For weeks there has been only one topic in Europe and the rest of the world: coronavirus. The novel corona virus with the melodious name SARS-CoV-2, which in turn causes the lung disease COVID-19, has been shaking up everything we know for weeks. But this virus is not only shaking our everyday lives, it is also shaking the very foundations of the European Union, namely the four fundamental freedoms of the European internal market - free movement of goods, persons, services and capital. In particular, the free movement of persons has been almost completely suspended and borders closed. First of all, we did not presume to assess the accuracy and effectiveness of these measures from an epidemiological point of view. This should be the sole responsibility of the experts in this field. The restriction on the free movement of persons can certainly be assessed as legitimate from an epidemiological point of view. Nevertheless, we should reflect on the medium and long-term effects of these measures on the European Union and plans should be drawn up to reverse these measures once the virus has been contained. Without such normalisation plans at European and national level, there is a risk that the free movement of persons and the Schengen area will remain restricted in the long term.
The EU and solidarity
Former EU Commission President Jacques Delors recently warned in one of his rare public statements that "the mood that seems to prevail between heads of state and government and the lack of European solidarity pose a deadly threat to the EU.” It could be argued that the European idea and also our democracy itself has been infected by a virus and we must now fight it. However, whether the immune system of our society, the common European spirit, is able to minimise the effects remains to be seen and, in the final analysis, probably depends on each individual. The corona crisis forces states to think nationally, to close borders and to put the health of their own people above everything else. While national go-it-alones are the order of the day these days, a pan-European, coherent and coordinated response is only slowly getting underway. Although we are now seeing more and more of European countries helping the worst affected regions, for example by transferring patients from these regions to hospitals in neighbouring countries, it seems that European solidarity remains an exception. Especially in the early stages of the crisis, China (and now Russia) seemed to be more helpful than Italy's immediate neighbours. This lack of solidarity has the longterm potential to further fuel Euroscepticism in Italy and other affected countries. "Italians have already become very suspicious of Europe. There is a risk that an 'Italexit' could be triggered," says the director of the Jacques Delors Institute. There is now agreement among European leaders on renewing the EU's crisis management system, coordinated procurement of medical equipment, and funding for joint European vaccine research. But opinions differ widely on the issue of economic aid. All too well these days one feels reminded of the economic and financial crisis. Italy, Spain, France and many other EU countries are advocating the creation of so-called Corona-bonds, which would be tantamount to a communitarisation of debt. But other states, above all Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, are vehemently opposed to the communitarisation of debt and are calling for existing structures and processes to be built on, such as the Euro rescue umbrella ESM or the expansion of the European Investment Bank EIB to support small and medium-sized companies in Europe. Whatever the final solution, it is clear that, without rapid panEuropean strategies, the European project will suffer massive damage.
Even if the crisis is still in full swing and it is not yet possible to predict when it will be overcome, it is better to think about corona exit strategies early than late. What guarantees are there that all states will allow the free movement of persons again after the crisis? Especially since the Commission has already stated that border restrictions would not necessarily help to contain the virus, as it has now spread to all EU countries.
In a ddition to the risks and side effects of a lack of solidarity and cooperation, the crisis poses another threat to the European Community, namely the undermining of democracy. The EU is a community of values based, among other things, on democracy. As a result of the crisis, fundamental rights are being undermined in a rush, parliaments and political work are being reduced to the bare minimum, opposition is being held back, elections are being postponed, some courts only deal with urgent cases, freedom of assembly has been suspended and journalists are being forced to work from home. What is particularly worrying, however, is the development in Hungary. On 30th March the Hungarian Parliament, controlled by Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party, voted to cancel all elections, to suspend its own legislative powers and to give the Prime Minister the right to govern by decree for an indefinite period. Whether these changes will help in the Corona crisis is rather questionable. Instead, it is feared that other very controversial issues that were previously unenforceable will be addressed, such as the withholding of information on major Chinese railway investment or the adoption of controversial decrees on museum construction and theatre management. Even if one could now claim that controversial reforms or the erosion of democracy in Hungary could ultimately have no significant impact on coexistence in Europe, there is always the danger that eurosceptic, rightwing populist forces in Europe will continue to grow and follow the Hungarian example.
The crisis as catalyst
The pictures taken by the European Space Agency (ESA), which show that the measures taken have reduced air pollution over most of Europe's major cities and conurbations, have been circulating in all the media in recent days. Even though this improvement is likely to be short-lived and will end at the latest when the measures come to an end, these pictures show very graphically that the pandemic could perhaps also be used for a positive development. Because when you see how quickly principles believed to be ironclad disappear, the crisis could perhaps also be used as a catalyst for mobility and energy system transformation.
But even if this momentum is not used for positive development, under no circumstances should it be used as a tool for reversing progress that has been difficult to achieve. A few days ago, on 25 March 2020, stakeholders' associations of the European automotive industry, including manufacturers, suppliers, dealers, repairers and tyre manufacturers, wrote a joint letter to the European Commission proposing a relaxation of the CO2 targets for cars. In the letter to the Commission President, the associations stress that by focusing and redirecting resources to these short-term issues of the corona crisis, "other activities will inevitably suffer". Furthermore, the associations write that for the time being no production, development, testing or homologation work is taking place. This interferes with the plans that have been made to prepare the affected sectors and industries to comply with existing and future EU laws and regulations within the deadlines set out in these regulations. For this reason, the associations argue for an adjustment of the timetable of these laws. Nevertheless, the laws as such or their underlying objectives of road safety, climate change mitigation and environmental protection should not be called into question. It should also be borne in mind in this debate that innovation, whether in the field of comfort, safety or environmental protection, requires investment. With expected declines in sales in almost all relevant sectors of car manufacturing, it can be expected that this may also affect these investments. Temporary adjustments may therefore be necessary.
Related links: - European Commission: Coronavirus response - Press: The Guardian – Coronavirus could be final straw for EU, European experts warn - Joint declaration BVZF, IVM and VDA - Joint Letter of ACEA, CLEPA, ETRMAand CECRA to the European Commission