Körber History Forum > History & Politics Dialogue with Philipp Ther

History & Politics Dialogue with Philipp Ther

The Covid-19 Crisis as Challenge and Opportunity

With Germany presiding over the Council of the European Union until the end of 2020, and while the continent is facing exceptional challenges, Körber-Stiftung hosted award-winning historian Philipp Ther for an online debate with experts and opinion leaders.

Opening the History & Politics Dialogue, the professor for Eastern European History and director of the Centre for the History of Transformations (RECET) at the University of Vienna remarked on the extraordinary situation in which the European Union currently finds itself. While the term “crisis” might seem overused, it can still serve as a point of departure in analysing the most recent past of the EU, which has experienced numerous incisive situations of social, political and economical urgency in the last decade. These crises – ranging from the financial and debt crises of 2008-2012, through the refugee crisis of 2015, the “annus horribilis” of 2016 to the current Covid19 pandemic – have shown fragility and discord among member states. Yet, Ther remarked, the fate of the Union would not hinge only on its ability to manoeuvre through crises, but rather on its ability to address systemic deficits.

The current state of the EU:  Three observations

On that basis, Ther presented three core hypotheses regarding the current state of the European Union. Firstly, he pointed out that the EU’s self-understanding of an association of liberal democracies was at odds with the reality of a growing number of illiberal initiatives and regimes in its midst. Most notably, Ther outlined the troubling tendencies of illiberal regime consolidation witnessed in Hungary under Viktor Orbán since 2010, but also referred to its broader influence on other states and actors.

Secondly, the political opposition in such regimes, especially in Central Eastern Europe, were vainly placing their hopes in the EU being an ally to counter such developments. Contrarily, though, European political institutions and economic actors were exacerbating non-democratic behaviour and deficient state accountability either through hesitant responses or through undertaking substantial investments without consideration of their political signal effect. In effect, this made the EU part of the problem of democratic backsliding, and not part of a solution.

Thirdly, Ther made positive mention of the unprecedented investment programme that the EU has set up to counter the effects and the aftermath of the current Covid19 pandemic. While this neo-Keynesian approach marks a considerable improvement against previous handling of the financial and Euro crisis, Ther voiced his concern that the investments it would enable would be in accord with sustainable political and social goals of the Union. The Brussels administration, though constrained by its size, would be well advised to take on a stance of shaping the EU, rather than retiring into a merely managerial role (aptly summarised as “Gestalten statt Verwalten” in German).

From a vulnerable union to an alliance for the future

Participants from a broad international and diverse professional background engaged in the ensuing discussion, bridging critical observations of current challenges and prudent understanding of historical precedents. The vulnerability of liberal democracies was identified as a global, rather than only a European concern. While the limitations of the EU as an administrative body were acknowledged, the necessity for it demanding standards of rule of law to be upheld was stressed, and linked to future granting of financial support.

Participants disagreed on whether and how the Covid19 pandemic had ushered in a decline in support for populist rhetoric and politics. While some populist leaders had lost much of their lustre through ill-advised policy decisions during the pandemic, or had fallen silent in face of a need for concrete technocratic governance, others pitted the EU’s initially shy reaction during the pandemic against the resurgence of nation-state based political decision–making and to their advantage. As point in fact, the results of the first round of presidential elections in Poland could hardly be read as indicative of a loss of confidence in Poland’s ruling party.

Special attention was paid to Germany’s role in meeting Europe’s challenges in 2020 and beyond, with calls for Germany to use its financial power to gain greater influence on investment procedures and insist on the indisputability of rule of law. Concomitantly, the observation was brought forward that Germany would need allies if it hoped to act as a motor for change. Germany’s presidency of the EU Council comes at a pivotal point in its history, and the ability to forge alliances and inspire cooperation will be central to its success.

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