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The European Project Faces an Existential Crisis
The flag of the European Union. (Wikimedia Commons)

The European Project Faces an Existential Crisis

An-Nahar, Lebanon, June 19

The pandemic affected many things. Dreams and ambitions of different countries and regions went crashing down. But for the European Union, the crisis was existential and came shortly after significant challenges to the bloc, including the 2008 financial crisis, the 2016 refugee crisis, and Britain’s exit from the bloc. The onslaught of the pandemic was an opportunity for the EU to prove to its already skeptical citizens that it can act quickly, decisively and forcefully in their interest. It was an opportunity to present itself as a powerful global actor capable of directing the international response to the pandemic and of withstanding any new crises that might arise in our highly connected world. But the European Union missed its opportunity to provide all of that. First, it was slow to approve the COVID-19 recovery package in the summer of 2020, and then it witnessed a slow and chaotic start of the vaccine rollout at the beginning of 2021. This cast serious doubt over the union’s ability to guide its member states through the crisis. The European Commission came under fire during February and March 2021 for failing to secure an adequate supply of vaccines for EU citizens. At the same time, nearly half of the vaccine supplies produced in the European Union were exported. However, the choice to not block the export of the vaccine appears to have reversed voters’ wishes. Perhaps the lesson from the EU’s institutions is that in the future they need to be clearer about communicating their approach, own with confidence the decisions they make, and explain the reasons behind them. To the European public, the handling of the vaccines seemed like a haphazard policy rather than a calculated strategy. Today, a year and a half after the pandemic began, many European citizens are less confident in the institutions of the union. It is clear that their hopes and expectations for better and more effective European cooperation, which were evident at the beginning of this crisis, have not been fulfilled. Nevertheless, the European project still enjoys strong support among the population of many EU member states. But the results of polls published from time to time show that support for the European project can no longer be taken for granted. This is a wake-up call for EU decision-makers. A sense of shared vulnerability will not be enough to move the European project forward in the post-pandemic years. As survey data show, the need to build European leadership has become urgent. After Biden’s election, European policymakers may have wondered whether this was still necessary given that the US had “come back.” Brexit and Trump’s election left deep scars in Europe, as EU citizens relied heavily on the West. They considered the United States and the United Kingdom as their most important partners. However, they also learned that in an age of great power competition, they must ultimately rely on themselves. While Europeans still feel a special emotional connection with the United Kingdom and the United States, Britain’s exit from the European Union and Trump’s election contributed to a widespread sense of disillusionment. Europeans’ instinctive affinity to the West no longer fits the geopolitical reality in which they live. The dream of the West in the Cold War era belongs to the past. This led European voters to feel that the EU no longer has natural alliances that transcend various policy issues; a feeling that points to the need to build a stronger sense of European sovereignty and to seek partnerships of interest. In a world where great powers compete, Europeans see the need to forge strategic partnerships with different countries. Therefore, the EU must shape the post-coronavirus world in line with what Europeans believe connect them to one another: belief in human rights, democracy and the rule of law. By committing to what Europeans aspire to, the EU and its leaders can demonstrate the value of the project in a post-Western world. Therefore, European decision-makers must redouble their efforts to strengthen democracy and the rule of law at home. If the EU develops the capacity, tools and resources to present itself as a global leader of the rules-based international order, and sticks to its commitment to multilateralism and international cooperation, it will become a more attractive partner for like-minded actors. The development of the different dimensions of European sovereignty will enhance the ability of the European Union to shape the post-pandemic international order. – Ahmed Nazif (translated by Asaf Zilberfarb) 

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