No business-as-usual scenario: My 10 points for an EU Corona action plan in Open Democracy (19th May)

Open Democracy

No business-as-usual scenario: 10 points for an EU Corona action plan

Expertocracy is not the same as democracy: the legitimation question must be raised, and psychological aspects of public opinion considered.

Florian Hartleb
19 May 2020
Michel Barnier (advisor) and Commission President José Manuel Barroso ( together right) had a plan in 2006, but it was not implemented.

Michel Barnier (advisor) and Commission President José Manuel Barroso ( together right) had a plan in 2006, but it was not implemented.


European People’s Party, December 2006. All rights reserved.

“A business as usual” stance or strategy is not just a historical mistake but is already an unlikely event.

Comparisons sometimes made with previous crises are inherently misleading. The exogenous shock of the virus impacts all member states to differing extents. A new action plan sui generis is needed, in order if only to counter the impression of ordinary citizens that when push comes to shove, only their own nation can act quickly and boldly enough to deserve their trust.

The first weeks of the crisis have seen a scenario in which governments (not just European ones) are acting individually, separately and alone, whilst the EU has been almost entirely absent from the scene.

Stronger European solidarity because of Corona appears illusory. According to polls conducted in March and April 2020, nine out of ten Italians think the “EU is not helping us”.[1] Given that political science tells us what matters most to voters today is not so much ideology but rather perceptions of competence, then these numbers should worry those holding the power in the European Union. This is why the EU must act in order to avoid the further delegitimation of multi-level governance, and must create a mechanism which encourages its diverse member states to respond to such emergencies together, with a unified strategy.

What matters most to voters today is not so much ideology but rather perceptions of competence.

 New global crisis narratives follow “my country first” patterns

Crises reflect uncertainty about the underlying paradigm of the social and political order. But Corona demands deeper reflection: crisis is not simply a process of social disintegration, destruction, failure or collapse, which might lead to an era of populism. It may also relate back to creative forces arising from catharsis. Many of the crises facing the European Union, the financial crisis as well as the refugee “crisis”, had their origins outside of the EU. They are linked to global economic structures and/or to shifting power constellations on a global level. We must discuss the positive effects of European integration in clear and comprehensive language.

 Restarting after lockdown

Many discussions in recent years attempted to discover new narratives. During Corona, EU member states (but also regions) have competed, either very openly or silently, with questions concerning numbers of infected people and deaths. But a virus knows no borders. There were also some positive signs, for example with assistance for healthcare measures in Italy, but the focus on one’s own ‘home’ nation predominated. A more European healthcare system must be established, for cross-border healthcare matters. The EU has been placed in a bad light during the crisis due to the complete absence of healthcare policies between European member states.

 No digitally guided and legitimatized autocracies in Europe

Enhanced digital tracking measures are being discussed in a growing number of Member States – relying on algorithms and automation following Asian-type tracking (after downloading a surveillance app for people with Corona infection, a visit from the police is likely). We need a new discussion on data protection and privacy – and a warning not to follow the Chinese route of big data authoritarianism.

We need a new discussion on data protection and privacy.

 Not installing a technocracy or expertocracy

One of history´s recurring themes is that technology outruns society. And so it was with the impact and advent of the printing press, the steam engine and the computer. Arguably, so it is again today with gene editing and gene technology, social media and Artificial Intelligence [AI]. A global dirty fight has just started. While technologists often criticise politicians for just not “getting” technology, politicians counter that technologists can all too rarely grasp politics. Expertocracy is not the same as democracy, and the legitimation question must be raised, and psychological aspects of public opinion considered.

A global dirty fight has just started.

 Respect for human rights

We cherish human rights only when they are greatly at risk and it is the same too with human health. There must be a debate on freedom of privacy, freedom of movement etc., in terms of freedom towards the state, to adopt a new balance between freedom and security after the disruption of fundamental individual rights. A core reference and guideline for values must be set by the pre-Corona period, also in terms of basic legal questions. We must discuss not only free and open borders, but also free societies seeking to guarantee individual freedoms.

 Sharing life burdens

Corona could teach us that Europe is more than merely fiscally disciplined and economically efficient. Europe concerns the basic fundamentals for humanity and society. The Europe which emerges from the pandemic, on a highly unequal footing, will be more fragmented. Countries like Spain and Italy will be in far worse shape than others. We observe linkage and tension between the economy and society, but the vision is unique: the desire for a more sustainable way of life and enforcing the idea that “we are sitting in one boat together”.

 Setting agendas beyond Corona

During and following the trauma of Corona, other topics will fall behind and be neglected. It is likely that the new world order will solidify a unified Europe for a lengthier period into a top priority. But this does not mean that other topics such as climate change and migration will disappear. Corona will promote the need for a digital single market with free movement of data as a fifth fundamental freedom in the EU (like the digital society that Estonia tried to promote during their presidency during the second half of 2017). The installation EU-Corona App must now be implemented, but data is not safe if you rush to do this prematurely.

 Institutional reforms and new policies: a pandemic plan

We already know: such viruses can only be tackled through a global or at least European response. EU needs a pandemic plan to cope with such a risk. They had a good plan in the past and for the future, but implementation was not prioritised. Michel Barnier, in his role as advisor to Commission President José Manuel Barroso, presented a thesis paper in 2006 calling “For a European civil defence”. But once Corona reared its head, the EU needed to respond in a less random fashion. There has been talk of developing common actions to deal with pandemics and other disasters, with the aim of building up resources together and keeping the system open for non-EU countries.[2]

 Continuing the fight against fake news and disinformation

Conspiracy theories disseminated during the Coronavirus crisis have not only given concrete form to prejudices about Asians, Jews, Chinese, foreigners, immigrants, but present them in a causal narrative. Here are the root causes for the virus: they must be blamed and punished.[3] The crisis has also a power gaining logic: Russia uses its tactics to continue the strategy of destabilizing the west and the European Union (EU) as it did during the refugee crisis. EU observers of Russian media have collected a list of disinformation. After Corona, targets will include single countries, from Italy to Ukraine. The European Commission should launch a huge communication and information offensive, countering the misinformation coming from ‘the inside’ (populists) and from ‘the outside’ (Moscow and Beijing).

Corona must not lead to a new wave of populism.

 Concluding remarks: Corona factor and populism

Corona must not lead to a new wave of populism. Instead, the crisis has already revealed the distinctions between the populists themselves. There was no common response by the EU and its Member States, besides the thinking for national categories, nor from a so-called populist family either, which is anyway a myth. Realpolitik instead of showman or showcase politics seems to embody the current zeitgeist (spirit or mood of the time). The populist promise, offering simplistic solutions for complex problems, cannot breakthrough or resonate in Corona times. The virus does not play to the logic or by the rules of populism, but obeys the rules of science.


[1] Goodwin M.; Italian Poll, 15 March 2020, accessed here on 7 May 2020.

[2] Barnier, M.: Pour une force européennede protection civile: europe aid, Report, Brussels 2006, accessed here on 3 May 2020.

[3] Weimann, G./Masrie, N.: The Virus of Hate, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, Herzliya, March 2020, p. 13, accessed here on 5 May 2020.