What After the Pandemic?

Review of Luuk van Middelaar’s “Pandemonium. Saving Europe”

Katarzyna Krzyżanowska

There are still not many public intellectuals who engage with the fate of the whole EU. To recall a phrase used by Hans Kundnani, they mostly belong to the “pro-Europeans” circle, which is to be distinguished from Eurosceptics (who are generally questioning the EU polity in general, thus blocking any possibility to organise a legitimate opposition with the EU). A scholar belonging to the former group is surely Luuk van Middelaar, dubbed by Ben Judah as “one of Europe’s most important intellectuals,” who has already published two successful books on the political history of the EU (the first one was so successful that it brought him a post of a speechwriter and special advisor to the newly established President of the European Council). Just recently van Middelaar has written a book that summarizes the crisis within the EU he deems as most important in decades: the coronavirus pandemic.

Three Passages

Van Middelaar returns to the metaphors and language he deployed in his previous publications (the English translation by Liz Waters is just splendid).

The pandemic crisis is not just another crisis that the EU has to tackle: it is a metamorphosis, a passage to another phase of European integration, or, to use van Middelaar’s own lofty vocabulary, a “transition in time toward a new chosen future.”

In this perspective, modes of politics and societal responses that emerged at the moment of the pandemic mark a change after which the EU’s shape will change. The author employs Kosselleck’s concept of sediments of time to illustrate the idea that a political measure introduced once will likely be used in the future. In this regard, history of the EU does not move forward: it builds on what was already applied in the past, but in a different context, upgrading the level of integration, slowly transforming the EU into a “community of destiny/European res publica”.

This reading probably would sound familiar to those acquainted with van Middelaar’s previous publications. To remind the readers some theses from “The Passage to Europe”: the development of the European Communities was based on three decisive passages: the foundation after 1945, the refoundation after 1989 and the multiple crises from 2008 onwards. The political events of 1989 marked by the fall of the Iron Curtain proved to be a geopolitical shock that called for action from the European political elites. Thus, within two years the Treaty of Maastricht appeared (though van Middelaar does not mention that historically the work on this Treaty started a few years before the fall of communism). Since then, the EU took three different but interwoven paths: towards security (with the 2004 enlargement motivated mostly by security concerns); introduction of the common currency; and politicization of the institutions (with three diverse narratives influencing the institutional architecture, two of them concerned with tying stronger bonds with the public). The input/output legitimacy problem is a constant concern throughout van Middelaar books and “Pandemonium” is no different in this regard. The related EU problem is that its support is generated not through democratic participation (as in the nation-state), but rather from practical results (“bread and circus”, as Joseph Weiler put it). However, without democratic engagement the EU political project is deemed to fail — and the EU begins to recognize this problem. Citizens’ panels organised within the Conference on the Future of Europe are designed to somehow remedy this democratic deficit. For van Middelaar, the public is a separate character on a political stage whose role cannot be reduced to a Greek choir, but rather perceived as an autonomous and capricious body demanding to be heard. I will come back to this point later in the review.

With time, yet another metamorphosis appeared, this time not of substance, but rather one of form: whereas postwar Europe was dominated by rules-politics, the recent years witness abundance of events-politics. For van Middelaar, the former “requires politicians with the temperament and knowledge to engage in a balancing act”, whereas the latter “is all about leaders who are able to improvise.”

The EU events-politics, orchestrated by “new executive organs, adjusted voting rules and permanent presidencies,” is a product of crises of unprecedented magnitude: the Eurocrisis, the migrant crisis, Brexit, and now the pandemic.

All these events created a need for timely, transparent and accountable decisions taken with personal responsibility. The EU’s handling of the coronavirus crisis is read by van Middelaar as an ultimate instance of the shift in decision-making.

Pandemic and a Diplomatic Ballet

In “Pandemonium” we can hear then some old melodies: van Middelaar is evidently fascinated by the political theatre during the pandemic management. He deploys the language of a drama: stage lights and limelight which are not conducive to making diplomacy; public/audience that applauds or whines and is a measure of success of a drama; diplomatic ballet, success of which depends on personal diplomatic skills and improvisation. This narrative is indeed compelling, but — one has to ask — is it enough to be convincing? Van Middelaar focuses on only some of the main characters of the political drama that took place from March 2020 to May 2021. Consistent with author’s previous framing, once again it was a handful of people that could grasp Machiavellian fortune and who understood the pandemic’s impact on internal tensions within EU. This approach completely ignores the meaning of other political negotiators and the role of the institutions.

To use the conceptual panorama of the book: the pandemic was a period of grand breakthroughs. Not only has the EU tied the common economic bonds more strongly, not only has the European public emerged with a strong voice, but also geopolitical situation of the EU has changed dramatically.

An “historic turning point” for the EU, as a single entity, was to diplomatically engage with the US and China.

The European medical vulnerability and pharmaceutical dependency pushed the EU to rethink its position vis-á-vis China and the US. Thus, yet another conceptual breakthrough was made: the EU leaders set an aim of “strategic autonomy” for a European Council summit in October 2020 — so the aim of strategic autonomy created the need for an independent foreign policy (strongly endorsed by France, Germany, the Netherlands and Brussels). Faced dramatically with the US and China power during the pandemic, the EU was forced to rethink its sectorial approach to economy, politics and culture (recognised by van Middelaar as a “strategic weakness” of the EU). Van Middelaar ends his book with a review of the geopolitical position of the EU, caught between the US and China, but it seems that these days Russia should equally be taken into account as a power vis-á-vis which the EU should position itself.

Angela Merkel is a true heroine in this drama. Van Middelaar at lengths praises Chancellor’s aptness and readiness to “cross the red line” to issue common debt; he applauds Merkel’s close cooperation with Emmanuel Macron and Mark Rutte (the latter is praised mostly because he agreed to soften responsibility claims in face of the human calamity happening in the southern countries).

The Commission President’s Ursula von der Leyen and Council’s President Charles Michel are mentioned as well, but the director van Middelaar assigned them a common role of “Brussels.” Von der Leyen’s Commission is mentioned explicitly when van Middelaar discusses the vaccine failure, accusing the EC on focusing too much on price rather than on time (as the US did), and with an imprudent invocation of an emergency clause of the Northern Ireland Protocol (revoked within hours). The public health response of the EU fell short for van Middelaar, as the European institutions “spent too long wading through a market economy”. On the other hand, the EU displayed an “autonomous vivere politico”and was more creative when it decided on the financial-economic response. Here two things are worth noticing. In his careful analysis of month-to-month political developments during pandemic, van Middelaar focuses mostly on the success in deciding about the recovery fund, and he writes about Western Europe exclusively.

But What About…?

The reading of the emergency measures agreed by the national leaders on a Council summit of July 2020 offered by van Middelaar is univocally positive.

The author, among other scholars, perceives the establishment of the recovery fund with common debt and collective borrowing as a moment of crossing the red line, after which the EU embarked on a new phase of integration.

The Union, in the recovery fund agreement, “displayed unity, authority and self-awareness”; it was a mastery in improvisation conducted by Merkel, Macron and Rutte (though the Netherlands was not alone in opposing the common debt). Nevertheless, Jonathan White offers a bit more skeptical reading, although the political philosopher does not deny that the Recovery and Resilience Facility was a novelty in the EU political landscape and was a significant economic alleviation.

However, the pre-covid EU order in fact might be left intact or even reinforced — each country in order to obtain money needs to draw up a ‘recovery and resilience plan’. Thus, access to money is conditional on the agenda of existing policy. To quote White, “Clinched in the name of emergency response, the arrangement amounts to a new means by which a pluralized set of executive agents…can pressurise those that might chart a different course.” Van Middelaar does not engage with these potential consequences.

What is worrying though is that Central-Eastern Europe is out of van Middelaar’s picture. In fact, he makes a list of four Brussels taboos that obtain in the EU: no appeal to national interest; no talk about differences between the EU member states (because of juridical principle of equality); no questions about the EU government; no talk about the external border. Even though the author admits the taboo strategy “has become a handicap”, he describes it as an existing institutional policy only to some degree challenged by the EU public. Nevertheless, the EU internal and public discussions do not shy away from talking about national money put into the collective pot, and no matter is debated more hotly than EU external borders. The inequalities between member states are constantly raising blood pressure among MEPs — and the rule of law whataboutism proves such taboo non-existent.

Having read van Middelaar’s book it seems that the “no differences” taboo should be substituted with a taboo of deeming CEE countries as politically unimportant, these countries in his analysis simply do not exist. “Backstage communication” analysed by van Middelaar was operative between an informal circle of leaders: Merkel, Macron, Conte, Sanchez, Rutte, Michel and von der Leyen (“Washington Group”). Hungary and Poland are mentioned — surprise, surprise — in the context of Article 7 only. This kind of analytics strategy undermines Middelaar’s narrative of “community of destiny” that the EU supposedly is.

Van Middelaar excludes CEE countries not only politically, but also epistemically. He uses English, Dutch, German and French sources, but does not refer to English sources published by journalists/experts from CEE region. It is striking especially when he writes about Belarusian 2020 rigged elections (also striking because of the current border crisis, when knowledge about the region is essential). The author claims that the massive protests in Belarus were spurred on because of the poor handling of the pandemic by Lukashenko. This is not the case — and different sources would point to combined reasons of the introduction of 2016 “Parasite” Laws, the destruction of crosses at the Kurapaty memorial site, or a decline in national economy. Instead, van Middelaar quotes here only FT, Le Monde and Der Spiegel.

As I mentioned before, some claims about the European public demand a closer scrutiny.

For van Middelaar the foundational moment for the public’s creation is the moment of crisis. This clearly happened during the pandemic: the public came into scene via common European rituals mediated by social media (like singing on the balconies, cheering the medical workers).

The national leaders started to speak to the European, and not only the national, public (though national and European mandates remain totally different, as a recent example of Michel Barnier proves). However, it is better for the public if it does not see what the adult politicians decide behind the scenes — for van Middelaar it is obvious that decision-making mechanisms are better to be away from the spotlight, (and this seems to be a too paternalistic argument).

The common argument that the European public does not use one language seems absurd. For van Middelaar it communicates with a universal language of emotions. His argument goes this way: we do not necessarily have to wait for the civil public to be organised in a rational debate, as one German philosopher would like it. Rather, according to van Middelaar, we should embrace what is already there: an unstructured public which applauds, and understands goals and catcalls. However, doesn’t it create a too low threshold for democracy? Does it not resemble the polls-democracy, making the leaders dependent on the quickly changing moods of the public? It is doubtful if such poll-based politics can achieve desirable outcomes. The public demands “influence over how the play develops”, but is not even able to articulate its demands. Even in this approach, the public is assigned the role of the Greek choir which only makes comments softly in the background.

Van Middelaar is definitely a thought-provoking author and always has a powerful narrative to offer. Perry Anderson, who tore to shreds van Middelaar’s claims in a LRB essay, did not fail to mention that “van Middelaar produced something rare in the literature on European integration: an attractively readable account of it”. Same applies to “Pandemonium”, which offers a compelling diplomatic chronicle from the pandemic times. However, its conclusions are overly optimistic. The EU’s (so far) uncoordinated action towards Belarusian internal, border and humanitarian crisis, which ignores the CEE perspective, contradicts the naive positive spirit that van Middelaar’s book endorses.

Luuk van Middelaar, Pandemonium. Saving Europe, transl. by Liz Waters, Agenda Publishing, 2021

In collaboration with Maciej Krogel, Michał Matlak, Karen Culver

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