Although tensions have risen between countries during the coronavirus outbreak, the pandemic has made the need for greater international cooperation clear, argues Alexandru Filip.
The coronavirus has shown the need for greater international cooperation and compromise. As developments over the past half decade have made clear, the world is becoming an ever-smaller place, turning into an effective global village. It is more interlinked and integrated than ever before, and exchanges between communities are taking place at an ever-expanding pace.
Just like in the proverbial village, the world is finding itself having to deal with it a series of uphill struggles reminiscent of the tragedy of the commons. In the modern world, these manifest themselves in a variety of ways, from armed conflict and refugee crises, to climate change and pollution, to global pandemics. These are all problems that no country alone can tackle and solve, and just like in the tragedy of the commons, require a setup for monitoring developments and an institutional setup to deal with problems arising from them. At the global level, this means there is a need for a renewed momentum to support and encourage internationalism and international institutions.
The pandemic seems to have hit the Mediterranean countries of Italy, Spain and France the hardest in Europe, with these countries registering the highest death tolls so far. As it so happens, these are also countries that had been experiencing sluggish economic growth prior to the outbreak as well. Recently, it has been estimated that Greece will be among the hardest hit country, economically. While the country managed the outbreak relatively well due to disciplined quarantine action, it is
Several policies have been put into place to contain the economic damage. The EU has agreed that national public expenses caused by battling the outbreak will not count towards the stringent deficit rules that shackle Eurozone countries in the so-called ‘golden straightjacket‘ of eurozone membership. Furthermore, EU finance ministers agreed on a 500 billion euro emergency plan to help shield European economies from the negative fallout.
These measures have, nevertheless, not been enough to quell disquiet in Europe. Accusations flowed back and forth between southern and northern European officials in discussion about how to help European economies. While the southern European countries would like to see more solidarity, the ‘frugal’ northern European countries (including Germany, although the Dutch stole the spotlight in the debate) are hesitant to react. Southern European countries have asked for the creation of ‘coronabonds’ to help their economies in the face of the current onslaught, but opponents to this move see it as just another form of ‘Eurobonds’ repackaged.
It also must not be forgotten that – at least in the case of Italy – debts stems from longer time ago, and that as such austerity there has been a burden for longer than just the present decade.
For the EU North, further fiscal centralisation without conditions would be deemed to be undemocratic, due to existing treaties, constitutions, and fear by taxpayers that they cannot hold countries in the South accountable for how the money is used. For the EU South, It would create situations in which a sovereign country’s elected government could not discretely shape its own policies – it would have to gain the acceptance of other stakeholders (other EU member states and institutions such as the EU Commission and ECB) before it can enact the social (but not only) policies and political programme on the basis of which it was elected by voters to begin with. Simply put, it would have to ask for permission before enacting the will of the majority. From the North’s perspective, it would be undemocratic for politicians in other countries to use pooled resources that include the tax base of the north without asking permission of voters there first.
As it stands, the problem is the same old one, usually ending in more futile positions of ‘my democracy’ versus ‘your democracy’.
At the same time, as it also stands, it has been said far too many times that the current arrangement of the Eurozone (with common monetary policy but no common fiscal policy) is unsustainable in the long run, and that something will have to give. This unbalanced situation creates policy dilemmas of the type that prompted Dani Rodrik to conceive of his Trilemma of Globalization – ‘the golden straightjacket’ is commonly used to refer to the limits on public policy that Eurozone membership sets.
There is, truth be told, But there is only so much that south European economies can take before life becomes unsustainable for them within the current arrangement. After the many years of austerity post Euro-crisis, the corona crisis now threatens
No end to globalisation
While many are writing off globalisation in the face of the pandemic, perhaps the coming months will be what is part of an unavoidable trend towards internationalisation that nobody (not even the populist nationalists of this world) can stop. And if said trend is unavoidable, perhaps it’s best to get ahead of it process and steer it?
Somewhat relatedly to this, one cannot help observe the effect that international institutions have had from one further perspective.
For all the distress and pessimism about present day politics, economics, and the world more generally, it would perhaps be good to take a step back and look at the ‘big picture’.
The first two decades of this century bore a certain symmetry to the same period of the previous one: armed conflicts in the middle east and Europe marred the years 1914-1918 and a global disease wreaked havoc on the world in the following two. That is mirrored to a degree in the new Millennium, within which most public attention was captivated by armed conflict in Ukraine and Syria, the refugee crisis caused by it, and the coronavirus outbreak which has put nearly half the world on lockdown. While the order of the ‘crises’ of the two epochs is symmetrical, their scale is anything but. And that is partly due to the web of global governance institutions that have been set up over the past decades.
From the very beginning of the virus’ outbreak in Wuhan, the World Health Organization – while heavily criticized for not having taken a tough enough stance on China – was constantly monitoring the situation in Asia and updating the international community on the situation, eventually declaring the outbreak a pandemic. The WHO helped network information to the medical communities within each country, which in turn informed their respective governments, which resulted in the highly similar responses we .
Arguably, without the WHO, there would have been less clarity, information, and consistency in measures against the pandemic, and more of a mosaic of independent policies which when drawing the line, results in less control over the spread of the outbreak. Undoubtedly, a counterfactual world without the WHO to maintain a watch over various disease vectors would arguably result in more fatalities and less common, if not coordinated, action. The first decades of this century began with a much stronger network of international institutions and cooperation mechanisms in place than the previous one. It could be one of the reasons for which this century has been so far much tamer than the previous one. The 20th century saw – after armed conflict and a deadly pandemic – a grave economic depression hit the world in the 1920’s and 30’s. If we are to stave of a similar crisis in our not-so-roaring 20’s, we must put in place the necessary instruments for economic cooperation and compromise.
It is fashionable to take shots at global governance structures and institutions, and to deem them ineffective, weak, politicised, but at the end of the day they do fulfill the functions they were designed for (not always to an enough degree to make everybody happy, but that is a different discussion).
Instead of running away from international structures, one should never miss a good crisis (or opportunity) to help bring countries closer together.
Alexandru Filip is a former Dahrendorf Post-doctoral Fellow at the Hertie School.