Thucydides, in his Peloponnesian war, narrates how, in 430B.C.- the first year of the war- a deadly plague devastated the city-state of Athens. It killed one third of its population leaving a deep scar on its society and its democracy.
Europe today, struggling to recover from the eurozone crisis of 2009 and the refugee-migration crisis of 2015, is overwhelmed by a pandemic crisis of almost biblical proportions.
As countries are scrambling to deal with the immediate requirements of a colossal health emergency an even greater threat looms in the horizon. Economists are warning us of the threat of an economic depression greater from that of 1929.
Both aspects of the crisis require a concerted and comprehensive pan European response. If the response to the health crisis is the prologue, however, the future looks ominous. The pandemic has led to the renationalization of the decision- making process, the return of national sovereignty and national borders. This is due to the fact that the management of health systems and issues belongs to the member states. Member states have also retained the prerogative of invoking state of emergency measures in times of crisis like this. This is also the case in the American federal system, where local governors are leading the fight. The federal government, however, even under the erratic leadership of Donald Trump, has also come to the rescue. It is a blow to European solidarity that, instead of a concerted and comprehensive European response, we saw member states looking to China for health aid and medical equipment.
The Chinese state after an initial phase of denial and cover-up, that led to the spread of the virus across the planet, ultimately resorted to Draconian measures, to contain the virus. Now, the regime has engaged in a public relations campaign to absolve itself of its grave responsibilities. Adding health aid to its Belt and Road Initiative it is trying to exploit the absence of European solidarity, and American leadership, to increase its influence in the south of Europe. It is also trying to project its efficacy in contrast to the slow and ineffective western democracies.
If European solidarity seemed to crumble under the health emergency, the upcoming economic Armaggedon will be the real test for Europe.
The first signs are alarming. Germany, which has rightly criticized the Trump administration for a very narrow conception of the national interest and the dismandling of the liberal order, is doing exactly the same. As America is sacrificing the liberal multilateral order on the altar of America First, Germany is ready to sacrifice European unity and solidarity on the altar of German fiscal responsibility and Germany First.
We often conceptualize the European experiment as a winding road full of turns, steep curves and detours. A process of muddling through trial, error, and adjustment. This pandemic, however, is a defining moment for the «European house» because it threatens to infect the European «body politic» irreparably. In political philosophy’s great tradition, the analogy between disease and civil disorder was proposed to encourage rulers to show foresight (Machiavelli) and reason (Hobbes), to prevent fatal disorder, as Susan Sontag wrote in a brilliant essay in 1973.
The challenge now, for the European leadership is to act desicively, collectively, and expediently to prevent the recession from turning into a prolonged depression. The tragic loss of life should mobilize European leadership to take action to avert loss of livelihood, that will affect European societies and democracies. As Mario Draghi wrote, unforseen circumstances require a change of mindset, or as Keynes had put it, «when the facts change, I change my mind». This is a war and wars are financed by public debt. Otherwise, the cost of inaction will be devastating. And this time, those in Europe that do not succumb to reason and adapt to change will have no one to blame but themselves.