Covid19, EU crisis and insanity of national governments

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by Mauro Casarotto |

Science fiction, especially classic sci-fi with a strong scientific and philosophical basis, not that  purely Hollywoodesque spectacular variety with a guaranteed happy ending, has already explored various possible futures much more in depth than ‘serious’ and more traditional disciplines such as economics and politics. Let’s be honest, we are not surprised at what a pandemic is in the era of technology and interconnection and how it tends to conform states, as the infection spreads, getting closer and closer to the dystopian model of Orwell’s 1984. We had already read about it in books, seen it in films; moreover science fiction had already warned us well in advance of further types of catastrophes such as nuclear and environmental disasters.

The fact that, through science-fiction, our collective conscience has already become ‘familiar’ with the conditions that are today being imposed with Covid19, however, must not deceive us. The global economic and political system is insufficiently prepared and, in practice, extremely fragile. As is the rest of the biosphere, in which the great little events of our lives take place, under assault from technology and human activities and congested by overpopulation.

A tiny ‘box’ containing some generic material, about a hundred times smaller than a single red blood cell – the virus – has been enough to bring global economy and the societies of dozens of countries,  including the richest and most powerful, to their knees.

One wonders what would have happened if, instead of Coronavirus with an already high mortality rate but still of 3-4-5% concentrated mainly in the elderly population, a new smallpox had appeared. Smallpox produced a general mortality rate of 30-35% (and 80% in children!) and not less than 300 million deaths in the 20th century, before its eradication occurred in the late 1970s. This disease was extinguished by the vaccine, dear anti-vax friends, not by providence.

Covid19’s victims include the already very weak European political system. The failure to adopt the same measures systematically and simultaneously for the containment and management of the pandemic, and all the greater risks and damages that this entails and will entail in the coming weeks and months, increasingly reveals the political crisis of the intergovernmental system of the European Union, its inadequacy to face the challenges of the age of technology and of global emergencies.

As well as crystallizing the impotence of a system that is ever closer to the end of its life cycle, the recent ‘gaffe’ of Christine Lagarde ”we are not here to close spreads, this is not the function or the mission of the ECB”, shows the growing detachment and inability to communicate between the establishment and European citizens. Obviously this is free fuel that has immediately fed and will continue to foster the renaissance that nationalisms and fascisms are experiencing.

The intergovernmental method is the cause of the domination, in the EU system, of national governments, whose leaders, gathered within the Council – sadly become the place of indecent battles based on selfishness, blackmail and cross vetoes – act as final decision makers. Having to find an agreement that applies to everyone, national leaders at best produce lowest common denominator agreements that almost never correspond to the common interest of all citizens of the Union. And this is the only way it can be since the task of national leaders is not to deal with the common interest of all member states but with the exclusive interest of their own state, from which they receive their political and electoral mandate.

The Commission is nothing more than a simulacrum of government whose members are in fact appointed, once again, by the leaders of the governments not on the basis of the competence / preparation of the individual commissioners, who should be the equivalent of the ministers, but according to the logic of fragmentation and division of powers between all 27 countries. The European Parliament (moreover lacking autonomous legislative initiative capacity!) has only hints of the powers that would be necessary to act as a counterweight to the decisions made, de facto, by the heads of national governments.

And that is why, in the case of the Covid19 pandemic, we have not had a European emergency government, and that is exactly why we will never have one in any future crisis similar to, or more serious than this, and therefore not in the fight against climate change and for the salvation of the biosphere, nor for migration crises, nor for foreign and defence policy. In the intergovernmental European Union every single state, every single government tends to think for itself, looking suspiciously at others.

Politics, however, does have an ace up its sleeve which, in the case of united Europe, has not yet been played: the federal system. The United States of America, whoever the President is, whatever the majority in the two branches of parliament (it must be remembered that in the USA, as it should be, one branch of parliament – the Senate – equally represents the states and the other – the House of Representatives – represents citizens on a proportional basis), there is the ability to intervene immediately and directly with the introduction of binding rules in the same way for all federated states and citizens and to promptly allocate large budgets for calamities and crises (including economic ones, as happened in 2006-2008).

Why? Because the United States, like Switzerland, like Canada and like other countries in the world, are federations, with a Constitution, with a single currency and with a strong federal budget, which in the USA is equal to about 20% of GDP, while that of the the European Union is just 1% and even then is subject to the attacks of national governments, which are struggling to grab more or less 0.1%.

Although they are united by a blind and irresponsible attitude, President Trump and the prime ministers of several European countries who repeated ‘what happened in China and Italy will not happen to us’, are de facto divided by the disproportion that the two political systems, the US  and the European system, have in terms of capacity of political action, and therefore social and economic cohesion.

This does not of course mean that Europe must take the United States of America as an example in all sectors, first and foremost that of health which excludes or in any case penalizes a very large section of the population (this fault of the American system will surely weigh on the emergency Covid19) or in the fields of gun control, energy politics, etc.

Taking the ‘best practice’ of American federalism as an example, however, is an act of wisdom. And it is even wiser to introduce the necessary customizations and rework the system that is being adopted, in order to better adapt the federal system to the specific European situation.

Although certainly less efficient, intergovernmental organizations such as the European Union could also be effective in handling emergencies, assuming that there is a strong bond of solidarity between the member states. In recent years, however, we have witnessed the opposite phenomenon, that is the re-emergence of increasingly aggressive nationalisms, fed by the weakness of the intergovernmental EU which is becoming, in a lot of political propaganda, a scapegoat for all evils, with evident damage to the consensus of European citizens towards the political project of a more united and efficient Europe.

The disruptive event of Brexit, in this sense, has to be thought as a symptom, not as a cause of this crisis, as I wrote in my recent article “The Brexit trauma and Europe trapped between opposing conservatisms“.

As in any practical application, there are no perfect federations and the federal system cannot solve all problems. However, it is capable of triggering many positive effects, including:

  • ensuring peace on the continent, defusing nationalisms and the terrible conflicts that these have generated in the past and can rise up again in Europe;
  • making the smaller European countries into a great power that can dialogue on equal terms with the USA, China, Russia and other emerging powers;
  • tackling crises, emergencies and global problems in a strong and coordinated manner, also in collaboration, at this point on an equal footing, with the other major powers;
  • enjoying a common international diplomacy, defence and intelligence system;
  • guaranteeing sovereignty to member states, including the maintenance of their particular institutions, traditions, languages, economic and social systems as already happens in extended federations (USA, Canada) and in small federations (Switzerland, Austria), thus avoiding top/down assimilation and the ‘super-state’ centralised effect.

Science-fiction is full of examples of federations that, in the future, unite not only a continent but all humanity, preserving the characteristics and specificities of individual peoples and individual territories. In addition to the risks inherent in modernity, our imagination has long shown us the possible solutions. Solutions that, in the case of federalism, have already been advanced by (ironically European!) philosophers such as Kant, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Althusius and Locke to cite those by whom the Americans were most inspired for the drafting of their federal constitution in 1787-89.

So Covid19 may be the bell that indicates the last lap of the race of this weak intergovernmental Europe or the crisis / opportunity to trigger real change. It’s time for imagination to return to power, it’s time to stop crying over what Europe as it is built today cannot do and start building a federal system as soon as possible to replace the current intergovernmental EU. The know-how already exists, it is only necessary to take a political decision and apply it.

Unfortunately our political leaders have, for some time now, been staggering around, madly, drugged on national interest and electoral polls and influenced by public opinion which, left without the valid political option of European federalism, is increasingly angry and hostile. It is now time for the grassroots, movements of citizens and associations to take charge of this request for change and to break the deadlock induced by their governments and by the limitations inherent in the intergovernmental system. Europeans, let’s finally converge towards a single goal, in the name of the common interest!


Mauro Casarotto

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