By Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), Maria Joao Rodrigues
With COVID 19, humankind seems to be confronted with one of the biggest global vital challenges ever. A highly contagious virus without vaccine seems to melt down the social fabric in almost all areas of our collective life. This will be a hard test for our human bodies, but also for the values we want to uphold and the kind of societies we want to build up. Against egoistic and myopic views, this should be the moment to reinvent a progressive sense of solidarity, freedom and responsibility, bold action, democratic vitality and a deeper engagement in European and international cooperation.
Solidarity will be the first big test. At the beginning there was denial and disguise about the severity of this public health problem. The most clamorous recent case was President Trump in US, until the moment the rising alerts forced him to recognise the scope of the problem. This was followed by his shocking attempt to take over the European company which is most advanced in finding the urgent vaccine for the exclusive benefit of his own country. This is the best examples of how far nationalism can go.
By contrast,the EU must launch a bold undertaking to discover this vaccine and make it a global public good in cooperation with the United Nations.There is also a political choice to be made when it comes the organisation of health care services. Those countries counting on strong comprehensive public services are better prepared to provide free access to large-scale testing of the virus and free treatment for those already infected. Therefore, they are more able to control the spread of the disease. Another big EU undertaking should also be launched to use Artificial Intelligence and big data in order to identify the best practices to contain the disease.
Freedom and responsibility will be the second big test. Of course, we cherish, and we want to keep our freedom to move across places and across borders as a fundamental right, including inside the European Union. But how can we combine this with a sense of responsibility of protecting ourselves and all the others? In the current circumstances, mobility channels must be selected and organised with care for those in real need, be it in urban public transports, aviation or cargo transportation, preserving as much as possible essential activities and jobs which cannot go digital.
In parallel, a large collective experimentation and re-creation should be encouraged to reorganise other activities and jobs in the digital area, helping the transition to a low-carbon economy. Our daily life will never be again as it used to be. The European Union is well suited to organise such a far-reaching experimentation in an inclusive way, reducing social inequalities in the access to education, culture, general information and services of collective interest.
In spite of this, the risk of massive jobs losses must become a central concern. Bold action will be required, and this will be the third big test. Some sectors such as transports, tourism and manufacturing activities will be particularly hit. The European institutions and several governments are already announcing measures on the social and economic fronts. On the social one: extending sick pay, deferring income tax payments, funding lay-off schemes. In the economic one: more flexibility in the Stability and Growth Pact, liquidity facilities and delayed tax payments for companies, public guarantees for banks keep lending.
Nevertheless, in face of a new tsunami with demand and supply falling sharply, “doing whatever it takes” will mean to reinvent much bigger bazookas: the ECB might need to move from quantitative easing to direct bonds purchase, and even more so as the argument of moral hazard is no longer relevant. The EMU might be forced – finally! – to create a real budgetary capacity to provide stabilisation and upward convergence, including a European unemployment (re)insurance. A European treasury should be able to borrow on the markets in order to provide indispensable public resources, giving a new use to the European Stability Mechanism. The time of Eurobonds should come.
But the biggest test will be about democracy at all levels. Are we going to a retrenchment behind our walls, houses, local and national borders or can we re-energise our bonds to help each other, to debate, to invent and to organise better solutions on all these fronts? Participatory democracy should become vibrant and citizenship should become demanding on the capacity of governments and parliamentarians to launch much bolder initiatives. The European institutions will be in the front line of this democratic scrutiny in order to deliver a Europe who protects.
This corona virus will be the greatest test to our values and will force us to make clearer choices: either being bold in our – personal, local, national, European and international – solidarity or hesitating and collapsing.
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