shutting off entire regions or cities and locking people up in their homes. Today, liberal democracies are copy-pasting Chinese solutions that they considered being authoritarian excesses just a few month ago. Not long ago, they denied the right of national governments to protect their citizens from mass influxes of culturally incompatible immigrants. Not long ago, they were openly pushing for energy and climate policies that would undermine the economies of several European states.
We cannot stop globalization, the quest for progress and growth or the will for a better and more comfortable way of life. We will not be able to lock ourselves up in our national fortresses either. Hobbs and his homo homini lupus are not coming back. What European politics needs is more pragmatism and less radicalism. For instance, we cannot let paedocracy – illustrated by Greta Thunberg’s visit to the European Parliament – take over. A few hundred years ago, Joan of Arc’s youthful fervour saved France. Before that, the Children’s Crusade was to save the Holy Land. Greta is not a rational solution to today’s problems.
Once we have put ideology aside, we need to take a closer look at security cooperation within the European Union. Let us forget about soundbites and focus on actual teamwork. Perhaps less ambitious but more realistic instead. For decades, both the UN and the EU have been on a quest for the modern Holy Grail – sustainable development. For a couple years, Europe has been attempting to build resilience against crises such as foreign aggression, democracy deficiency and other ailments of the modern world. Unfortunately, it has failed miserably. The energy market in Europe faces many problems. So do our discussions on climate, military cooperation, relations with Russia (and Russian propaganda) and our partnership with the US. Europe has not been able to solve a single conflict along its borders. It was not prepared for the attack of a deadly virus.
And yet, this is not the first time. After all, in recent history we have faced AIDS, SARS, Ebola, swine flu, avian flu, African swine fever, European spruce bark beetle and anthrax. As it turns out, supposed populists received more attention from European bureaucrats than critical data and resources that would protect our citizens from epidemics. It turns out that the most prosperous European states are short on respirators (such devices have been in use for almost a century), cleaning products and sanitizers. In the meantime, the only thing EU institutions are capable of is allowing their member states to loosen their fiscal belts.
Finally, we need to figure out who is going to manage cooperation in a pragmatic and non-ideological way. This is where the discussion touches upon the subject of legitimacy for European decision-makers. There are no democratic criteria for choosing them. Our pan-European administrations are elected through political haggles between national governments. That is why those in charge of the EU institutions should cooperate with the member states’ governments instead of usurping their powers.
It is a good thing that realism and common sense have prevailed in the face of this pandemic. There were no attempts to manage the crisis by bureaucracy. It is a good thing that no Troika emerged (often comprised of France, Germany and the UK) trying to heal Europe on its own. Luckily, EU Commissioners did not claim to have a universal remedy. The EU should adopt a pragmatic chain of political command led by a council comprised of democratically elected heads of states and governments. Whenever security is concerned, such a council should reach decisions through consensus.
The final element that requires our attention is the image of the leaders of the EU institutions and their response to critical developments. The Union’s internal and external credibility depend on it. We had hoped that Juncker’s immature behaviour would not be repeated. However, will Timmerman’s kow-towing to Greta Thunberg and Von der Leyen’s video on how to wash your hands convince Europeans they are the leaders the Old Continent needs? Can the heads of EU institutions behave this way and still be equal partners for the leaders of the US, China and Russia? For the time being, they clearly cannot.
Managers will learn a lot from our behaviour. They will study how we worked during the pandemic. Perhaps, the world will be even more dependent on automation, cyber technology, AI, commerce 4.0 while physical work performed by humans will be limited even further. Social scientists will surely evaluate our behaviour and social interaction during our self-imposed house arrest. On the flipside, we should be able to draw a political conclusion much sooner. What we need is more pragmatism and realism in our common quest for a better life. Let us give up ideology, utopianism, and get down to business. We need more moderation and respect for natural laws instead of ideas of a “brave new world.”
Also published in Polish by Rzeczpospolita.