Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy penned an article in the Financial Times last week on the global effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Many writers have offered ideas on this topic, but Roy’s stood out as some of the most prescient speculation on the new groove of a post-COVID world:
“Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to ‘normality’, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”
The craving Roy describes is present in billions of people around the world. Three weeks ago, I hopped off the treadmill and spent a few rounds lighting up the heavy bag at my local gym. Concern about this novel virus soup brewing across Big Blue in China was on the brain, but the news coverage suggested it would play out the same way as the other epidemics of the past few decades. SARS, MERS, bird flu, Zika and others all scored their five minutes of fame before disappearing from the spotlight.
Two days later, my strength coach texted me to say the gym would be closed until further notice as Washington state governor Jay Inslee declared a state of quarantine. Restaurants began exclusively servicing delivery and carryout orders. The number of cases exploded day by day, and giant economies like the United States and the European Union plunged into a meat grinder of insufficient medical staff, overburdened facilities, lack of testing, and a whole world of hurt. Big don’t always mean tough. Goliath was big and look what happened to him.
But those breakdowns aren’t just exposing systemic inadequacy inside national borders; they’re also revealing who’s in whose corner when the hammer falls. Our old political realities can never return to normal with this knowledge. We will need to confront some unprecedented shifts in the global order, and one of the biggest changes could be the current format of the EU.
Precursors to this crisis appeared in the last decade. Southern Europe’s woes defined EU dynamics of the 2010s, and Italy’s economic shock from the plague offers the most recent example. As the Boot’s social infrastructure descended into third-world status, the EU shuttered its borders and refused to provide financial backing in the early preventative stages. By contrast, China sent medical experts and supplies over three weeks before the time of this writing, Cuban doctors arrived in the country to great fanfare a week ago, and even Russia stepped up to provide necessary help. Italy received harsh criticism for accepting this aid, but where were they supposed to turn when their allies in Europe punked out at the first sign of trouble? Many Italians look around and wonder what this European “Union” is doing for them. These sentiments are not new, but the EU’s dismal response to the lung-shredding pain of Italian victims amplified them to stratospheric potency.
It is reasonable for Italian citizens to question their worth in this structure. What is the point of remaining in the EU if it leaves more than 17,000 Italian citizens (the current COVID death toll at the time of this writing) high and dry? Questions beyond COVID also arise, like what is the point of adopting the euro as a currency when it has massacred Italy’s economy? What is the point of sharing a union with countries that regularly stereotype Southern Europeans as lazy, incompetent, and constantly in need of saving, sentiments that bleed into United States coverage of these nations and influence monetary policy?
Greek citizens asked similar questions less than a decade ago when the European Central Bank sided with the private creditors that plunged Greece into bankruptcy and strong-armed the then-Syriza government into accepting a horrible austerity deal in defiance of a popular referendum result. The decision to disobey the referendum’s outcome desecrated Syriza’s credibility, paving the way for far-right groups like Golden Dawn to gain limited power in the national parliament. Two member countries ravaged by your own political and economic policy in less than a decade is a track record only Rod Marinelli could hold up high.
Indian historian and commentator Vijay Prashad claims there is no future for the EU’s present unsustainable structure and predicts a trend towards regionalism and a multipolar world in the wake of the COVID crisis as coalitions like the African Union seek to become regional conglomerates rather than reluctant subordinates to industrialized Western powers. In Prashad’s words, “how can I support the European Union if they will not support the African Union?”
It is tempting for us EU supporters to hand wave these problems away as we handle the illegitimate criticisms of figures like Nigel Farage, but denying these realities does not help our credibility. We risk becoming like the socialist defenders of the 20th century who refused to criticize or concede any weaknesses of socialist regimes like the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Venezuela. When the Soviet collapse came in ’91, these defenders had no hitters for the gloating Western scholars who pointed to socialism’s failures. They’d spent no time intellectually sparring with each other and were caught flat-footed by The End of History.
Much EU criticism in places like Britain may be warped by xenophobic rhetoric, but wrapping all EU criticism in that same bundle will leave us with no answers when the fractures come. We can never return to normality as Roy says, so our energy as progressives who wish to see the days of warring European states stay old school is better invested in envisioning what a new EU could look like after COVID.
Internal reform is self-evident. Many scholars began mounting cases against the current EU format in the past decade, including prominent former officials of the Greek Syriza government like Yanis Veroufakis and Costas Lapavitsas. Even outside commentators like prominent American economist Paul Krugman advocated for a return to the drachma for Greece in the wake of the Greek financial crisis. Catalonian citizens expressed dismay at the news that they would be denied membership into the Union if they seceded from Spain, a stance that Scottish independence campaigners would do well to notice.
The imbalance of power is striking, and that old saying about how a house divided cannot stand is bringing the consequences one would expect. The power of only three centers (Paris, Berlin, and Brussels) offsets that of the remaining European capitals combined and prevents the collective sense of unity necessary for this kind of union to function by fueling hazardous nationalism. Defenders of these xenophobic streaks claim such boxes will never be trashed, but it’s worth remembering that a detachment from nationalism is not unprecedented. In 1800, few if any French citizens thought of themselves as French. By 1900, around the time of the modern nation state’s invention, they all did. John Brueilly of the London School of Economics writes, “Many eastern European immigrants arriving in the US in the 19th century could say what village they came from, but not what country: it didn’t matter to them. …Ancient empires are colored on modern maps as if they had firm borders, but they didn’t.”
Beyond Europe’s own borders, the EU’s structure and philosophy carries implications for the world at large. No restructuring is complete without decolonizing our outlook on the power dynamics of the globe and the EU’s place within it. This involves questioning the EU’s rejection of regionalism when it prevents similar unions from achieving sovereign power. The obvious case here is the African Union. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi attempted to bring real power to the AU and promote its economic independence by proposing a pan-African currency. The EU showed its support for this move towards sovereignty and self-determination by backing the United States’ illegal invasion of Libya and brutal assassination of Gaddafi in 2011. Libya now stands as one of the hottest slave blocks in the world. Great job team.
Why would the EU mount such a violent response to the formation of another monetary union that could not compete with it in global trade? The motives become crystal-clear when one considers that Gaddafi’s new currency would oust the French Franc as the currency of several African countries. Fourteen of them still use the Communauté Financière d’Afrique (CFA) Franc, which is guaranteed by the French treasury. The Central Bank of the West African States may mint the stacks, but the French economy influences the strength of the currency in these countries, leaving millions of African people at the whim of bureaucrats thousands of kilometers away in Paris. Introducing a pan-African currency would remove this leverage over these African economies and promote easier internal commerce across the continent with obvious economic benefits.
The United States launched a similar campaign against the Bolivarian Revolution in Central and South America, when Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez established trade deals and subsidy programs among neighboring countries to break the US dollar denomination and build greater economic foundations in the region. All crickets from the EU on this blatant violation of regional self-determination.
Progressives must demand better of a new EU. Gaddafi and Chavez may have blood on their halos, but nobody needs to run their fan clubs to recognize this gross hypocrisy. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, yeah? So why undermine efforts of African and Latin American countries to emulate the spirit of the EU and finally torch the last deep roots of colonialism? The EU fronted on its talk of human rights, but sharper minds noticed the serrated grin. Commentators from these regions are not idiots.
That arrogance can only stay abroad for so long, and now it is coming home to roost. Normalizing such language for non-European populations blows back to Southern Europeans caught in the crosshairs of that same mocking language. Greece, Italy, and Catalonia now know the heat the EU brought down on Africa and Latin America save for outright hits on their leaders. The EU in its current structure of skewed economic and shot-calling power cannot respect sovereignty and regionalism as a principle. The global south has known this for decades, and now Europeans themselves are waking up to this fact.
Europe’s pitiful response to the COVID 19 crisis could be the knockout blow in a series of mishandlings over the past few decades. One fatalistic interpretation sees that as an inevitable devolution into a tribal and hostile Europe, but another uses Arundhati Roy’s vision of opportunity. Rather than a painful death, this moment is an opportunity for rebirth. Nobody wants to return to a war-torn Europe with bombs dropping everywhere, but the EU needs some serious soul-searching if it wants to survive in a world with emerging regionalism. We as progressives can either steer that conversation or leave it to whatever noise xenophobic anti-Europe figures like Viktor Orban and Nigel Farage spout.
The European Union cannot be the union we know it can be without a simultaneous embracing of the African Union’s right to exist as a sovereign regional power. Otherwise, the divorce papers of a shattered Europe in crisis will come busting down the door any minute.