Seeking salvation in the EU: managing rising expectations in the corona pandemic

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The European Union (EU) has become the main hope and reference point for many member states and citizens when it comes to the recovery from the corona pandemic. In view of its limited formal competences and member states’ dominance in the early phases of the crisis, this tells us a lot about the range and importance of European integration. Irrespective of the fate of the recovery fund, the EU will emerge strengthened from the corona crisis.

Is this even an EU crisis?

Currently, all eyes in the EU are set on the uncertain implementation of its €750bn corona recovery fund, due to opposition by Hungary and Poland on the involved rule-of-law mechanism. Much has been written about the significance of this fund—which for the first time is financed via joint EU debt—including its supposed nature as a “Hamiltonian moment” leading to a real European fiscal union.

Explaining their support for the recovery fund, leading policymakers like France’s President Emmanuel Macron have stated that the EU was facing a “moment of truth”, while Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the corona pandemic as the EU’s “biggest challenge in history”.

A more profound although so far rather neglected question is why the corona pandemic constitutes an EU crisis at all. Actually, a number of factors might suggest that it is not.

First, the pandemic did not affect the EU polity as such or a particular policy regime. This is a major difference from many other crises the EU has faced during the past decade: while Brexit reduced the number of member states, both the Eurozone and the migration crises put important EU policy regimes in doubt, namely monetary union and the Schengen free-traveling area.

Second, the COVID-19 pandemic first and foremost is a global health crisis that affects individual people. The EU itself has little formal competences in health policy and can, by and large, only issue recommendations and encourage national coordination. This became clear at the beginning of the crisis in March and April when member states pressed ahead with individual and oftentimes egoistic measures such as lockdowns, export bans on medical equipment, and the closure of national borders.

Third, while it is true that discussions soon moved to the dire economic consequences the pandemic would have across the EU, the measures implemented or currently under negotiation at the EU level—including the recovery fund—are much smaller in scale than national fiscal stimuli.

We’re all in this together: interdependence and belonging make it an EU crisis

So why, given the above, is the pandemic framed and perceived as an EU crisis? Two factors seem crucial here: the massive European integration that has happened in recent years, and high and rising expectations for the EU.

Consider integration first. EU member states and citizens today are much more dependent on each other than they oftentimes acknowledge or realise. The corona-related restrictions on economic activities in some regions led to serious disruptions in supply chains in the EU’s single market. For example, when supply firms had to close in Lombardy, carmakers in Southern Germany had to curb production. And when member states hastily imposed border closures in the Schengen area, lorries queued several kilometres long. Many employees and citizens recognised how much they now take free movement for granted.

In addition, overwhelming debt levels and financial instability in some member states is a major concern for all. When Italy was facing rising interest rates in spring, risking their access to the capital markets, the European Central Bank felt compelled to step in. Other member states meanwhile recognised that if Italy was forced to leave the Eurozone, that might well be the end of the common currency. European integration in economic, fiscal and financial affairs has gone too far since the Eurozone crisis ten years ago for some countries to shield themselves from the troubles of others.

The second point related to Europe’s greater state of integration concerns the enormous expectations at both national and EU levels that the EU will play a prominent role in mitigating the corona crisis. Interestingly, Eurosceptics like Italy’s former vice-Prime Minister Matteo Salvini criticized the EU in the early stages for not doing enough, implying that Italy had been left alone. When the EU did become more active, Salvini fell silent and his poll numbers went down. Conversely, policymakers in less affected Northern member states stressed a responsibility to join forces out of a feeling of “European solidarity”.

Their message was clear: in times of an exogenous crisis, Europe must stand together, and the EU is the right forum to show solidarity.

Lastly, the EU itself proved confident and determined to step in when negotiations between member states were deadlocked. The European Commission, linking the recovery fund to the EU’s long-term regular budget, led the way to concrete support and burden-sharing. It thus seems to keep the promise made by its President von der Leyen that it will be the EU that provides the necessary impetus and tools for the recovery of many national economies.

The future of the EU

Only with these latter factors and developments in mind does it become clear why a global health crisis turned into a serious crisis in and for the EU. Its role and importance in the corona crisis are the result of growing interdependence, feelings of solidarity, and deepened integration over many decades. Since with rising expectations there comes a bigger potential for disappointment, the EU, when called upon, was willing to act.

Irrespective of whether there will be more formal integration in response to the corona crisis (such as own resources and permanent EU debt), European integration already has come a long way. The EU today is much more present and important than many might think—and others fear. The EU has truly become indispensable, and not just in moments of a global health crisis.


Lucas Schramm is a PhD Researcher in the EUI’s Department of Political and Social Sciences. In his thesis he analyses past and more recent crises of European integration, seeking to explain the variation in crisis outcomes. His recent published research includes “An old couple in a new setting: Franco-German leadership in the post-Brexit EU” (with Ulrich Krotz, in Politics & Governance, forthcoming).