Are political responses to current pandemic hastening the disintegration of European co-operation? 

The global coronavirus crisis has revealed the range and significance of existing social and economic inequalities, from the pay rates and working conditions of health and social care workers, the unequal protections of different types of workers, to the regard and treatment of older people and migrants.  The responses of different governments and within systems of governance such as the EU or within union and federal states has flagged structural and institutional deficiencies, as well as spotlighting the characteristics and personalities of political leaders.  The crisis, as with all ruptures of such magnitude, also presents an opportunity for reflection and learning for us as individuals, academic researchers and teachers, and as policy influencers.  The new blog series from the WISE Centre for Economic Justice offers a small contribution to the extensive debate worldwide on what ‘new normal’ is emerging, and what opportunities there are for re-thinking and re-doing established ways of characterising and valuing work, care, citizenship, income, and many other concepts that structure our everyday lives.

In the first of our series, Prof Umut Korkut of the RESPOND project and Dr James Foley of the Department of Social Sciences reflect on the implications of the pandemic and the movement of people for the multi-lateralism that was once at the heart of the EU project.


Are political responses to current pandemic hastening the disintegration of European co-operation? 

Researchers from the RESPOND project reflect on some of the fundamental issues and fractures in the idea of European integration.

As part of the EC Horizon 2020 funded research project RESPOND: Multilevel Governance of Migration in Europe and Beyond (2017-2020), a team of researchers at GCU, have been looking into how everyday experiences of European integration have affected European citizens’ deliberations on the future of EU integration.

In recent weeks, as we observe the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, and governmental responses across Europe and global, we are increasingly witnessing the breakdown of multilateralism and a parallel search for nationalist, rather than pan-European solutions to crises. The responses to the coronavirus crisis are showing how European multilateralism is continuing to fracture into bilateralism and unilateralism. The last decade of European politics and responses to the financial problems and economic impacts that hit the Eurozone since 2008, the sudden increase in the number of irregular migrant arrivals in 2015, and most recently the coronavirus crisis could suggest a reduction of European multilateralism to unilateralism. Does this mean then that European integration is a fair-weather process? How has it come to lose its ground-breaking trajectory, which earlier brought about a Single Market, monetary integration, and the Schengen agreement?

We need to contextualise the immediate border closures and the obstructions to the Single Market, particularly in terms of cross-border trade of medical products and protective gear, as a way to underpin the European countries’ search for nationalist solutions faced with crises.

Established theories of EU integration had focused on what processes led national actors to construct supranational institutions. In other words, they were sighted on the puzzle of explaining the nature of, the influences on and ultimately the success of European integration. By contrast, the Europeanisation literature has focused on domestic politics, looking at how participation in and exposure to “Europe” was affecting politics, policy and polity. The possibility of conflict, contestation and resistance over identity was sometimes a feature of the literature. Nonetheless, the literature largely acted under the perceived influence of a general consensus over the course of EU integration.  Recently, however, there has been a shift in Europeanisation research, which increasingly foregrounds how identity contributed to the politicisation of the Euro and Schengen crises.

In our research on migration for the RESPOND project, we are now reflecting on the growing importance of national identities, and the normalisation of movements and parties labelled as “Eurosceptic”. However, we have also sought to consider the additional puzzles that emerge when such movements, far from leading to processes of disintegration, are instead normalised in the mainstream of European institutions. The “salience” of these populist movements is increasingly reflected not in institutional ruptures but rather in a framing of “Europe” as a civilisation under threat, perhaps by internal enemies, but, especially, in national and the Commission discourse, by movements of external migration.

The coronavirus crisis makes us consider a new element of such ruptures. This time beyond populist parties, mainstream political actors and governments turned to nationalist solutions imminently. Possible pan-European political solutions have failed to materialise, and the EU has become irrelevant for a few weeks as its member states closed their borders for a while refusing entry first to Italians then to all non-nationals. As inconceivable as it sounds, European citizens lost their right of free travel as national border controls were imposed. We have been used to seeing internal border controls targeting irregular migrants within the Schengen zone since 2015. However, the coronavirus crisis has showed yet another element of how feeble European co-operation was when Schengen members such as Slovakia and Denmark became the first states to close their borders to “foreigners”. Single market also took its toll with border controls and customs checks involving medical equipment.

In considering the current state of European politics and European integration facing the coronavirus crisis, our aim as the RESPOND team is to explore some of the limits of existing disciplinary and theoretical assumptions about the function of “Europe” in domestic politics and the impact of how earlier populist realignments on perceived European norms have become mainstream. The devolution of multilateralism to unilateralism at the face of crises needs attention in research and policy practice involving the EU.

Professor Umut Korkut and Dr James Foley

WISE Centre for Social and Economic Justice –

Glasgow Caledonian University

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