Dark Days for European Democracy Post-Coronavirus

Liberal democracies do not do well after major crises. Fratricide and totalitarianism haunted Europe after the economic collapse of 1929. Trumpism in America and populist nationalism in Europe are the legacies of the financial crash of 2008 and the ensuing global recession, as are the rise of the far-right and far-left.  One would have to be of Panglossian proportions to expect politics to return to normal in Europe once the COVID-19 crisis comes to an end, whenever that may be.  

The COVID-19 outbreak in Europe has now quickly escalated, in a matter of just weeks, from a public health crisis into an economic crisis. Serious economists reckon a global recession has already begun. Many European governments are now forecasting negative growth rates this year, and the worst might still yet to come. Indeed, a major economic downturn is all but certain if containment in Europe and the United States continues for several more months, which is likely, and if a stunting of trade with Europe and the US prevents the Chinese economy from recovering as quickly as many in Beijing hoped it would in early March, when the number of new COVID-19 cases in China began to decline. 

Some economies won’t survive. Unemployment will skyrocket. Many small firms will disappear. And it’s hard to see how the likes of the IMF and EU can return to the days of sabre-rattling over constrained budgets and low deficits now that most European governments have announced bailouts that combined will cost trillions of euros.   

But the question is whether a public health crisis that quickly became an economic crisis will soon mutate into a political crisis. As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in Europe – and thousands more people will probably die – it may sound morbid to speak about what happens when the crisis comes to an end. But if Allied leaders could give so much thought during the Second World War as what a post-war international order would look like – an international order that survives up until now, though for how much longer in uncertain – we ought not to be too squeamish about thinking ahead to a post-coronavirus world.

It’s a bleak forecast, however. Politics weren’t rosy in Europe even before COVID-19 hit the continent. Another migrant crisis was brewing, with Turkey threatening to send thousands of migrants to shores of Greece and other Mediterranean states if Brussels didn’t increase its sordid payments to Ankara. Democracy and rule of law were already failing in places like Hungary and Poland. Authoritarian China and Russia were increasing their influence on the continent. And the EU was wounded by Brexit and its inability to enforce democratic values amongst its own member states. 

But COVID-19 could be fatal for the EU. Brussels has shown itself at its most feeble during this crisis, while the quick-to-hand response of almost all member states has been to rely upon themselves, not an extra-national institution. Institutions should be judged at their most difficult moments, and the EU has been found wanting. This is the kind of thing nationalists have been crowing about years; that internationalism and federalism are dangers at times of crisis; that member states ought to take back more authority. 

If raising borders proves the silver bullet to curtailing the spread of COVID-19 in Europe, it will be difficult for champions of free-movement to take the political high-ground once the crisis ends. Indeed, now that borders have gone up across Europe for the first time in decades, they may be difficult to pull down again, especially as there is now precedent in times of emergency. Hungary and other member states may well argue that should another migrant crisis happen, it is enough of a “national security” concern as the coronavirus to restrict border travel. (Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has already started scapegoating migration for the coronavirus outbreak.) If so, they would also face less censure from other European states, which have now reasoned that borders can protect their own citizens from outside threats. 

No doubt, there will also be more calls for economic protectionism, especially in healthcare sectors, which have been drastically short on supplies because of affected supply-chains in Asia. If we are heading towards a global recession, as seems to be the case, mercantilism will become more popular with publics. The international community is now arguably at its weakest in decades, while tensions between the US and China appear to be worsening, too.

It is unknown how weeks, if not months, of social exclusion will affect our societies. There is now talk of a “social recession” of physical and psychological consequences as the crisis ensues. On the other hand, the COVID-19 disaster has brought communitarianism back into national debates, with appeals for individuals to sacrifice their own desires and needs for the sake of the community at large. This is a correct response during a crisis but potentially terrifying if it continues afterwards. 

The greatest concern is how liberal democracies emerge from this crisis. For many, Europe’s democracies have proven to be weak, ineffectual and incompetent in stemming the COVID-19 outbreak, while strong, authoritarian states like China are now viewed as potential models of how governments should operate. Of course, this isn’t true. It was China’s authoritarian system that meant the coronavirus was hushed up between late November and early January, when transparency and honesty might have prevented a global crisis. Still, Chinese propaganda is working on overtime, spouting the increasingly believed line that the only countries that have dealt successfully with the pandemic have “based their responses on the experience and lessons drawn from China’s successful battle with the virus,” as the state-run China Daily recently put it. Beijing’s soft power relations in Europe have greatly benefitted from the crisis.  

All crises – and especially those that combine public health and economic disasters – have in history tended to be followed by major political recalibrations, mostly towards stronger, more authoritative and controlling states. This may well be the prescription for Europe post-coronavirus. All this may sound alarmist, but it’s better to be a pessimist proven wrong than an incorrect optimistic; better think of the worst and hope it turns out better.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.