The coronavirus outbreak is only the latest stress test for the European Union, which has been hit by the U.K. departure — Brexit —and disagreements over the refugee crisis and the euro zone debt crisis.
Europeans now face disagreements as they try to coordinate joint action against the economic fallout of the coronavirus. French President Emmanuel Macron has even warned that the coronavirus could lead to the breakup of the E.U.
On Thursday the political leaders of the 27 E.U. member countries will meet again for a European Council video conference to try to resolve their disagreements over whether to issue common debt or resort to other measures in response to the economic hardship caused by the coronavirus.
They will have a hard time, as many leaders face strong opposition at home from citizens who have grown distrustful of the E.U. — the “euroskeptics.” The even deeper problem is that euroskeptics in the E.U.’s northern and southern members have sharply different views of the problems with Europe. Actions that will soothe euroskeptics in northern Europe may antagonize those in the south, and vice-versa.
Here’s how we ended up in this dilemma.
Past crises have reshaped public opinion
The current divisions between northern and southern E.U. members are the legacy of old fights over how Europe should have handled the euro zone debt crisis that began after the 2008 financial crisis, and the more recent refugee crisis. Both have shaped public opinion, leading significant segments to distrust the E.U. My research suggests euroskepticism used to be a minority phenomenon in most E.U. countries — but disagreements over the E.U. are now part-and-parcel of domestic public debate.
So even as E.U. members have become more interconnected, their political, economic and social trajectories have diverged. Northern and southern Europe disagree over how to share the economic burden and regain competitiveness, while western and eastern Europe disagree over democracy and human rights.
The euro zone debt crisis and the refugee crisis have widened these economic and political rifts. Northern and southern nations disagreed over whether the E.U. should help countries like Greece, and under what conditions, while western and eastern E.U. nations disagreed over whether to allow entry to non-European refugees and migrants from war-torn countries such as Syria.
As people’s experiences with the E.U. diverged, different people came to want different things. In a recent book, I show that there is no single philosophy of euroskepticism, Instead, there are various different types, driven by different criticisms of the E.U. These different types are now clashing with one another. Euroskeptics in the north are angry about money going to the south, and workers immigrating to their countries from elsewhere in the E.U. Euroskeptics in southern Europe are angry that there isn’t more economic investment and employment support from the rest of Europe.
More financial transfers could perhaps realign the differing trajectories of European countries, allowing poorer countries to grow so that their citizens didn’t need to migrate. However, implementing such a change would take a long-term perspective that politicians, who focus on their short-term political survival, are unlikely to show. Under these circumstances, it is hard for E.U. leaders to strike compromises on big issues, since they fear that they cannot sell these compromises at home.
But public opinion may be temporarily more open
Of course, public opinion can change. It’s possible that governments could take advantage of their rise in popularity in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak to reach compromises that would otherwise be unthinkable. Dutch and German citizens, for example, generally appear to be opposed to fiscal transfers. However, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have experienced a boost in popularity — while support has waned for euroskeptic populist right parties in Germany and the Netherlands like the Alternative for Germany and the Dutch Party for Freedom.
The boost may give Rutte and Merkel some room to maneuver. And both leaders — especially Merkel, who is less oriented toward reelection — may have more reason to worry about the long-term prospects for the E.U. if they fail to strike a deal.
The United States may be able to weather dysfunction and disagreement between its various levels of government over the coronavirus outbreak. The E.U. is a much more fragile political construction than the U.S. nation-state, and does not have a deep identity to fall back on. If Macron is correct, and the E.U. faces an existential threat if it cannot reach agreement on the next steps toward economic recovery, then the long-term vision may have urgent short-term consequences, changing politicians’ calculation over whether big compromises are worth it.
Catherine E. De Vries is professor of political science at Bocconi University and author of Euroscepticism and the Future of European Integration (Oxford University Press, 2018).