The European Union had to face the COVID pandemic after a long succession of internal crises and in a scenario of many questions about the political, economic and social future of all the countries of the Union. The public debt crisis of 2010 was followed by the migration crisis of 2015 and the effects of Brexit in 2016. The onset of the pandemic in late 2019 and early 2020 were not exactly a management success, nor from the point of view of view of multilateral organizations (WHO, G20) or from the intergovernmental point of view in the European institutional framework.
All this found the European Union in a delicate institutional moment, with a significant increase in the pressure exerted from the Eurosceptic national-populist sectors, which was finding an echo in the sectors of the population most affected by the successive episodes of crisis. Inequalities had been increasing both at the European level and in many of the member countries, the degree of uncertainty can be considered radical, the complexity of actors (due to their fragmentation) and cross-interference has continued to increase, and EU policies they were characterized in that scenario by their ambiguity and by a logic of “pulling away.” The demands for protection on the part of large sectors of the population were increasing and the capacities of the Member States were not exactly the best suited to meet those demands.
Since its founding moments in the 50s of the last century, it was explicitly wanted to prevent community organizations from intervening in the social sphere, both on the grounds that economic development itself would end up overcoming existing problems of poverty and social inequality and on understanding that policies Social and redistributive measures had to be in the hands of the Member States as significant levers of legitimacy. The advances that have taken place in the area of non-discrimination, etc., have occurred more as a consequence of the logic of non-interference in the dynamics of free competition and from the perspective of avoiding barriers to commercial logic. The EU, in this sense, we could say that it has neither specifically democratic objectives or policies (in the line of Bobbio, to fight inequality) nor does it have a fully democratic institutional functioning (in decision-making processes, not directly elective, nor in the dynamics of accountability.
The pandemic has put an end to that trend, at least temporarily. Forcing a very significant reinforcement of the EU’s capacity for action. Especially in what we could call enforceability (direct capacity for action by the Council, Commission and ECB). For example, creating the UE4Health quickly, increasing the capacity for action in cybersecurity, negotiating and distributing vaccine quotas or, especially, creating a Development Fund endowed with 750,000 million euros. The acceleration in proactive trends has been evident, leading to the generation of a community public debt and announcing its own fiscal policy, now timidly implemented with a plastics tax at the border but announcing its own package in June 2024.
All of this shows a “politicization” of EU activity, in the sense of taking a proactive approach to populist and anti-European logic that could take advantage of the pandemic situation to reinforce reactive national sovereignty. And in the face of this growing threat, the response could only be more interventionist and democratizing.
It is in this symptomatic sense that the group of so-called “frugal” countries (Sweden, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands) accepted (which they had not done in the 2008 crisis) the Franco-German proposal for the creation of the recovery fund, understanding and accepting that only from the general economic interdependence of the EU could a solution be sought to the sum of crises that the pandemic incorporated and increased and that threatened to increase if possible the already sufficiently generalized social discontent.
The doubts now can in any case focus on the extent to which the Recovery Fund initiative implies a real and profound change to the developmental and incremental policies implemented so far. All this framed in the debate on whether the decisions of the EU or the initiative of Biden on the “Green New Deal” implies, in fact, the end of neoliberalism. Rather, what we are seeing is a recovery from the developmental centrism of environmental dynamics. Terms such as “Green Growth” or “Build back Better” are rather illustrative of managing a “green modernization” process that does not involve substantive changes over previous models and guidelines. The differences with Roosevelt’s New Deal are significant, both due to the absence of long- and medium-term planning and a more than notable presence of the private sector in what was then a strictly public investment logic.
From a more political point of view, the doubts are raised in seeing to what extent the new initiatives, taken with a notable consensus between the Council, Commission and ECB, end up opting for a new model of community decision, in which the set of actors ( also the European Parliament) is guaranteed its effective participation. The increasing weight of experts and technicians in the entire configuration of policies and in their monitoring contrasts with significant losses of capacities in many of the member states, and this can contribute both to supranationalism and to the loss of capacity for democratic control. In fact, it is not strange that some countries look to the European alibi (“the EU will not let us”) to respond to the criticism that some of the policies they implement generate. Doubts remain about how to advance in the European construction, if maintaining the differentiation (geometry and variable rhythms) or taking advantage of the situation to reinforce federalizing logics.
Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the evident change in the dynamics, content and decision-making processes in the EU ends up generating an advance in institutional democratization or further reinforces the supranational technocratic drive. In the same way, we have yet to verify if the Next Generation funds are effectively implemented in new perspectives that modify developmental trends that are considered obsolete from the environmental point of view, or if it ends up considering that resilience simply means continuing to do what we already did. .