Global Corporations and Politics
How Much Can EU Integration Ties Weaken or Strengthen as a Result of the Crisis?

The EU is going through a very challenging period because of the Covid 19 crisis. There are three vectors of crisis in action simultaneously and interdependently: party conflicts domestically, tensions between Member States (MSs), and external powers’ interferences, writes Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS Guido Carli University of Rome.

While a more conflict-ridden environment materialized since the European parliament election back in 2014, the present health crisis, coupled with the incoming economic struggle, is only intensifying the political divergences inside and between different Member States (MSs). Additionally, external powers have no interest in the strengthening of the EU integration process.

For many decades, the history of the European integration was characterized by a widespread consensus in the political elites of the MSs. EU leaders for the most part shared a feeling of overall support for a gradual economic integration at the regional level. At times, such support was almost unquestioned, leading to a “quasi-delegation” of decision-making power to technocratic elites. The expression of “permissive consensus” was coined precisely to describe this situation of de facto cession of sovereignty to supranational technocrats.

The situation changed with the Eurozone crisis that is still hitting parts of the EU since 2009. The economic downturn provoked dramatic changes in many domestic political systems and had a significant impact on the European institutions, beginning with the European Parliament. At the national level, a number of governments were challenged, they had to give up their leadership, or to accept alliances with opposition parties in unprecedented trans-ideological grand coalitions. At the same time, long standing Eurosceptic parties grew and new critical political movements emerged with a clear anti EU establishment agenda. As a consequence of such shift, the European landscape became much more pluralistic than in the past, and the European elections of 2014, as well as those of 2018, just reflected such increasingly pluralistic and conflicting scenario.

While during the period of the permissive consensus there was only a limited scrutiny by European civil society concerning the decisions taken in Brussels, with the economic crisis and the current healthcare crisis, the level of attention towards the European decision-making process has steadily increased. More and more, national leaders are challenged in their positioning concerning major EU decisions, EU technocrats are made object of criticism, and the EU as such is more and more seen with suspicion, if not with straightforward mistrust, by significant segments of society in many member states especially in the south of Europe, as indicated by the Eurobarometer data.
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In order to capture the political dynamics underpinning the new European landscape and have a good picture of the political forces at stake, a distinction should be made in the camp of those groups opposing EU macro-policies. The new contentious politics against the euro-enthusiastic bloc is going to be carried out by two distinct angles: euro-sceptical and euro-critical.

On the right-hand side of the political spectrum, there are the main euro-sceptical groups that are ideologically close to the idea of ethnic nationalism. They have been present in the European landscape for a long time and in the past were represented in tiny minorities in the European Parliament. Examples of such groups include the Northern League in Italy, the National Front in France, the Finns Party in Finland, the Freedom Party in Austria, the Danish People’s Party in Denmark, and the Flemish Interest Party in Belgium.

On the left side of the political spectrum, instead, there are those euro-critical parties linked to the principle of vernacular and local politics as embedded in specific social traditions. They also played a minor role in the past but have now accentuated their contentious positioning towards the EU, especially its elites-driven, neo-liberal policies. Examples of such groups include the Greek Communist Party now “replaced” by Syriza in Greece, a fraction of the former Italian Communist Party in Italy, and the French Communist Party in France. The support to both of these two categories of political groups, eurosceptic and eurocritical, was boosted as a consequence of the economic crisis.

Beyond the aforementioned groups that have been present in the European landscape for many years by now, a number of new political parties and social movements that were born or grew substantially after the crisis should also be taken into consideration. These groups have often electorally benefitted more than the previously mentioned parties of the economic downturn. These groups tend to have a most radical oppositional stance towards the EU, with a populist vein often associated to an explicit anti-euro attitude and a call for a more participatory democracy. Differing examples of such groups include the Five Star Movement in Italy, the Indignados movement in Spain, the Golden Dawn in Greece, and the Alternative for Germany in Germany.

A major effect deriving from this political shift was the pluralistic composition of the European Parliament, which was characterised by two elements. On the one hand, it proved more difficult to reach consensual decisions because of such radically alternative visions about “Europe”. On the other hand, the presence of so many anti-establishment, if not anti-euro, parties forced the traditional euro-enthusiastic parties (mainly PPE and Socialists) to coalesce even more explicitly than they used to do in the past. The eurozone crises first and now the Covid crisis are proving to be game changer in many member states and to be transformative also at the EU level.

Beyond the political divisions within each MSs, there are also significant divisions between MSs. The fracture between the Mediterranean countries advocating for the collectivization of the recovery measures through the so-called euro-bonds and the northern countries sticking to a more traditional lending mechanism based on individual state responsibility such as the ESM (European Stability Mechanism) is widening. While there are different macro economical stances, it is clear that the pressure that each government is receiving from its domestic (often anti-EU) opposition is a contributing factor in this equation.

Finally, beyond party fractures and MSs fractures, there is also a third axis of crisis coming from outside the EU. First of all, Brexit is still there both with its unresolved final negotiation and as a “bad” example that might be followed by other MSs in case the situation deteriorates. Second, there are fragmenting pressures from outside the EU. USA, Russia and China have different motivations for the same interest in taking advantages of the weaknesses of the EU project.

The EU is at a crossroad. It can either decide to invest more on its integration process or sticking to a minimalist engagement with the crisis. While the former option may relaunch its regional, indeed global aspirations, the latter may guide the EU toward a self-conflagration process in which anti EU forces inside and outside the EU may finally prevail and lead to the gradual disintegration of the EU project. There are enough structural incentives and a clear track record to think that the EU may take advantage of the opportunity and have the strength to relaunch its process. However, politics is neither always rational nor consistent. There might be many micro dynamics at the national level that may push towards a minimalist outcome, which in turn may generate a high level of unsatisfaction and discontent, which in turn may lead towards a dangerous path of fragmentation.

The EU destiny is not only a European business, since its effects will reverberate globally. A re-launch of the EU will have also external spill over effects on the world order. Multilateralism is itself in crisis because of the retrenchment of the US. The American government has decided to withdraw its financial support from the WHO, after having dropped out of many other multilateral fora such as UNESCO, UNIDO, Kyoto protocol, and JCPOA. It is clear that the multilateral system may collapse if also the EU, after the US, retrenches into an inward-looking stance, due to its internal faults. In such a case, China, India, Russia and the other major international powers could not sustain the whole global governance system alone. In this “worst scenario”, the international system would turn much more anarchic and unable to effectively tackle the most pressing global issues from pandemics to financial stability, from security to economic growth.
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