Great Britain

The coronavirus crisis has exposed the truth about the EU: it's not a real union | Simon Jenkins

The European Union has scraped through its latest crisis by the skin of its teeth. The past week has been a disgrace. When ministerial talks collapsed on Thursday over the plan for a “coronabond”, the reaction seemed terminal. Germans and Dutch insulted Italians and Spaniards. Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, said his country faced an “economic and social emergency”, and the EU appeared not to care. The Danes spoke of “a financial crisis on steroids”. The European commission’s vice-president, Frans Timmermans, predicted “the EU as we know it will not survive this”.

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/apr/09/eu-risks-break-up-over-coronabonds-row-warns-italian-pm

Finally a last-minute package was agreed, for €500bn of emergency loan finance. This was little more than an extension of the existing European stability mechanism, designed to help individual countries in short-term emergencies. Even then, it was a mere third of what the European Central Bank had said was needed, €1.5tn euros. What was specifically not agreed was any sharing of the economic burden of the pandemic across European treasuries in general. It was mostly more loans.

The reason was glaringly obvious, and as old as the EU itself. The northern European nations within the eurozone still do not trust the hard-pressed southern ones to spend money wisely and pay back their debts. It was the same reticence that governed the slow reaction to the 2008 financial crisis. In other words, the EU is not a true political union, like the United States or Russia or even the United Kingdom. When one EU country hits trouble, as Greece and Italy have done over Mediterranean migrants since 2015, the EU itself is silent. It turns its back and hopes trouble will go away.

Political unions are specific things – a marriage of regions, provinces, states in one national unit – based on a sufficiency of shared identity and shared responsibility. When the US was created, it agreed to joint liability for federal bonds. When New Orleans flooded in 2005, Washington did not tell Louisiana it was on its own. Nor did Britain say that to Northern Ireland when the province collapsed into bloodshed in the 1970s. It has been pouring in money ever since.

The Maastricht treaty of 1992 was based on an ambition to drive Europe towards just such a goal. That, and the subsequent Lisbon treaty of 2007, produced much bureaucratic infrastructure, ever wider “competences”, an executive presidency and an enhanced parliament – which, it was hoped, would convey consent to central authority. Crises like the present were precisely what such a body should be able to handle.

Yet as Britain showed at the time of Maastricht and since, Europe lacks that shared identity. It lacks accountable leadership to make consent effective. In 2008, Europe dragged itself behind emergency actions taken by Barack Obama in Washington and Gordon Brown in London. When the European Central Bank was galvanised into action, it did indeed “print money” through quantitative easing; but the easing was directly chiefly at underpinning German bank loans to Greece and others. It was banks that were rescued.

This week it has been abundantly clear that many European governments simply do not trust the Italians and the Spanish to find a way out of the pandemic crisis responsibly. Italy is certainly in economic meltdown. Its system for getting cash into the pockets of poor Italians appears to have broken down. For the first time in 75 years, large numbers of Europeans are simply unable to buy food. Their erstwhile employers face bankruptcy, and their banks face collapse.

Britain, outside the eurozone, can print money and hand it to employers – apparently £40bn if need be. That is classical monetarism, I assume to be tested to near destruction. It is sensible, and there is little likelihood of the cash dissipating into inflation. That option is not open to Italy. It has delegated it under treaty to the EU and its bank. It can only borrow, and Italy is already crippled with debt.

Over the next fortnight, any hope of a truly concerted European response to coronavirus is implausible. The EU has so far been inert. Nation states have been forced back on their own science, and their own health resources. Borders have closed and suppressions varied, from total lockdown to none at all. An exasperated EU research council voted no confidence in its chief scientist, Mauro Ferrari, who resigned in a huff.

It is clear that one country after another will soon be liberating its citizens from lockdown, even at some cost in extra deaths. As other Europeans see Germans and Scandinavians working, shopping and enjoying spring, the pressure on their governments to end the lockdown will be intense. Pressure will devolve on to health services, while wider economies will struggle to recover.

The head of the International Monetary Fund says the world is facing “the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s”. This surely is a time for the EU to show a capacity for leadership. It should use the opportunity to show its electorates, Europe-wide, that it can rise to the occasion and share responsibility across the board. Did not the founder of the EU, Jean Monnet, say that a new Europe “will be forged in crises”?

Daily reports indicate that citizens across Europe are showing a collective concern and care for each other. The pandemic has revived a faith in local community, and in a shared sense of nationhood. Yet the reaction of key European governments to this financial emergency has been like that of the British people in 2016. They don’t trust the EU with their money. What you don’t trust with your money is not a union.

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

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