On 9 May every year European Union (EU) member states celebrate ‘Europe Day’ to commemorate the Schuman Declaration. The declaration proposed the pooling of resources of German and French coal and steel industries, which then led to the establishment of European Coal and Steel Community in 1951- the first of the European supranational communities. As Robert Schuman said “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first creates a de facto solidarity…The coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany. Any action taken must in the first place concern these two countries.”[i] His vision of prevention of armed conflict through political and economic integration is considered as the cornerstone for what the EU is today. The year 2020 marks the 70 years of Schuman Declaration, but the solidarity envisioned in the declaration is increasingly questioned today.
Built from the ashes of the Second World War, the EU has grown from six-original members to a bloc of 28 countries. The accomplishments of EU are numerous: Its commitment to universal values like human dignity, human rights, rule of law, democracy etc. have established the Union as a norm-setter in the global arena;and the creation of the European Single Market, the world’s biggest and which resulted in significant economic development by “stimulating competition and trade, improving efficiency, raising quality, and helping cut prices.”[ii] Another key achievement was the creation of the Schengen Area. Established in 1985, the Schengen Treaty has resulted in a Europe without borders. The Schengen Area remains the world’s largest area without border controls between the member states resulting in the free movement of people for work, study and tourism. Also, through its extensive climate change plans and packages, EU is spearheading the energy transition from non-renewables to renewable energy and has put for itself ambitious targets for emission reduction, renewable energy targets and expanding the scope of energy efficiency.
However, EU appears to be facing its toughest challenges yet which have resulted in many questioning the health of the Union. The 2008 economic crisis, the migration crisis of 2015, Brexit in 2016, and growing nationalistic sentiments and unemployment are among the major issues that the Union has faced in the past few years. How to mitigate the impact of coronavirus on its citizens and member states is the most recent challenge before the Union. This crisis has led to the questioning of the basic premises ofsolidarity envisioned the Schuman Declaration with many member states shutting their borders for the first time in the history of Schengen agreement. In addition to these developments, rising nationalism and anti EU sentiments within the member states has led many national leaders to question the continued relevance of the EU for their countries.
This pandemic has exposed fault lines in Europe like never before.Many Southern member states complain about the lack of solidarity from the northern member states as EU looks at the deepest recession in its history. The COVID-19 crisis has foregrounded not just the economic crisis but also the political and constitutional issues within the Union. The German constitutional court ruling[iii] on the European Central Bank’s bond-buying stimulus package to fight the pandemic challenges the premise of the European Court of Justice and sets a dangerous precedent for the future. Another crisis on the horizon is that member states are divided over dealing with countries, like Hungary, which is undermining democracy and rule of law. Viktor Orban’s government in Hungary passed a law granting itself sweeping powers including side-stepping the parliament to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic without an expiration date. This has raised the question of what can the EU do to stop one of its member states from undermining its core values.
As the EU finds itself amidst a multifaceted crisis it can find answers to what it must do in the declaration itself where Robert Schuman stated, “World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.”[iv] This is exactly what the Union needs, creative thinking to work in a coordinated and united manner to face the new challenges of the future. This pandemic has shown that despite cumbersome-decision making, EU can take coordinated decisions and frame effective responses for alleviating the economic and social hardships of its member states. Although slow, the leadership has been able to take measures to safeguard the Union and its member states. What has also been highlighted is that the solidarity of the Union does not stop at its borders. This has been evident from the launch of an initiative called ‘Team Europe’ package (of over 20 billion Euros) to support its partners in their fight against the coronavirus. “The objective of the Team Europe approach is to combine resources from the EU, its member states, and financial institutions, in particular the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.[v]” Similarly, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, hosted a digital fundraiser for the development of coronavirus vaccination and treatment, which saw the world leaders pledge 7.5 billion Euros[vi].
This is a defining moment for the EU for it to show that it can playa leadership role and find innovative solutions to complex problems. If the EU has to thrive, it has to be more ambitious in its approach and has to acknowledge that different countries have different requirements and expectations.Addressing this idea of difference will makethis 70th anniversary, a testing time for the Union to demonstrate its relevance and resilience.
*Dr. Ankita Dutta is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal.
[i]Schuman Declaration, 9 May 1950, European Union, https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/symbols/europe-day/schuman-declaration_en, Accessed on 15 May 2020
[iii]The Constitutional Court of Germany declared that the bond buying stimulus package of the European Central Bank was illegal under the German Law and that it did not respect the principle of proportionality and should have been challenged by the German government and central bank. ECB had reacted to this by arguing that it follows the European Court of Justice Regulations and not of national courts. This has started the debate over the question of which court interprets the law. However, the European Commission reaffirmed the 'primacy of EU law' and the fact that all ECJ rulings are 'binding on all national courts'.
[iv] Schuman Declaration, 9 May 1950, European Union, https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/symbols/europe-day/schuman-declaration_en, Accessed on 15 May 2020
[v]Coronavirus: European Union launches “Team Europe” package to support partner countries with more than €20 billion, European Union External Action, Brussels, 8 April 2020, https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/77326/coronavirus-european-union-launches-%E2%80%9Cteam-europe%E2%80%9D-package-support-partner-countries-more-%E2%82%AC20_en, Accessed on 15 May 2020
[vi] DW, 4 May 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/,world-leaders-pledge-74-billion-for-european-commissions-coronavirus-vaccine-fundraising-conference/a-53322501, Accessed on 15 May 2020