The most commonly quoted questions implying a disturbing cacophony in Europe is attributed to the former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: Who do I call if I want to call Europe? After the creation of the post of a foreign policy chief, or more accurately the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs by the Lisbon Treaty, the European Union claims to have resolved the issue. Certainly, today a U.S. Secretary of State, the equivalent of a foreign minister on this side of the Atlantic Ocean can easily dial his counterpart. Does that mean, however, that after the creation of yet another post in the overly bureaucratic EU a single pan-European voice can be articulated?
It is over two months now, that PM Orbán has submitted a law of emergency to the Hungarian Parliament. Already at the time of the parliamentary debate of the bill, the intentions of the PM were questioned and heavily criticized not only by all opposition parties but also the general public, home and abroad. Certainly, in the case of an extraordinary situation such as the COVID-19 pandemic, governments should be granted extra powers to excelerate action in combating the negative consequences of the outbreak. In most cases democratically elected governments need such powers to ensure that protective measures are not impeded by the usual tedious but necessary procedures and negotiations between quibbling coalition partners or administrative political processes in parliament. However, this does not mean that governments can escape control, checks and balances, hence a time limitation for exercising such powers must be guaranteed.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and the general lock-down most Europeans have experienced something they could not have imagined earlier. Travel bans, border controls, shortages in certain food supplies, a break-down of the health care system, economic slowdown might be a déjà vu phenomenon for older generations of the post-Communist bloc, but certainly a frightening prospect for most European citizens.
In past decades, substantial amount of pressure started to mount on the European political establishment to implement essential institutional reforms. Over a decade lapsed since the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, the last attempt to adjust the mechanisms of the European institutions to increase its credibility, responsiveness and efficiency in the eyes of the European citizens. Since then a number of crises swept through our continent, leaving as much devastation behind as food for thought about the accuracy of the chosen direction. Response by the EU to the financial crisis, migration, Brexit, challenges posed by climate change and the COVID-19 outbreak have left a lot to be desired.
In last week’s The Weekly I argued that the future of the European Union depends not so much on the immediate response in tackling the dramatic socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, but more so on whether its leaders can deliver the fundamental adjustments necessary for European cooperation to endure.
Reform is urgent primarily because the current Commission was elected based on that promise. However, more relevantly, there is a significant risk of disintegration if the EU does not implement the profound changes necessary. Euro sceptics and critics within are ready to make the great leap and take advantage of the anecdotal dysfunctionality and legendary incompetence of European leaders in their management of the crisis.
In the moment of a tragic downturn, every individual and every community – whether national, regional or civilizational, political, economic, religious or cultural – will be put to the test. As far as the European Union is concerned, the COVID-19 outbreak relentlessly sheds light on the current effectiveness of European cooperation. This is a decisive moment. This is the time when it turns out how efficient the leadership of our institutions are.