The crisis that made the European Union: European cohesion in the age of covid

Covid-19 стал вызовом для европейской сплоченности. С 2016 года ECFR измеряет европейскую сплоченность, отслеживая ряд социально-экономических и политических переменных. Экспертный центр опубликовал новый отчет, который охватывает период с 2007 по 2019 год. Исследователи хотят понять, что заставляет страны и общества ЕС держаться вместе

At the outset of the pandemic, it looked as if covid-19 could be the final nail in the coffin of the European project – the “biggest crisis since the EU was founded”, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it in early April. European cohesion had already been strained to an unprecedented degree over the last decade by the eurozone and refugee crises, and by Brexit. In 2020, export bans on urgently needed medical supplies and unilateral border closures gave the sense that “my country first” approaches had destroyed any remaining solidarity between member states. In April, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez called for collective action in the face of the virus, writing: “Without solidarity there can be no cohesion, without cohesion there will be disaffection and the credibility of the European project will be severely damaged.”

But by autumn 2020, it seemed that member states and the EU institutions had once again averted the disintegration of the union. They established the European recovery fund, which is the largest rescue policy in European history: it is several times larger than the post-second world war Marshall Plan in inflation-adjusted terms. The recovery fund is designed to help stabilise countries that have been hit hardest by the crisis and to prevent member states from drifting apart. Ideally, it would be the first step in halting centrifugal forces and reconstructing the EU in a sustainable and forward-looking way.

Yet Europe is currently being engulfed in the second wave of covid-19, with unknown consequences for national health systems, economies, and democracies, and still greater uncertainty about how all of this will affect European cohesion.

There is cause for hope, however. Governments and citizens seem to have drawn useful lessons from the first wave of covid-19, making them better prepared to deal with the virus today. Vaccines should be widely available next year. And, more broadly, Europe has demonstrated a reassuring capacity to respond to adversity. Despite the many crises of the last decade and the rise of Eurosceptic parties in the European and national parliaments, European cohesion was stronger in 2019 than in 2007, the year before the global financial crisis. This is one of the central findings of the fourth edition of ECFR’s EU Cohesion Monitor. Containing 12 years of data, the monitor tells a story of European perseverance in the face of multiple crises.

About ECFR’s Cohesion Monitor

Since 2016, ECFR has been measuring European cohesion by tracking a range of socio-economic and political variables. This new edition of the Cohesion Monitor covers the years 2007 to 2019, before covid-19 reached the continent. In order to understand what makes EU countries and societies stand together, we have broken the concept of cohesion down into its building blocks. The monitor analyses EU citizens’ experiences, expectations, beliefs, levels of well-being, and voting patterns as contributing to “individual cohesion” – the degree to which individuals in member states are prepared to stick together as part of the EU. Member states’ economic and political ties and practices within the EU make up “structural cohesion” – the degree to which countries work as an integrated part of the EU.

The monitor builds on a set of 42 factors drawn from sources such as Eurobarometer and Eurostat. These factors are organised in 10 indicators. Users can browse the results of this interactive tool to trace the evolution of cohesion across the EU, and they can do this for all 27 member states, plus the United Kingdom, and for 16 groups of countries.

However, levels of cohesion vary across Europe – and where cohesion is weak, there are a wide range of reasons for this. As we fight the second wave of covid-19, the crisis poses a triple challenge to European cohesion:

  • The southern challenge: Countries such as Spain, Greece, and Italy – as well as Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia – have been among the worst affected by the crisis in economic terms. Given their pre-existing economic vulnerabilities, they are at particular risk of stagnation, rising unemployment, and diverging further from wealthier member states. This could lead to growing frustration among their populations, and scepticism about the European project – unless they feel that the EU has responded to the crisis effectively and with solidarity.
  • The northern challenge: Countries like Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden – possibly also Germany – could lose patience with less affluent member states, seeing them as constantly needing bailouts, or suffering from corruption and weak rule of law. Having sustained less economic damage from the crisis, and enjoying stronger economic performance overall, they might struggle to understand the perspectives of other countries. All this could lead to the northerners growing more detached from the European project – unless the other member states can prove their concerns wrong.
  • The central European challenge: The crisis has weakened not just national economies and European solidarity, but democracy, human rights, and the rule of law within certain member states. In some countries in the region – especially Hungary and Poland – values such as judicial independence and protection of minorities are under greater strain, while media pluralism has suffered. This does not necessarily make these societies less attached to Europe: on the contrary, they score higher than average on this metric. However, if these problems are not addressed – for instance, if the EU is sluggish or ineffective on the defence of the rule of law – it could become a major problem for these countries’ cohesion with the rest of the EU. It could also further damage the region’s image in the bloc. Not all countries in central Europe are suffering from a deterioration in the rule of law, and some – like Slovakia and Romania – have strongly supported the new budget’s rule of law conditions. But the entire region could suffer if the EU’s more affluent member states, annoyed with rule of law problems in central Europe, approach the region with a growing reserve. It could also give rise to new resentments among societies of central Europe, particularly if they feel unjustly punished, stigmatised, or abandoned by the rest of the EU.

Strengthening European cohesion in 2021 and beyond requires attention to these three challenges. None of them are new, but all three came to the fore in 2020. This paper first examines the ups and downs of European cohesion between 2007 and 2019, the period covered by the EU Cohesion Monitor, ending just before covid-19 reached Europe. It will show that some societies were less prepared for the crisis than others because they had a lower level of structural or individual cohesion even before the pandemic. It will then consider the elements of cohesion that have been under most strain in 2020, with economic divides across Europe growing, trust in the EU and national governments shaken, and Europeans’ confidence in the future waning. Finally, the paper sketches out the prospects for European cohesion after the pandemic.    

EUROPEAN COHESION BEFORE COVID-19

Contrary to the catastrophism of recent years, European cohesion has generally been strong in the period covered by the monitor, recovering after each crisis the EU has suffered since 2007. Despite economic distress in some countries, the rise of populist parties in others, and a recurring sense of stagnation in the integration process, member states and their societies remained strongly interconnected.

The latest edition of the monitor confirms this. In 2019, European cohesion reached its highest level since 2007, when the analysis begins. But, at the same time, the foundations for the triple challenge to European cohesion observed today were in place long before the covid-19 crisis struck.

Structural cohesion

The strength of member states’ connections to the EU – measured through their economic ties, policy integration, and security cooperation, as well as countries’ overall economic resilience – reached its highest level in over a decade just before the covid-19 crisis, with 25 out of 27 member states scoring higher on this front in 2019 than in 2007.

The list of countries that were strongest on “structural cohesion” in 2019 may be surprising, as it includes not just three of the EU’s founding members – Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands – but also Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Estonia. Central and eastern Europe has seen the highest increase in structural cohesion over the past decade, and the four Visegrad countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) and the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) were all well above the EU average. This is evidence that they are catching up quickly with the rest of the EU, at least in terms of their structural connections to the union.  

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