What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? the crises of the 2020s and the EU

By Michela Sandron

European integration has fascinated political scientists since the development of the European Coal and Steel Community, contributing to the emergence of theories – such as neo-functionalist or intergovernmentalist theory – attempting to explain the path towards regional integration. In recent years, as the European Union faced several crises, academics focused on understanding how these crises have affected European integration. Although a consensus has not yet emerged in academia, many have noticed that crises tend to deepen the process of integration, often increasing the supranational powers of the Union. While the most popular empirical study cited in literature referred to the Eurozone crisis of 2012, recent events such as the economic crisis induced by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine suggest further confirmation of the trend: the European Union not only survives crises, but it also comes out stronger and more supranational.  

Known to many are the historical steps taken by the EU during the pandemic; in particular, in July 2020, the Union agreed on the “Next Generation EU” mechanism, which institutes a temporary system to “share” the burden of national debt through the European Commission’s borrowing on capital markets.  Although temporary, this decision indicates that Member States are turning to multilateral cooperation to face transnational exogenous challenges, identifying the EU as the suitable tool to provide a coordinated and successful response. This achievement is particularly important if we assess the general skepticism that had surrounded European politics in the previous years. Phenomena such as Brexit, the disenchantment with multilateralism, and the relative success of Eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament elections contributed to a narrative that was counting down the days to the Union’s implosion. Instead, the economic crisis induced by the pandemic urged the 27 Heads of State and Government to overcome their differences and reach a compromise to support the block’s economy, just like it happened in 2012 with the establishment of the European Stability Mechanism and the quantitative easing policy of the European Central Bank. 

Less than two years after the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus, however, the EU is forced to face an unexpected challenge to its security, resulting from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order to militarily invade Ukraine. Directly threatening the post-Cold War collective security system, and menacing the security of the Baltic states – which are EU and NATO members -, Putin’s attempt at overthrowing the Ukrainian government has triggered the countereffect of strengthening the Transatlantic Alliance and solidifying the unity of the 27 Member States. Often accused of being an economic giant, but a political dwarf, the ambitions of the EU’s Common Defense and Security Policy have been slow to materialize. Only an unprecedented crisis such as the one taking shape in Ukraine could induce Member States to agree on providing the EU with effective tools in the security realm, which continues to lay at the core of State sovereignty. 

In facing Putin’s aggression, the EU is showing more unity than ever before. For the first time in history, the EU will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons to a third country, in an attempt to support Ukraine’s military efforts – alongside economic sanctions. The European Peace Facility, the financing instrument established in March 2021 to prevent conflicts and strengthen international security, will fund the acquisition. Although the future cannot be predicted, it is clear that, as High Representative Josep Borrell declared, ‘another taboo has fallen’ in European foreign policy. This decision suggests that the time is ripe for the emergence of a truly functioning common defense policy, as leaders get ready to mold a new vision of international security, which could task the EU with more than just soft power.  In post-Lisbon times, it seemed the EU had become a victim of its own evolution: after deepening its integration to unprecedented measures, Member States and their public opinions expressed concerns that too much sovereignty had been given up. Nonetheless, when faced with crises that threaten its existence (such as that of the Eurozone in 2012), Member States push the Union’s supranational powers ever further. As the new decade dawned upon with unprecedented challenges to respond to, the European Union appears to have realized its identity as a global power. Backed by one of the world’s largest economies, the EU can raise its voice to influence global crises, earning a spot for itself in the geopolitical theatre; a fundamental progress as tensions reach an all-time high.

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