The Pandemic Will Accelerate the European Project

It is hard to imagine when and if the pandemic will be over. Just as the moment it came about caught us by surprise, the instance in which it may disappear is also hard to plan for. While the pandemic continues, the political perspectives may look different across the West.

Wojciech Przybylski

For Europe and for Poland it may seem like a turning point. Stakes are high especially for Poland where the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government is taking advantage of the last breaths of the prosperity that drove them to political supremacy. There is little it can promise anymore that would not later be dismantled due to economic hardships. And in expectation of the upcoming political change in the USA, all the European capitals are holding their breath for the future of US power, an inescapable element of the political framework in Europe.

In many respects, Richard Haass was right to point out that the pandemic is not a turning point but merely a catalyst of changes that were already taking place in the world. In an opinion piece for Foreign Affairs magazine, he points out global trends and their impact on the USA as a global power. Let’s consider his reflections as a context for the situation of Europe and Poland which largely adapt to the tectonic shifts across the Atlantic.

First, he reminds us of decade-long debates echoing the idea of declining US global dominance that is to be nearer now more than ever before. Even if it is not only about US power but as Moisés Naím argues the end of power and state institutions overall, the impact of such a mindset is stronger than ever.

Second, he raises doubts about the survival of the international community and provides examples of how multilateral institutions suffered from border closure. Humanity in its initial response retreated to a subnational, rather than a national level. But here there is serious doubt about his assumptions. Although Mr Haass points to the European Union expecting it to lose momentum, he does not notice new emerging dynamics and just to be on the safe side, he repeats a fatalist message of the further decline of rule-based societies.

A Turning Point for Political Narratives

We will return to his points on Europe and democratic backsliding in a moment but it is important to notice that it is merely one of many pessimistic voices on the future of Europe, at least in the USA.

After the Brexit referendum and before the divorce negotiations, the EU seemed to be frail and disunited. Eventually, it emerged stronger, however, with all the member states, even those ruled by eurosceptics like Poland, in line with the common foreign policy objective.

Finally, Mr Haass concludes that in spite of a possible defeat of Donald Trump, his isolationist mindset is deeply rooted in the pre-war intellectual traditions of today’s only superpower. This will keep America away from its ambitious post-war role in the world for long if not forever. This stark pessimism might not be fulfilled—the author of “A World in Disarray” admits— although it is more than likely. Europe and Poland are on track, however, with preparations for this scenario.

Unlike in the case of a global power such as the USA, Europe was at a turning point even before the pandemic. Without a clear trajectory set in advance of COVID19, this is what makes Europe so interesting today.

After the Brexit referendum and before the divorce negotiations, the EU seemed to be frail and disunited. Eventually, it emerged stronger, however, with all the member states, even those ruled by eurosceptics like Poland, in line with the common foreign policy objective. That was a great surprise even to big fans of the European project and a turning point for political narratives in Warsaw.

Suddenly, the European decentralized model of governance has shown its advantages over an autocratic and highly centralized one, which we pointed out with Maciej Kisilowski in our ‘Democratic Lessons from the EU’ article for Project Syndicate.

Although Warsaw, a traditional ally of London, was trying to voice British concerns at the EU level over the Irish border, its arguments were largely ignored. Shortly after, when Britain agreed to exit on Brussels’ terms, Poland even announced a shift in its foreign policy priorities. In an annual address to the parliament, the Minister of Foreign Affairs prioritized the relationship with Germany for the first time since PiS came to power.

When the EU Court of Justice restrained a few key justice reforms by PiS it was obvious that its rebellion against the EU was over. The European project began to win the struggle against dissident members. A different message that appeals to the sovereignty of the block against dangerous global tides seems to be a persuasive and acceptable narrative across all the member states.

In the global lockdown, however, when all attention was focused on the closed borders and faulty Chinese medical supplies, Ursula von der Leyen came up with a message of apology on behalf of the whole of Europe which failed to deliver aid to Italy. Importantly the EU institutions were never equipped to deliver that assistance in the first place but her message was about the responsibility of Europe i.e. all member states as well as EU institutions. It was therefore not an admission of guilt but a sign of removing the guilt from the member states, a clear sign of a will to be at the helm of future EU direction.

Europe’s Window of Opportunity

Two months later, the European Council on Foreign Policy announced the results of a survey testing EU citizens assessment of political roles and directions in Europe that only confirmed that this is exactly most expected across Europe. Although the majority of respondents were disappointed in the EU’s role in the pandemic, a vast majority (in Italy 77% and in Poland 68%) wanted greater European cooperation.

As the result of the pandemic, Europeans, including Poles, realized the declining influence of the USA that Mr Haass has been describing. Many in the EU rightly believe that it is the role of the US to keep China and Russia at bay. The transatlantic alliance will hold but will be reshaped.

Moreover, as we have seen recently from diplomatic exchanges between the continents Europe is unlikely to embrace China showing a strategic resilience towards Beijing’s political ambitions and side by side with the USA.

Poland will not differ much and will tag along. While its public opinion is likely to remain as the most pro-American country in Europe, it also continues to display strong pro-EU sentiment. If the US role and the global order is going to change as an effect of the pandemic, Poland will eventually stick with the EU and its policies more than before seeking to regain its lost position in the block. Due to the electoral cycle, however, it will take at least a decade long effort to accomplish.

Eventually, for the EU, this is one more crisis which pushes more ambitious projects forward. Contrary to the fatalist approach, Europe’s routine is to see the pandemic as a window of opportunity. Today it is better equipped for a multipolar world and ready to implement new regulatory frameworks such as the Green Deal and Internet regulations, which are likely to become global blueprints.

With a likely change in the November elections across the Atlantic, Europe will be more influential than before and ready to take a lead in today’s key policy areas. Poland will serve as a reminder of US involvement in European affairs, but will likely tune down its unilateral approach to security should the Democrats take over in the elections.

Wojciech Przybylski

is the editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and president of the board at the Res Publica Foundation. His expertise includes European politics and political culture. Previously, he has been the editor-in-chief of Eurozine—a Vienna based magazine with a European network of cultural journals, and the Polish quarterly Res Publica Nowa. He also co-authored the book “Understanding Central Europe”, Routledge 2017. Twitter: @wprzybylski

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