Eyes wide open: Europe’s choices

The margin for error is now zero. The choice lies between the pains of a new birth of civilisation or the unforgivable acceptance of humankind’s suicide.

André Barata, Renato Miguel do Carmo, Luísa Schmidt, Maria Filomena Molder, Viriato Soremenho-Marques.
6 April 2020

Europe’s choices

The as yet incalculable physical, moral, and economic toll of the global crisis brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic will have been to no avail if we accept the two contentions brandished by many governments as they manage the response. Firstly, that the crisis is external, as if it were a natural calamity unrelated to human actions. Secondly, that the victory over the crisis will be attained when we return to “normal”, to doing the same things in the same ways as before. If we allow ourselves to venture this blinkered and feverish view we will entirely miss out on the potential for knowledge and regeneration that a crisis confronted with eyes wide open always affords.

Contrary to what we might have deemed ourselves capable of collectively, throughout Europe and around the world the pandemic has been met with an uncompromising sense of intergenerational protection and community, driving many to voluntary seclusion even before a state of emergency was declared. That protection of the older generations, as well as of those who will succeed us, that true generational contract, must be supported in choices regarding Europe’s future, which are also choices regarding the place of Europe in humanity’s future.

We should be well aware that the choices made in the fight against Covid-19 are also the choices determining our future ways of living with one another. It is a delusion to presume that the problems of the emergency and the problems of the aftermath are dissociated. Declared states of emergency may be lifted, but many will remain in force until a vaccine becomes available. Even beyond that (no less than a year), implicitly they will remain as an acquired alternative. No less because choices are made now and are under evaluation as of now.

We currently face two main levels of choice. The first one lies in the immediate fight against the pandemic. The second one lies in the debate around the model for reconstruction that will be necessary in the aftermath of this long-drawn-out emergency.

The European Union got off to a bad start. It ignored the warning signs of the virus spreading within, then out of China. It wasted precious time. It neglected preparations. It declined the necessary coordination to minimise damage, and when the virus hit the heart of Europe, it was every man for himself. Italy, the first hard-hit country, was left to its fate. Without warning, member-states shut their borders (to their merit, not Portugal or Spain). Europe risks sinking if it does not rise above sovereigntist choices. Whether they be of the irrationally anachronistic, nationalistic, populist, and arrogant kind; or of the kind that stems from premierships opposing the issue of common euro zone bonds, necessary to face the enormous costs of protecting the population against both the disease and the deprivation of means precipitated by foreseeable months of interrupted economic activity. European solidarity is not merely an option but a necessity if the European Union wishes not to succumb as yet another tragic Covid-19 victim. 

On the other hand, given the apparent success of hard-security state choices in other places, Europe also risks sinking if it fails to preserve the very values it claims are its heritage (even if it does occasionally neglect them). The values of democracy, liberality, and solidarity may appear a meek response to the enormity of the threat, and there is no shortage of news on the preventive virtues of the digital biopolitics implemented in China. But it is rather the opposite: the exercise of authority whose legitimacy resides in the consent of the citizens, is the brave, encompassing response, one which does not disconnect the means of combat against the pandemic from the means of future subsistence as a free and solidary community; even though it is a slower, more strenuous response. More than ever, democracy must prevail over other forms of political power. We should fear the police state, governmentalised cybersurveillance and big data. We should double down on efforts towards a social contract that is of all and for all, of protection and solidarity, of community and of the common good, but without antagonism against fundamental individual liberties and guarantees.

The welfare state that is – rightly – called upon to rescue us in moments of crisis, must not then be dilapidated and subjected to further pressures on its diverse public services. On the contrary, these should be reinforced both in terms of material and human resources, as well as of the range and efficacy of their intervention. As such, we cannot stifle the need to provide adequate humanitarian support to all those refugees these days stranded, in helpless agony, along many European borders.

We are living a historical moment and if the Covid-19 threat summons the history of Europe, it must be so that we today reject anachronistic choices all too fresh in the memory and persevere in past choices all too forgotten.

But to reject and to persevere is not enough. It is necessary still to enter the future and the change it will bring with feet firm on the ground. First of all, to deepen the common project of Europe. We cannot continue to accept the idea that social policies must remain circumscribed to the national sphere, as if a monetary union could survive without the existence of a common budget from which part of those expenses are shared.

To enter into the future, a Europe with a future, with something to give to the future, means to choose integrated policies, both national and European, of protection of employment rights, of income, of the reduction of inequalities among citizens and countries. In short, a welfare governance, with adequate budget provision to complement national budgets. And this must mean an economic governance firmly committing not only to debt mutualisation, but also to ceasing permanence and protection of tax havens. These are a threat to confidence in the European project, depleting the national budgets. Also tax competition between States enables the use of such tax-evading mechanisms by the wealthier, which widens social and economic inequalities.

And finally, the truly hard choices, those which imply a return to normal not to be confused with a relapse back into the same state of affairs that drove us here. Choices to be made not as Europeans, but as passengers, along with all the other peoples and human beings, of the truly unique and endangered vessel which is Earth. It is important to bear in mind that, as already seen in 2003, 2009, and 2012, the pandemic stems from a zoonotic virus, transmitted to humans from animals. This would not occur without vertiginous, uncontrolled human intrusion across natural habitats, including of endangered wildlife.

A shift is needed; beyond economic, existential. Climate change is the most visible facet of the global environmental crisis. That is to say, of the degradation and entropy of the Earth-System’s ecosystems and common goods, which are the premise for the survival of human life in dignified conditions. This unprecedented challenge, which places the “end of history” as catastrophic horizon, is the result of the same intolerance to disturbance that characterises the global neoliberal economic model in which we live, and which has become the most radical practical expression of nihilism. If something threatens to unsettle it, this system immediately signals equally or even more violent threats than those of the pandemic, as soon as the former is contained. It is necessary to understand and denounce that this is only so because this model is grounded on a dystopian view of exponential growth, in open conflict with Nature’s laws and the Earth’s physical bounds. A growth that sacrifices the diversity of life and environmental equilibria at the altar of capital, turned into a blind and malevolent god; and thus condemning the future of mankind.

The Covid-19 pandemic presents us with tasks as urgent as they are titanic.

For decades we have allowed a kind of sleepwalking to override the danger signs and the threats that the rapture of domination has placed between us and our future. The margin for error is now zero. The choice lies between the pains of a new birth of civilisation or the unforgivable acceptance of humankind’s suicide. Europe must convene, united and in solidarity, in face of this irrecusable summons which cannot be adjourned.


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