By Manon Aubry and Martin Schirdewan
Covid-19 has brought the world to a standstill, claiming thousands of lives and bringing economic hardship to millions.
As EU governments now take steps towards reopening, the need to avoid the mistakes of the past and reimagine the European project is greater than ever.
The pandemic caught the EU unprepared.
Its early days saw member states competing against each other for medical supplies, then wrangling over who foots the bill for the rescue package and, only belatedly, approving a set of insufficient economic measures to address the emergency.
While some of the funds may be suitable for the short-term, they do not tackle the serious structural deficiencies that have made us vulnerable to this shock.
The full scope of consequences is yet to become clear but, as families struggle and businesses falter, we know that the decisions the EU takes today will determine the viability of its project and, arguably, its very existence.
The painful memories of the 2008 economic crisis are vivid for many Europeans. The EU bailed out banks while punishing citizens who were told they had to tighten their belts and pay for banker greed.
Across Europe, governments implemented cruel austerity measures that saw cuts to budgets for hospitals and general healthcare, the weakening of vital safety nets, and a spate of privatisations of public goods.
These measures were promoted and enforced by the European Commission and the European Central Bank. The result was increased poverty and greater citizen alienation from those in power.
Over the last decade, profound inequalities and social injustices have prevailed due to the blind application of neoliberal dogma by elites, fuelling the rise of far-right parties across Europe.
The onset of this pandemic laid bare the damage caused by years of cuts, in particular to our healthcare systems. Brussels must take its share of the blame for this.
Privatised by diktat
Between 2011 and 2018, the Commission issued 63 instructions to member states to reduce healthcare spending or privatise health services on the back of the so-called Stability and Growth Pact.
It is crucial for European countries to mobilise all the necessary resources to strengthen public health systems, nationalising healthcare facilities if need be.
We need to increase funding for medical research and make sure it is free of intellectual property restrictions, institute a real European health planning framework and pool resources for joint production of medical equipment and medicines.
The pandemic is accentuating existing inequalities in society.
Contrary to what we often hear, Covid-19 is not an ‘equaliser’ as it did not affect all people equally – like the thousands of refugees unable to practice social distancing in the crammed Greek refugee camps due to the failure of EU solidarity.
Or the millions of precarious workers, those on zero-hours contracts or in the so-called gig economy, who found themselves without jobs or a social safety net.
Behind the EU’s aggressive moves towards a ‘flexible’ job market is the constant erosion of labour rights and job security, turning workers into tools to enrich company bosses. Yet it is those workers, many of whom are women, who carried us through this pandemic.
The EU must ensure the protection and dignity of all workers and leave no one behind.
We cannot see a repeat of what happened post-2008 where banks and corporations that received billions of euros in tax-payer funded bailouts continued to pay millions of euros in dividends and six-figure salaries to top management.
Finally, the pandemic exposed the unsustainability of global supply chains.
Thousands of deaths into this pandemic, member states still have not been able to source enough personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers and citizens at large.
The trade deals such as those the EU has signed with Canada and Vietnam or the recently concluded agreement with Mexico, have served to outsource production of vital products, weakening our independence and ability to respond to crisis. It is time for a new industrial strategy that relocates vital industries back to the EU and for a new fair trade policy focused on sustainable development and respect for the environment.
The EU must not repeat the same mistakes it made following the 2008 economic crisis. This means an end to conditionalities on EU support.
This is a collective crisis where the failure of one is the failure of all – no country should bear the costs alone.
Therefore, issuing mutualised debt, or ‘coronabonds’, and, preferably, direct ECB lending in the form of interest-free debt to member states is crucial.
The Covid-19 crisis should strengthen our determination to fight for a Europe that works for people and the planet before greed and profit.
For that to truly happen we need a viable alternative in a post-pandemic Europe. That is why the Left is launching a call for a radical reimagining of the EU.
Solidarity is the cure.
Follow GUE/NGL on Twitter at @GUENGL.
This article was originally published in the EU Observer on 12 May and has been reprinted here with the permission of the authors.