Coronavirus and the crisis for supranationalism
One of my favourite new games is to Google-search the phrase 'if this pandemic has shown us anything' and read what the world has responded.
The results make for interesting reading. Some are deep-hitting: 'it's that we are all boundaryless yet connected'. Some are entertaining: 'it's that Trump isn't changing his communication style'. Others are just bizarre: 'it's that #DemocratsAreDestroyingAmerica'.
For the virus' long-run impacts, let me suggest another ending. If this pandemic has shown us anything, it's that supranational institutions aren't the blessing that we thought they were.
As governments have raced to regear their societies and economies towards corona-warfare, they have sidestepped many of the household names of intergovernmental organisations that we have constructed since the Second World War, whose responses to the pandemic have ranged from ineffective to counterproductive. One after the other like dominos, it has revealed how the architects of these bureaucratic leviathans overlooked their fundamental flaws. In this way, the virus has accelerated a longer-term decline in the trust and authority of these institutions, fuelled by questions of a changing global order.
Take the World Health Organization, the specialised agency of the United Nations that has been at the forefront of the international response to the pandemic. Fearful that scrutinising the claims of the Chinese state would weaken its authority, for weeks the WHO uncritically accepted and repeated Beijing's reassurances that the virus was being contained and was non-transmissible between humans. It ignored early conflicting warnings from the Taiwanese government, which it does not recognise. The WHO's advance party of medical experts arrived in China as late as 10 February, well over a month after the outbreak.
The WHO's supranationalism rendered it institutionally susceptible to political sensitivities, while the authority deriving from its supranationalism shielded it from much-needed scrutiny during those critical weeks. Well-established competitors could have disputed its findings and noticed its mistakes. Instead, we accorded too much trust into an unaccountable supranational institution that got it badly wrong. The WHO’s slow response lost the world weeks of possible preparation and may prove to have cost thousands of lives worldwide.
Closer to home, the European Union has ripped apart at its seams ever since member states chose to close their borders rather than pursue a European response. Matteo Salvini's Eurosceptic Lega political party, which leads comfortably in Italian opinion polls, is capitalising on widespread frustration that Brussels abandoned Italians when the virus ravaged the country's northern regions. A recent survey found that 49% of Italians, excluding don’t knows, would vote to leave the EU in a referendum.
In Hungary, the inability of European politicians to condemn Viktor Orbán's emergency act – which indefinitely abolishes the rule of law – has raised new questions over whether the EU can effectively champion democracy and civil liberties. The Hungarian government is already using the cover of the coronavirus crisis to pass a multifaceted reform bill, which includes ceasing the legal recognition of transgender people.
Meanwhile, raging debates on 'coronabonds' have painfully reopened the continent's wounds from the Eurozone crisis, reminding Europeans of the opposing fiscal and political cultures of its northern, southern, eastern and Scandinavian parts.
Even during a crisis as severe as coronavirus, the most effective responses have come from national governments cooperating together but working individually, rather than supranational institutions. Let this testify against the fallacy that global issues require global solutions through global government.
When this virus is defeated, supranational institutions like the UN and the EU may face a crisis of confidence and struggle to reclaim their pre-virus popularity. The former may be particularly affected by increasing Sino-Western tensions. The post-war trend of building ever-greater supranational institutions and new layers of global government could be reversed.
If that happens, prepare for battle on three related fronts. First, we must salvage the benefits of 20th-century globalisation – freer trade, freer movement, freer cultural exchanges – without the supranational institutions with which it coincided.
Second, we must ensure that political issues at the top of the supranational agenda – world poverty, climate change, world peace – are not relegated to the bottom of domestic political priorities.
Finally, we must ensure that the vacuum left behind by supranationalism is not filled by nationalism itself. With so much social and economic power over our daily lives now concentrated into the hands of political élites, that battle may be easier declared than won.
Matteo Baccaglini is a student at the University of Oxford.