Paradigm shifts in the course of history need, in our view, at least one of two conditions – a colossal crisis and bold, inspirational political leadership. The Second World War led to one such shift, as Europe emerged ruined, losing millions to death, poverty and homelessness. Outstanding leadership was provided by the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the French Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Robert Schuman and the Italian Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi, who worked indefatigably for the creation of what is today the European Union. They were supported by a generous and far-sighted US Administration that conditioned its Marshall Plan on a united Western Europe.
The current crisis reveals the depth and severity of the European problem – the loss of soul, sense of mission and leadership
Another paradigmatic junction in the history of Europe occurred with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc was an event of vast proportions that was navigated under the courageous leadership of US President George Bush, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, French President Francois Mitterrand and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who understood the enormity of the moment and the necessity of the decision not to apply brutal force to try and save the Soviet Empire as his predecessors did in 1956 and 1968.
While it may be too early to judge the full impact of the crisis, the words of Pope Francis that “the European Union is presently facing an Epochal Challenge” are an apt description. Will the EU leaders rise to the challenge, overcome longstanding reservations, and take historic decisions that are essential to continue the integration process, and to demonstrate solidarity?
Their response, so far, does not bode well.
The current crisis reveals the depth and severity of the European problem – the loss of soul, sense of mission and leadership. Despite tension from the start between the powers of the individual member-state and the central European Union institutions, members gradually delegated more authority. But in recent years, the role of the EU has shrunk for reasons that include its bloated costs and failure to deepen integration, the emergence of nationalist and populist movements that exploited the 2008 financial crisis, and the wave of refugees and the breakaway of the UK.
The current crisis, its human losses and the devastating long term implications found the member states ready to act in unison, but only up to a point. At the recent meeting of the 19 Eurogroup Finance Ministers, members failed to rise to the Epochal Challenge. At stake was the mobilization of enormous financial resources needed for the recovery of those member states that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. A proposal to issue Eurobonds or Corona Bonds was defeated as mostly North European members (Germany and Holland) refused to share direct financial responsibility with mostly South European members (Italy, France and Spain). Instead of seizing the moment and rising to the Epochal Challenge, they opted to let their southern neighbors languish.
The failure to mobilize vast financial resources through creating debt threatens to leave Europe lagging behind other major economies such as the US and China in the race to emerge from the economic rapid free fall. While the US has successfully employed the national debt as a strategy, and China has benefited tremendously from the hybrid of a central-communist government in control of the private sector and its productive capacity for state purposes, Europe will lag behind in an inferior position.
The manner in which the EU mobilizes itself in dealing with various domestic ramifications of the Corona crisis will also impact its ability to channel political and financial resources to the MIddle East.
Looking back at EU engagement in the region since it launched its ambitious Barcelona Process project (1995), it is worth noting the very considerable gap between repeated declarations about the importance of the region for EU interests, and the resources it was willing to allocate to address the needs of the region. Given the challenges that the EU will face in dealing with the consequences of the current pandemic it is highly doubtful that the pattern of operation towards the region will change.
It is also unlikely that the crisis will have any impact on EU involvement in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a subject that has dominated the EU agenda for five decades. The Palestinian side will continue to push the EU to continue to adopt what is perceived to be a pro-Palestinian stance, and Israel will continue to view the EU position as unbalanced and as tilting towards the Palestinian positions.
The ongoing Israeli steps in the West Bank, which the EU considers a violation of international law, have led to fundamental disagreements with the outcome in the absence of a high level bilateral dialogue. The recent announcement by President Trump outlining his ideas for settling the conflict, leading Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to announce his intention to annex territory, has already triggered a negative reaction from the EU High Representative. It is unlikely that the EU’s threats to retaliate if the incoming Israeli government annexes will lead Israel to reconsider its position
Shimon Stein and Oded Eran were Israel’s Ambassadors to Germany and the EU respectively. Both are currently senior researchers at the Tel Aviv Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).
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