The Covid-19 pandemic has upended economies, societies and ways of working and living everywhere. States, businesses and workers have been coping with an unparalleled emergency, while now looking to recovery. To a large extent they are flying blind. So far, most countries have maintained internal cohesion and a sense of common purpose. But this will not last indefinitely. As we emerge from lockdown, many questions are being asked about what the future will look like.
The crisis poses very particular challenges for the European Union. The stakes are high. On April 16th, President Macron said the Union faced a “moment of truth”. Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte said at the same time that the Union could even collapse if it failed to act decisively to help his country and the others most affected. In presenting the joint Franco-German recovery proposal on May 18th, Chancellor Merkel spoke about the threats to the cohesion of the EU and how that cohesion might disappear.
So, will the Union react to the economic consequences of the pandemic with decisiveness and at scale? Will it find a way to address other profound questions which had already been posing themselves with increasing urgency before the crisis but which have been given still greater significance by it? Before trying to answer these questions, it may be helpful to look back on how it has addressed a series of crises since 2010.
In the two decades after the mid-1980s, the European Union as we now know it came into being. It responded to and helped create the zeitgeist. It was a community of liberal democracies at a time when liberal democracy was in the ascendant. It was a model of regional co-operation and conflict resolution at a time when across the world past enmities and great power rivalries were believed to be fading. It was a technocracy when the purpose of politics was widely seen as managing technical challenges within agreed parameters. And it was an example to and a pole of attraction for the new democracies emerging from the wreckage of communism.
Those were halcyon days. Not everything was plain sailing of course. Treaties put to referendum were rejected at least once in each of Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, France and the Netherlands. The Union’s performance during the Balkan wars of the 1990s gave the lie to the claim that this was to be “the hour of Europe”. The EU fell a long way short of its 2000 goal of becoming by 2010 “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world”. And it recognised its failure to connect sufficiently with its own citizens, or to develop the sense of a European demos, but could not find ways to do so.
Then the Union’s fortunes changed. Having, as it seemed, ridden out the great recession of 2008-09, it was suddenly plunged into the euro crisis of 2010-15. In 2014 the realities of power politics in its neighbourhood were brought home to it by the Russian occupation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine. In 2015 there was an enormous surge in irregular migration across the Aegean and the Mediterranean. In 2016 the United Kingdom – the joint second-largest member state – voted to leave the Union, which it did in January 2020. Poland and Hungary have flouted basic EU norms on the rule of law. The abrupt abandonment by the United States of the main lines of its foreign policy since 1945 in favour of an isolationist, mercantilist nationalism, allied to the continuing rise of an assertive and ever stronger China, and the effective paralysis of major multilateral institutions, have radically changed the international context. The relevance and effectiveness of the soft power of the EU as a rules-based, consensus-building body are challenged.
A number of conclusions can be drawn from the experience of the past ten years. First, the EU only has those powers conferred upon it by member states in the treaties. There are areas where it has the dominant role. There are others in which it shares substantial, but not unlimited, powers with the member states. And there are many where its role is relatively minor, largely confined to voluntary co-ordination, exhortation, and the sharing of best practice. Public health falls into that category. Therefore, while it is possible, if there is the will to do so, to push the limits of the treaties, they cannot be set aside. The Union cannot do things it is not permitted to do.
Second, when crises come, solidarity from those less affected is not automatic, immediate or unlimited. The support programmes for Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus were eventually agreed bit by bit not out of altruism but on the basis that to allow their public finances to collapse would endanger the euro. Stringent conditions were attached. And, notwithstanding the admitted failures of governance and policy in weaker member states, commentary at times in others went beyond criticism to scorn, even sometimes bordering on the racist. During the migration crisis, despite welcome gestures, other member states, including Ireland, offered only minor assistance to frontline countries (Greece, Italy, Malta) and to those which had taken in the largest numbers of migrants (Germany and Sweden).
Third, the EU is not a state and the Commission is not a government. The Union usually takes a long time to make decisions and take action. This is the consequence of the many checks and balances its architecture rightly creates. When it does act, the need for compromise often leads to suboptimal solutions, slowly and incrementally agreed. Is this better than nothing? Of course: but is it good enough?
Fourth, even when they are agreed, the implementation of EU laws, decisions and policies ultimately depends on the goodwill, capacity and determination of the member states. Yes, those failing to implement their obligations face legal sanctions. But these take a long time to be triggered, and where member states simply ignore them there is no effective recourse.
Therefore, the EU faces high expectations with limited means. Its authority and capacity to act ultimately depend on the willingness and commitment of member states.
So far, so discouraging. But there are some grounds for optimism.
During the period after 2010 the focus of the Union necessarily had to shift from what has been called the politics of rules to the politics of events. The traditional institutional triangle of Commission, Parliament and Council of Ministers was designed for the patient negotiation of laws, not for crisis management.
Fortunately, however, the Lisbon Treaty, after traversing its Irish speed bump, entered into force on December 1st, 2009 – two months before the eruption of the Greek crisis. The European Council had existed for decades as the place where the biggest decisions were taken. But Lisbon codified the status and functioning. of the European Council. The leaders who comprise the Council have the dual advantages of recognition and legitimacy at home and of the capacity to make decisions which direct and commit their systems. They come and go. Some are more effective or active than others. Their popularity at home may rise or fall (it usually falls). But together, as the source of political authority and strategic direction, they stand at the apex of the system.
Crucially, Lisbon created the post of full-time president of the European Council. Its first two holders, Herman Van Rompuy and Donald Tusk, while very different in style and personality, ably managed the Council in ways which developed its collective identity and enhanced its capacity to act with a greater continuity of perspective. (During the worst of the eurozone crisis I often asked myself how the Union would have coped if the European Council had been chaired not by Van Rompuy but for successive six-monthly periods by the leaders of Spain, Belgium, Hungary, Poland, Denmark, Cyprus, Ireland and Lithuania: four countries which had never held the presidency before, three in the eye of the eurozone storm, four not in the eurozone, and one with a caretaker government for the full term of its presidency.)
It must be said that the European Council has been extraordinarily lucky to have had as its most influential member since 2005 Angela Merkel, whose calmness, political judgement and mastery of policy detail are unequalled.
The responsibilities and roles of the institutions of the European Union and of the Member States are legally distinct. But that is only part of the story. In crisis management, the work of the institutions is reinforced and complemented (if sometimes side-lined) by that of Member States, above all the strongest, on their own or in groups. This has always been the case in foreign policy. But the agenda in other areas has also often been set by Member States. The European Stability Mechanism, and the Fiscal Pact of 2012, both sit outside the Treaties, for example. Germany played a key role in negotiations with Turkey on migration. This excites institutional jealousies in the Commission and, in particular, the Parliament. But these are counterproductive and fruitless. When people think or speak of Europe they mean not just the institutions of the European Union but the countries of the Union. This “Union method”, as Merkel described it, gives the Union greater flexibility, capacity and authority.
The crises revealed the determination of the Member States to preserve the Union, even in very difficult and challenging circumstances. At points during the euro crisis the collapse of the single currency was predicted. It was later feared that Brexit could encourage other countries to rush to the exit. The danger that a tsunami of Eurosceptic populists would crash into the European Parliament after the elections of 2018 was perceived as very real.
The worst of possible outcomes did not come to pass. The Union, often after agonised and prolonged debate and disagreement, usually found ways, however imperfect, to solve most of the crises, or at least palliate their effects. The actions and commitments of the European Council, Eurogroup and ECB eventually prevented the break-up of the eurozone and laid the foundations for a return to stability and modest growth. A common policy on Russia was eventually achieved, and has been maintained. Aspects of the deal with Turkey to prevent migrant flows into Greece were undoubtedly distasteful. But this venture into realpolitik achieved its immediate objective, though it has not been possible to agree on internal burden-sharing (a major source of Italian discontent). Brexit has been skilfully handled, and indeed the chaos on the UK side seems so far to have had a reverse domino effect.
These outcomes have been messy and imperfect. There is now widespread agreement that the response to the euro crisis was too slow and insufficiently bold, and that much economic and political damage could have been averted. Likewise, the move to a fully-fledged banking union is incomplete eight years after the principle was agreed. Migration policy has been at best only a partial success. So far no way has been found to confront Poland and Hungary effectively over their continuing breaches of the rule of law. All of these hesitations and failures have allowed narratives of injustice and betrayal to take root, and have strengthened illiberal and nationalist forces across the Union.
However, the Union has so far survived. Away from crisis it continues to function much as usual. It appears that it has managed to hold onto majority public support, at least to the point that its existence is not threatened. Even in Greece in 2015 the Syriza government stepped away from the brink and agreed to the third economic adjustment programme. In the French presidential election of 2017, Marine Le Pen’s equivocations on Europe were decisive in undermining her credibility.
So, is past performance a guide to the future? Will the Union patch together imperfect solutions which just about keep the show on the road? Or will it find reserves of ambition and creativity which will enable a leap forward? Or will it be weakened by Eurosceptic nationalism?
The answers may vary from issue to issue.
Although immediate public health responses to the crisis have so far been very largely national, with the EU’s competences in public health very limited, it may well be empowered to play a more important role in the future: not in managing Member States’ health systems, but through helping to fund and co-ordinate cross-border drug and vaccine research in the public interest, through standardised crisis protocols, and through supporting stronger EU manufacturing and supply chain capacities. The Commission has just made proposals to this effect.
The Schengen free travel area is one of the greatest achievements of the Union. A former Czech dissident whom I asked a few years after accession what he most valued about membership said that it was knowing that if he wanted he could drive unhindered from Prague to Brussels. The effective suspension of Schengen was one of the early consequences of the crisis. In an inevitably hasty, chaotic and uncoordinated way many Member States closed their borders or imposed quarantine. The Commission was totally bypassed. It has now proposed a step-by-step return to normal free movement. This would create a framework for the loosening already being undertaken by many Member States. Those heavily dependent on tourism are particularly eager to open up. However, a full return to normality, and the end of quarantine, will require the effective suppression of the virus in all Member States. Any flare-up could very probably see a return to border controls. Schengen will survive and indeed thrive again, but its vulnerability is apparent.
The fiscal, economic and social costs of the crisis are already immense. The European Commission has forecast that, even without the return of the virus in the autumn, the EU’s GDP will fall by at least 7.4% in 2020 – compared to a 4.3% drop in 2009, the worst year of the financial crisis. Enormous numbers of workers have either lost their jobs or been placed on state-subsidised furlough. It is clear that recovery will, at least for a year or so, be gradual and uneven, not V-shaped as expected at first. Some economic sectors, usually those employing large numbers of less-skilled workers in crowded settings, will take even longer to bounce back fully, if they ever do. Unemployment will remain high in the coming years. While it is currently possible to service massive levels of debt at unprecedentedly low interest rates, this situation may not last forever. And, despite these low interest rates, it seems that savings rates will increase, thereby depressing demand.
However, the economic pain will not be equally distributed. The Commission expects Germany’s GDP to fall by 6.5% this year – but Italy’s and Spain’s by over 9%. This also reflects the fact that those countries with the strongest public finances have been able to afford much larger immediate national fiscal stimuli – 10% of GDP in Germany’s case, as against 1.1% in Spain and 0.9% in Italy. The relative importance of different sectors will also have an influence, hence the eagerness of Mediterranean countries to allow and encourage tourists to return.
The Bruegel Institute in Brussels describes the initial phase of the economic response as “indiscriminate, national-based liquidity support to firms and workers”. Phase two will be about solvency support – and here Bruegel thinks that very difficult decisions will need to be taken about affordability and how to deal with those companies with little chance of survival. Phase three will be about recovery.
The EU’s role will be particularly important in the third phase. Expectations of it are very high. Much of the focus is of course on financial support. But of great medium-to-long term importance will be the maintenance of the single market and of competition policy.
The immediate liquidity support offered by the Union to supplement national efforts, and by the Member States through the European Stability Mechanism, is substantial: up to €540 billion. It has complemented the new €750 billion ECB Pandemic Support Purchase Programme, which extends still further the capacity of the ECB to buy bonds.
However, while the ECB has once again stepped into the markets on a vast scale, its right to do so indefinitely has been called into question by the recent judgement of the German Federal Constitutional Court. The Court has cast doubt on whether the ECB’s existing bond-buying programme was within its competence under the Treaties. Even if this new and most unwelcome (if not entirely unexpected) threat to the Union’s crisis management capacity is dealt with, the ECB itself, the Commission, most economists, and many Member States, have long argued that the eurozone needs a fiscal policy of sufficient scope to balance the monetary policy role of the ECB.
The current EU budget represents a little over 1% of total EU GNI – Member State budgets pre-crisis ranged from 35% to 58% of their GDPs. Notwithstanding the strength of the argument that a common currency and single market require closer economic and fiscal integration, a solid bloc of Member States, led by Germany, have always opposed a significant increase in the overall size of the budget. And they have particularly disliked the idea of a common EU fiscal capacity, allowing for significant transfers to weaker economies at times of difficulty. They have stressed their view that what they call a transfer union is contrary to the Treaties and undermines national responsibility for prudent budgetary and economic policy.
This long-running debate, left over from the euro crisis, has now assumed an urgency which would have been unimaginable even three months ago. The question now is: how can and should the EU support economic recovery? The initial exchanges in April were melodramatic and sour, with the Dutch bluntly, and for some offensively, picking up where they had left off by leading Northern opposition to the issuance of mutualised debt (“coronabonds”) which was advocated by southern Member States, France, Belgium and Ireland.
The compromise agreed by European Council on April 23rd was that additional support for recovery should be provided through a greatly expanded EU budget. Conveniently, as it turned out, in February the European Council had been unable to agree on the overall budgetary framework (the Multiannual Financial Framework, or MFF) for 2021-27. This is always a challenging exercise, made more so now by the future absence of UK contributions. The Commission was asked to come up with a fresh proposal.
That proposal was published on May 27th. In essence, it proposes large-scale borrowing by the Union (€750 billion) to support a new recovery plan delivered through a number of programmes, some new, some revised. This plan – Next Generation EU – would stand alongside the normal budget. The Commission has also proposed some adjustments to its previous MFF proposal. Borrowing would be based on a substantial increase in the maximum allowable size, or ceiling, of the budget. These theoretically available additional funds would not be drawn down. Rather, the Union itself would borrow against them. It would then pass the money on to the member states ‑ €500bn in grants, €250bn in loans. The MFF would be front-loaded to allow for maximum expenditure between 2021 and 2024.
It seems clear that the Commission proposals will indeed become the basis of a recovery programme. Politically, it would be catastrophic were the Union to fail to agree on a way forward. The grant element of the Commission’s plan aligns with the joint proposal made on May 18th by France and Germany. Agreeing to Union borrowing, and to grants, on this scale was a truly significant step by Germany and by Chancellor Merkel personally. When France and Germany are able to find a compromise, this has habitually paved the way to a wider agreement. Their joint position becomes the debate’s centre of gravity. So it will be now.
However, unanimity is required to adopt the MFF. The self-proclaimed “frugal four” (Austria, Denmark, Finland and Sweden), who were the leading hawks in the budget debate pre-crisis, are not happy. They have called for confining supports to loans. It is hard to see them maintaining their opposition to a point of complete stalemate, but they might be able to weaken the proposal.
Even if the general approach is agreed, really difficult questions will remain. Some, in the classic EU way, concern points of detail and competence. But others are more fundamental. Several of them involve issues which have been unresolved over decades. The Commission has made proposals. But these will be hotly contested and, probably, changed significantly.
How much money is in fact needed? Some have previously suggested figures as high as €1.5 or €2 trillion. It is hard to imagine that the €750bn proposed by the Commission will be increased. Will it prove to be enough?
Crucially, will the new money be disbursed mostly as grants, as is proposed, or will the proportion of loans be forced up in negotiations?
On what criteria will funds be allocated? The Commission proposes that the bulk will go to those countries and sectors most affected by the crisis. This seems fair: but it of course implies proportionately smaller amounts for other Member States. And how will the calculation of need be made, and how will the impact of the emergency be assessed as against the prior economic situations of the Member States.
In consequence, as is the case with normal cohesion and CAP funding, Member States will pore over indicative amounts (“envelopes”) to be reserved for them individually. The initial figures envisaged look certain to be contentious.
On what can the money be spent? On investment, says the Commission, following France and Germany. The intention is that much will be devoted to additional investments in the sectors which are already EU priorities (notably the digital economy and climate transition – the “European Green Deal”). This could indeed boost progress on key long-term challenges and promote economic modernisation. But how well-equipped will the countries most in need be to invest quickly? They also face great pressure on the current expenditure side and the short-to-medium-term needs of the unemployed and of business. They will look for maximum flexibility. The irony is that those countries best placed to ramp up investment may be those less in need of support.
What conditions will be attached to the funds? And how stringent might they be? A fundamental part of previous support programmes, as we in Ireland know very well, has been additional central direction of economic policy and structural reform. The Commission’s proposal speaks rather vaguely of linking investment to the annual economic reform programmes Member States must already submit. This will not be enough for hawks like the frugal four while it may be too much for major recipients, notably Italy and Spain. Both groups have a point. The Netherlands likes to point out, for example, that it has the highest statutory retirement age in the Union – why should it help fund countries with less stringent regimes? And it is fair to say that the position of weakness from which Italy in particular faces the crisis stems from economic policy failure over many years. But the perception of strong conditionality as humiliation and surrender has already been a fertile ground for Matteo Salvini and other populists.
How will the new money in the end sit with the funding of the Union’s “normal” priorities in the regular MFF, including the CAP and cohesion? The Commission’s proposal does not envisage any trade-offs. Indeed, it proposes some increase in existing spending. I doubt if this will stand.
How much leeway will the Commission have to administer the funds? To what oversight will it be subject from the Council and, potentially very problematically, from the European Parliament, which is constantly trying to extend its reach over programme implementation?
How will the loan eventually be repaid and debt costs serviced? The Commission has proposed new EU “own resources” such as green or digital taxes, and an ill-defined tax on those big companies gaining most from the Single Market. Revenues would flow directly to the Union. There are existing own resources, and ideas for new ones have been around for a long time. Member States have generally rejected them. The alternative is increased contributions from national exchequers.
And, critically, will it be agreed that, as is proposed, grants from the recovery fund do not create a precedent, that they are a one-off? It probably will be. It is also worth noting that this is not a eurozone measure. But maybe a Rubicon will be seen to have been crossed. Those who believe in greater economic and fiscal integration, including through transfers, will not easily give up.
Therefore, it is highly likely that a recovery plan along the broad lines of the Commission proposal will be adopted, but crucial detail will be fiercely contested. In relative terms, it would indeed be radical. But even as proposed it surely falls short of the “Hamilton moment” of which some have excitedly spoken.
Reaching agreement will pose a particular challenge for the as yet largely untried presidents of the European Council and European Commission. It is fair to say that neither greatly impressed in the first months of their mandates. Charles Michel was a not particularly successful prime minister of Belgium, before losing a general election made him available for his new job. Ursula Von der Leyen’s long service as a German minister was in portfolios not central to EU business, and of course she never attended the European Council.
As if these questions were not enough, many others have been given new focus and urgency by the crisis. They will not be resolved, either by action or inaction, all at once, but cannot be avoided over time. This essay lists some of them, without elaboration and in most cases not trying to give answers.
There had already been growing pressure for the EU’s competition policy to look less exclusively at the European market and more at the place of European businesses globally. France and Germany have repeated the call for more acceptance of the principle of support for “European Champions” (many of which will of course be French, German or Franco-German). A new emphasis on secure and diversified supply chains will enhance the case for a more active industrial policy. How far will the Union move to protect itself further against US government pressure on companies to move investments back home, and Chinese efforts to invest in European companies in strategic sectors?
In the short term, the necessary emergency easing of the EU’s state aid rules has led to great disparities in national levels of support for companies, depending on the resources available to governments. Some 52% of all new state aid approved by the Commission so far has been given by Germany to German companies – most spectacularly, to Lufthansa (to the understandable fury of Michael O’Leary). A full return to the previous regime will be very difficult to achieve, and the Single Market could be greatly weakened, at least for a time. (There is by the way a certain irony in the fact that the main sticking point in the Brexit talks seems to be the demand for UK adherence to a level playing field which is at least temporarily being tilted dramatically.)
The EU’s complex and sometimes impenetrable fiscal rules, as set out in the Stability and Growth Pact and reinforced by the Fiscal Pact of 2012, had over the past few years required a reduction in deficits in most countries. But how will they be applied to the enormously increased deficit and debt levels we will see in the coming years? How quickly will Member States be able to, or wish to, set off once again on their pilgrimages to fiscal rectitude?
The push for reforms to corporation tax, in particular in the digital economy, ideally but not necessarily on the basis of a common OECD approach, will intensify. Indeed this is already part of the Commission’s new own resources proposal.
Despite a lack of significant powers in relevant areas, can the EU do more to help reverse social and economic inequalities, which before the pandemic were increasingly perceived as real and deeply damaging, including politically, and which the crisis is exacerbating?
The EU has already become more wary of and distant from the US at the same time as it has come to see China as a strategic rival. Led by President Macron, many argue that it needs to play a stronger geopolitical role and equip itself accordingly. It seems certain that this trend will be amplified as a result of the failure of both the US and China to lead credibly during the pandemic, and by a certain retreat from a globalised economy. But will the Union in fact wish to try to play a stronger role internationally? Contrary to its past performance, this would require it to achieve the political consensus necessary for it to achieve sustained strategic consistency and policy coherence, and to give itself the means required.
An overarching question is whether the Union can reform itself to be able to act decisively and strategically in a way commensurate with these challenges.
Much can be done through policy and legislative change. But Merkel and Macron have joined those arguing that change to the Treaties will also be required. In particular, and this has been given an added urgency by the Karlsruhe judgement, it would seem highly advisable to put the ECB’s expansive market interventions on a rock solid legal basis. But other issues, such as a greater capacity in foreign and security policy, also arise.
Over the last decade, Member States have avoided talking of Treaty change for a range of good reasons: the need for consensus; the need to give, and to be seen to give, priority to concrete action over constitutional debate; the fact that it has been possible to have recourse to ad hoc agreements outside the Treaty framework; and the enormous difficulty in obtaining unanimous national ratification of Treaty change, above all where referendums are required (Exhibit A: Ireland). When noting longer-term issues the Union has instead, again understandably, taken refuge in a series of immediately forgettable declarations exemplifying lowest common denominator empty rhetoric.
But avoiding discussion of Treaty change is surely no longer sustainable, if the Union is indeed to be fully equipped to cope with the multiple challenges which lie ahead. I say this despite bearing the scars of three Treaty negotiations and two lost referendums.
The difficulties which Ireland may possibly face over the period ahead are clear. They could include the growing size of our net budgetary contribution, greater harmonisation of aspects of corporate taxation, more opposition to free trade and globalisation, growing EU-US estrangement, a greater EU geopolitical and security policy role, and a possible Treaty negotiation and referendum. Brexit, whatever its final form, will affect us particularly. Up to now we have largely enjoyed the best of all possible worlds: a large CAP from which we benefit disproportionately and which has lessened our net national contribution to the budget, the advantages of the Single Market and of trade agreements, including as a lure for international investment, unanimity on taxation (ditto), no real pressure on our traditional policy of military neutrality, the preservation of the Common Travel Area. Our entirely understandable approach has therefore been to offer strong support to the Union as it is while resisting significant change. Without challenging our place in the Union, a reassessment of our priorities may become necessary.
It is easy to conclude that the current crisis will not in fact be transformative. In such a scenario, emergency grants to Member States are scaled back and hedged around with conditions, and emphatically do not form a precedent. No major changes are made either to the expenditure or the revenue sides of the MFF. The ECB’s bond-buying programme continues more or less as is, as Karlsruhe is managed. Tax harmonisation is blocked. There is no real will for the Union to become a serious geopolitical actor, make strategic choices and strengthen its defence capacity. The disciplines of competition policy and the stability and growth pact are partly but not fully restored. No way is found to force adherence to the rule of law. A more ambitious Common European Asylum System cannot be agreed. Fundamental questions of political accountability and democratic legitimacy remain unresolved.
For the Union to have got where it has over the last seventy years is remarkable. That it functions as well as it does is an everyday miracle made possible by an ingrained culture of compromise and an underlying commitment to the idea of a shared Europe. The concept of European cooperation remains compelling, even if the everyday action of the Union is little understood and rarely inspirational. Through the crises of the past decade it has shown remarkable resilience and a will to survive. Federalist grand visions have largely faded away, but a realistic pragmatism has proven adequate – so far.
But it would be complacent to think that what is will always be. Empires fall and states fail. The EU is neither, but is not immune from history. There have been moments ‑ most recently after the end of the Cold War, with the Treaty of Maastricht and the great enlargement of 2004 – where the Union has decided to leap forward. But that is no guarantee that the reverse is impossible, even though the risk of gradual atrophy may be greater than that of sudden collapse.
Fundamentally, will the pandemic change the world as much as some think and hope, energising EU leaders to agree on a programme of deep reform and persuading public opinion to support that programme? Will it instead eventually reinforce nationalism and populism and their centrifugal tendencies? Or, after the great flood has receded, will we return to the dreary steeples of business as usual, in which debates are launched and declarations made but never actually lead to much?
Practitioners (such as I was myself) always find it easier to imagine a future much like the past and present, and to find reasons why neither dreams nor nightmares will come true. Even so, from time to time it is salutary to listen to visionaries and catastrophists, and to wonder if either could sometime be proved right.
Rory Montgomery was Ireland’s permanent representative to the European Union from 2009 to 2013, and ambassador to France from 2013 to 2014. From 2014 until his retirement in 2019 he was successively second secretary general with responsibility for EU issues in the Departments of the Taoiseach and of Foreign Affairs and Trade.