If progress is best measured in increments, then April 23 was a better day for the “European Project” than April 9, which is a bit like saying the morning after a disastrous fire is better than the previous day, when the flames took hold. For those looking for signs that the EU 27 are finally pulling themselves together in time to defeat the horrors of the coronavirus and the resulting economic-shutdown, hard evidence remains thin on the ground.
In place of solidarity, there is division. Instead of trust, there is mutual suspicion. And where there should be firm leadership, there is only a vacuum.
Everyone knows this. On Thursday, Angela Merkel risked a political crisis at home when she conceded that if the EU was to survive Germany would in future have to pay much higher contributions to the budget. At the same time, Emmanuel Macron warned that the EU could unravel if it didn’t stand shoulder to shoulder not just with Italy and Spain, but with France. In Rome, rivals of the acting prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, threatened to ignore the authority of Brussels, even the Treaty of Rome itself, if Italy is not given the financial support it so desperately needs.
And so it was that yesterday, 23 April, the leaders of the European Council, meeting by video link, decided that the decisions on aid for the South taken by their colleagues in the Finance Council two weeks previously were not necessarily the last word on the subject.
On that occasion, ministers had come up with a package, costed at €500bn (£430bn), the bulk of which would be raised from within the existing EU Stability Pact, which offers cheap loans to governments in good standing with the Commission in Brussels. The rest would be scavanged from unused funds and petty cash.
To put it mildly, no one was impressed. Giuseppe Conte – a rare political moderate – said that neither the amount nor the means of delivery was sufficient. He wasn’t interested in loans, he said. He wanted “solidarity,” which in Italian, as in Spanish – thought not, interestingly, in German or Dutch – turns out to mean hard cash. In particular, he wanted the skinflints of the North to invest in the hard-hit South by buying into “coronabonds,” in which the risk would be shared equally.
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The Netherlands, led by an increasingly combative Mark Rutte, was having none of that, and nor were the representatives of Austria, Denmark, Sweden or – crucially – Germany
But that was April 9.
Yesterday, after a week in which criticism of EU impotence grew increasingly shrill, the Council, headed by Charles Michel, the former prime minister of Belgium, logged in again, This time, after six hours of on-screen debate, none of it made public, it promised nothing less than a Joint Roadmap for Recovery, the details of which would be discussed at yet another viurtual meeting to be held on May 6. With any luck, we were told, the map, upscaled and built around a new network of highways, would be offered for sale on June 1, allowing all lost souls to find their way safely home.
Those with memories of President George W Bush’s “roadmap” for peace in the Middle East might wonder if the EU is not heading up a blind alley. Two top-level meetings already and a third in prospect, with no guarantee of a solution endorsed by the supply side of the argument nevermind those making the demands.
Giuseppe Conte, in office in the Chigi Palace only because he is not any of the other candidates, did his best to sound optimistic about the latest Zoom Summit. Progress had been made, he said, almost certainly with fingers crossed. Not so, said Luigi di Maio, the foreign minister and effective leader of the anti-everything Five-Star movement. According to Di Maio, the deal on offer was a betrayal and his party would never endorse it. Given that the coalition arrangement with the centre-left Democratic party is hanging by a thread and that the other big populist party, La Liga, is equally opposed to what is currently on the table, there seems little likelihood that Rome will swallow its pride anytime soon.
But, of course, May 6 remains in the calendar, to say nothing of June 1. Better jam tomorrow than no jam at all.
What all of the above brings into sharp focus is the atmosphere of unreality that now hangs over the Quartier Européen in Brussels. Ursula von der Lyen, formerly Germany’s defence minister, was appointed President of the European Commission with a brief to draw a line under Brexit and to introduce policies tailored to the needs of a greener, leaner Europe. The Old Order had had its day, she said. A new generation, attuned to Green Revolution, had been put in place that was entitled to the trust and loyalty of all Europeans. But with Covid-19 making a mockery of the Schengen accords, with the economy in tatters and with the survival of the single currency no longer assured, she is more like Pope Boniface VIII, who in 1302 issued a papal bull placing all Christendom’s kings and their armies under his command only to be humiliated by Europe’s true rulers and consigned by Dante to his eighth circle of Hell.
In an attempt to assert her relevance, and that of Brussels, Von der Leyen invited all EU governments, as well as Britain (in transition to Brexit), to join a common procurement scheme that would negotiate the purchase of masks, personal protection equipment, ventilators and drugs at rates not available to individual states. Britain did not take part, either because of a mix-up or, more likely, because it was by now set on following its own course. As things turned out, the scheme didn’t amount to much – a bit like Britain’s procurement relationship with Turkey – and a relaunch has been ordered that is more ambitious but will have to prove itself in an extremely competitive global market.
And, apart from the bombast, that was that.
Speaking of which, no summit, whether real or virtual, ever ends without fluff, and this week’s was no exception.
“We welcome the Joint Roadmap for Recovery,” said a statement signed by Charles Michel on behalf of all 27 governments. “It sets out some important principles, such as solidarity, cohesion and convergence. It further defines four key areas for action: a fully functioning Single Market, an unprecedented investment effort, acting globally, and a functioning system of governance.”
Meanwhile, a blast from the past. Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit supremo, has popped up to accuse the British government of “failing to engage substantially” on key aspects of the current trade talks. It all sounded rather pitiful. The UK, he said, did not wish to commit seriously on a number of fundamental points, including access by EU trawlers to British territorial waters, so that there were now “legitimate questions” to be asked about whether or not the talks should proceed.
He may well be right on this. Barnier probably thought that, after the feeding frenzies of recent years, it was now safe to go back in the water. He should know better by now. Britain’s prime minister may not have had much chance to bare his teeth in recent days, but he is still a shark.