Our way of life as we knew it won’t return, but will the ‘new normality’ herald a common European future?
The coronavirus has proved a deadly invisible threat—not only to the health of the citizenry but also the stability of our political and economic system. The governments of the member states and the institutions of the European Union are racing against time, to find a response which safeguards millions of jobs and avoids a recession with unpredictable electoral side-effects.
We are facing a crisis, deeper even than the global financial crisis of 2008, which threatens to leave a burdensome legacy to future generations. And there are the aggravating circumstance of challenges as pressing as climate change, demographic imbalance and an almost chronic seizing up of our asylum system.
Public administrations will have to fight against the inertia of defaulting back to the ‘old normality’ and collaborate instead on a visionary new strategy—capable not only of finding a way out of this crisis but also of being better prepared for others to come—which manages to achieve a social and sustainable Europe with a stronger public domain.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the lockdown and social distancing measures could cause the major economies to lose up to a third of their annual gross domestic product and unemployment to reach heights of up to 25 per cent in some EU countries. This, together with a dramatic fall in tax revenues and unavoidable large-scale national indebtedness, creates a perfect storm for any social and democratic state which very few national budgets can face on their own.
Without a proper long-term strategy, social safety nets and welfare-state architectures could collapse. The financing of healthcare and education, as well as opportunities for young people in the labour market, could be severely constrained.
The previous crises have led us to greater income inequality, greater uncertainty among citizens and a standstill—even a regression—in the struggle for ecological sustainability. We had not yet recovered from all that when we were plunged into another global, systemic crisis.
This time, however, the EU faces a golden opportunity to speed up the necessary transitions and put an end to its strategic vulnerabilities. If countries work together in the union they can achieve far more than the sum of individual efforts.
The EU must deploy assistance and investment packages from the perspective of solidarity, ambition and the green transition, setting targets which lead to greater sustainability, full employment, quality public services and a fair tax revolution to finance a truly social Europe. It is essential to develop a real European fiscal arm—the Recovery Fund and a strengthened multi-annual financial framework have the potential for that.
This is also the time to introduce EU-wide tax rules preventing unfair practices among member states and EU-wide taxes on multinational companies. Digital services should be taxed on the European level and a European wealth tax would further favour European convergence. All this would enable us to ensure social needs are met and avoid the debt trap in some EU countries.
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The fight against climate change, already at the top of the European agenda before the pandemic, is now more important than ever: global heating and lack of food security only increase the chances of further zoonotic pandemics. The EU has already announced legislation to ensure the implementation of its sustainability policy and it is essential we stay on track—even if economic recovery will undoubtedly come with strong pressures to weaken our environmental agenda and loosen standards. The green transformation must be one of the main pillars of the European recovery plan, to which we must add the necessary ‘digital push’ of our economy and a strengthening of strategic European industries.
At the same time, EU support programmes should tackle the much-needed transformation of our employment systems with the clear aim of achieving full employment—improving the transition between education and work to stem the impact of these crises on youth. Such programmes should also embrace strategies for adapting and updating the skills of workers in almost obsolete sectors.
Strengthening our welfare state and improving the quality of our public services further requires enhancing the wages of public-sector workers. A strong welfare state is a guarantee of a society which is more robust, more cohesive and more resilient in the face of such crises as the one we are experiencing.
Countries with weaker governance have proved more vulnerable to adverse shocks. Both at a European and a national level, we should promote reforms which enhance institutional quality: accountability, transparency and digital governance.
The world is becoming more and more fractured, contentious, nationalistic and defined by attacks against multilateralism and its institutions, such as the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization. Europe must stand up for its founding values and the global co-operation essential to tackle current and future challenges.
This also requires greater political co-operation within the EU, to ensure a long-term, strategic focus prevails over immediate electoral interests—without disregarding the need to fight against Euroscepticism and widen public support for the European project, which we cannot take for granted. Nothing is more effective in this regard than a protective and useful Europe—a source of political, economic and social security in a setting of radical uncertainty.
Returning to the world before the coronavirus is neither possible nor desirable. We are facing an opportunity for real change. We have the chance to implement a strategy for a better European future, held in common, which we must not waste: it might turn out to be the last one.
Javier López has been a Spanish member of the European Parliament since 2014. He is chair of its delegation to the Euro-Latin American Parliamentary Assembly and a member of the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. Jo Ritzen is a professor at UNU-MERIT and the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance. He was previously Dutch minister for education and science, vice-president of the World Bank for research and human development and president of Maastricht University.