THE EU MADE the worst possible start to the coronavirus, with a succession of logistical and emotional missteps as the virus ran rampant through Spain and Italy. But that phase of emergency passed. A recovery fund was agreed, and soon it was anti-establishment populists, in Europe itself and in Anglo-American governments, on the run. Many of them miscalculated with libertarian “herd immunity” or even “anti-mask” approaches, and suffered a backlash. After a decade of resistance to expert rule, the public was clamouring for authority, and the EU’s standing improved.
However, to say the vaccination process has been a setback would be an understatement. Member states have administered at least one vaccine dose to just 3 percent of the population, far lower than Israel (59%), the UK (15%) or the US (10%). This has been blamed on the decision to engage in collective procurement of vaccinations. Theoretically, this worked to the advantage of smaller nations, who risked being bullied by bigger players in the marketplace. But the Commission negotiated poorly, and all of Europe finds itself lagging behind.
This was the root cause of the Ireland debacle, covered earlier in Source Direct. “You know you have fucked up on an epic scale when Sinn Féin, the DUP and the Archbishop of Canterbury are united in condemning you,” said one EU source. During Brexit negotiations, EU officials had centred their moral claims on keeping the Irish border open, a matter, they claimed, of existential significance. Yet just a month after the post-Brexit regime came into force, the EU was threatening to risk hard borders, based on a trade dispute. Even the most hardened Europhiles were perplexed.
There are also signs of European politics regressing back to its worst tendency: namely, the fluctuation between extremes of right-populism and emergency technocratic rule. While many populists blundered over covid, Marine Le Pen is enjoying her best ever poll ratings, which have put her neck and neck in any runoff with embattled Emmanuel Macron. The famously “Jupiterian” President made the classic centrist error of ramping up Islamophobic rhetoric after the tragic beheading of a French schoolteacher, which only created further space for Le Pen, who promises, if elected, to ban the hijab.
True democrats should be just as worried by events in Italy. After another coalition collapsed, a government has been formed under the banker Mario Draghi. As the FT notes, “As an unelected technocrat in an age of populism, and lacking a party base of his own, Mr Draghi will be vulnerable to sniping that his policies are not the expression of the popular will.” This is the second time in recent history Italy has resorted to an unelected technocrat to restore “fiscal responsibility” and improve Italy’s “international reputation” (within the EU).
We’ve got ourselves into a peculiar tangle in Scotland, where merely discussing the crises of Europe will inevitably invite accusations of Unionist bias. In truth, the Scottish public, the Scottish left and even Scottish nationalists were historically late converts to the EU (we were the Eurosceptics while Margaret Thatcher was literally parading around in her nine flags Common Market jumper). Earlier traditions of popular sovereignty (to critics, “separatism”) prevailed into and, in some cases, even beyond the Iron Lady’s peak.
Now that Brexit is an established fact, it may paradoxically become harder for Scotland to join the EU. As I’ve said before, Andrew Neil’s interview with Andrew Wilson should be repeat viewing: it’s useful to know what you’re up against. So it’s time to take a breath and rethink the advantages and disadvantages of what the bloc offers.
In thinking that through, a central question should be what type of control the public can assert over governments and state power. After all, that’s Scotland’s legitimate gripe with Westminster. My worry about the EU has always been that it strengthens executives and weakens popular control: its “neoliberal” tendencies are real but symptomatic of that deeper problem. Others may feel that “pooled sovereignty” is still worth it. Either way, we need to address these questions afresh, under new conditions and with new, civilisation-sized challenges in mind.