The coronavirus has left many European leaders questioning the future of the EU. Former Prime Minister of Italy Enrico Letta recently told The Guardian that “the communitarian spirit of Europe is weaker today than 10 years ago.”
Nile Gardiner, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher and director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation, joins The Daily Signal Podcast to explain what COVID-19 may mean for the future of the EU.
Gardiner also addresses the possibility that America may work alongside Great Britain and other European nations to hold China accountable for the coronavirus. Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
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Virginia Allen: I am joined by Nile Gardiner, former adviser to Lady Thatcher and director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation. Nile, thank you so much for being here.
Nile Gardiner: It’s my pleasure. Great to be here. Thank you.
Allen: Europe has been hit very hard by the coronavirus. We’ve specifically seen this in Spain and Italy, and even Germany and France, that they’re really suffering from a tremendous amount of cases and that their hospitals are extremely burdened. This is causing many Europeans and leaders within Europe to really express concerns that the European Union is in an extremely fragile state right now.
I would like to get your response to something the former prime minister of Italy, Enrico Letta, said recently. He told The Guardian that the European Union is “facing a crisis that is different from previous crises,” and he also said that the “communitarian spirit of Europe is weaker today than 10 years ago.” Nile, do you think that these statements are accurate?
Gardiner: Yes. I think that statement, actually, is a very accurate reflection of the current state of affairs in Europe and, in particular, the EU.
I do think the EU is facing a very significant crisis at the moment. Its response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely weak, very divided.
It has responded, I think, in a very ineffective fashion to what is the biggest crisis in European history since World War II, and I think there is a sense across Europe that the European Union has handled the pandemic very badly.
There’s a lot of disillusionment, I think, among many EU member states with the current direction of the European Union, its lack of organization, the huge divisions within the EU, and the fact that the EU, in responding to this pandemic, has been almost irrelevant, actually.
If you look at the European response to COVID-19, it’s been overwhelmingly done at the nation-state level. I think the pandemic has demonstrated the fact that at times of crisis, the EU, frankly, becomes almost out of relevance, and it’s really the nation-states and the national leaders who have stepped forward in order to respond here.
Allen: What should have the EU done instead? Are there actions that they could have taken to really early on mitigate the spread of the virus?
Gardiner: I think that, firstly, my own view is that Europe is better off when nation-states and national leaders actually make the big decisions. That, of course, was so fundamentally important for the British people in their decision to leave the European Union.
I’ve always been a believer in the nation-state, in self-determination and national sovereignty, and I think during this crisis you have seen nation-states stepping forward to respond to the crisis.
In terms of what the EU could have potentially done better as a collective body, I think you could have seen greater EU action on a number of fronts, starting, of course, with the economic response.
I think the overall economic response from the European Union has been very weak. It’s also exposed the tremendous divisions between North and South within the EU. The North is wealthier. The South is poorer.
The reality is, when you have a collection of what is now 27 member states in the European Union, it’s very hard for all of these countries to come together and make common collective agreements, and that, I think, is at the heart of the fundamental flaws of the European project.
At the end of the day, nation-states are not going to always agree with each other, and you’ve seen that in terms of, especially, the economic response to the crisis. I think that the EU’s response in terms of providing financial support has been extremely slow, and it has been a very weak overall response.
I think, secondly, as well, in terms of the medical response and the EU’s ability to be able to help individual countries in terms of directly dealing with the pandemic itself, the response has been very poor.
There’s been a lack of coordination. And at the end of the day, I think that most national governments in Europe have just gone ahead and implemented their own responses.
There’s no confidence across the EU that the European Union itself is able to play a constructive, positive, overarching role in terms of addressing the pandemic. The EU is just in a state of complete disarray, frankly, when it comes to dealing with this crisis.
You have seen some national leaders of individual European countries who have stepped up to the plate and offered far stronger leadership than the European Union.
Allen: What are the European people saying? Are they really blaming the EU for a lot of the issues that we’re seeing across Europe during the coronavirus?
Gardiner: I think the coronavirus pandemic certainly has enhanced widespread skepticism within the European Union about the future of the EU, and I do think that there is a lot of disillusionment across the EU with the current state of the European Union.
One only has to look at countries such as Italy, a very good example here, where there’s rising euroskepticism; there is rising resentment of the European Union.
I think that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, you are going to see an increase in euroskeptic sentiment across the European Union. …
I think that many European citizens will take the view that the EU is incompetent, useless in some respects, unhelpful, and I think that the unhappiness that already existed with the European Union across many parts of Europe will only be enhanced and increased in the wake of this pandemic.
So yes, I’d expect to see public disillusion with the European Union rising significantly in the wake of this crisis.
Allen: Given that rise, as Europeans really do become more and more disillusioned with the European Union, do you think that this will be the total undoing of the EU, or that maybe a few countries will follow Britain and decide that they’re going to move forward with leaving the European Union?
Gardiner: Yeah, I think that the European Union is a hugely artificial construct. It’s a massive experiment that has never been implemented before in history and has never succeeded.
I think that the European project really tramples upon the principles of sovereignty and self-determination, the principles of liberty and freedom that are so fundamentally important here.
The EU has evolved into a highly centralized superstate which exerts a great deal of power and control over individual European countries.
The British people, back in 2016, decided that they had had enough of membership in the EU, and they voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum.
I suspect that if you had similar referenda held across the EU over the coming years, you could well see European publics voting with their feet with regard to the EU memberships. But without a doubt, I think the European Union elites are going to try and preserve the status quo.
European governments will resist the idea of holding British-style referendums, but you are going to see, I think, increasing anti-EU sentiment across many parts of the European Union.
I’m in no doubt that in the course of the next decade, the next two decades, that you will see some European countries deciding to leave the European Union, following the British lead.
After all, I think Brexit is a massive game-changer for Europe, and if Brexit is a big success, and I think it will be a tremendous success, I think that other European countries may follow Britain’s lead.
I think the impact of the coronavirus crisis in Europe will be one of just several big factors that will bring about possible change in Europe. I do think that the tide is turning against this idea of a European superstate, and that the EU will look very different in the course of the next 10 to 20 years compared to what it is today, and I do think the EU will be significantly smaller than it is today.
You will see some European countries saying that they want to reassert their sovereignty and self-determination and retake control of their own laws, their own borders, their trade policy, their courts, etc. I think that Europe is going to look pretty different in 2040 compared to 2020 today.
Allen: You mentioned borders, and I know that’s something that you have spoken about on the news, that right now we’re seeing so many countries across the EU close borders for safety because of COVID-19. Do you think that this could lead to permanently some European nations deciding, “No, we don’t want to have this permanent open-border situation”?
Gardiner: I think that the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis that has ensued certainly will result in the end of the open-borders approach in Europe. I don’t see how Europe can continue with an open-borders approach post the pandemic.
What we have seen during the course of the last few weeks, as the pandemic has tightened its grip on Europe, has been the reintroduction of border controls by almost every single EU member state.
You have seen external border controls now implemented for the entire European Union, and I expect that the old, outdated open-borders mentality championed by figures such as [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, [French President] Emmanuel Macron, for example, … will be increasingly thrown out of the window.
I expect that the COVID-19 pandemic could result in not only the end of the open-borders approach, but also in the end of the Schengen Agreement, which is signed between 26 European countries, [and] 22 EU member states are part of that.
Schengen basically is an open-borders agreement among those countries, and I don’t see how Schengen can survive, actually, what we have seen over the last few weeks and the border controls that are being reintroduced now by practically every European country. I think a lot of those border controls are going to stay in place long after this pandemic is over.
Allen: England has had very high numbers of cases, but do you think that maybe they have been more able to quickly respond and to handle the situation now that Brexit has passed and they’re no longer formally a part of the EU?
Gardiner: Yeah, that’s a very good question. I think the UK, like most of the major European countries, has faced a huge challenge with regard to dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. The U.K. is no different to the rest of Europe in having to deal with this.
I would say that, in the long run, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union will help protect the United Kingdom.
At the moment, the U.K. is still part of the EU single market and single customs union, and so the U.K. is still part and parcel of the big structures of the European Union.
Even though it has left the EU officially, the biggest change actually takes place at the end of this year when the transition period ends and Britain exits the customs union and single market. That will mean that Brexit is implemented in its entirety.
I think in the long run, the U.K., as a truly sovereign nation that is fully able to control its own borders, shape its own laws, shape its own trading policy, and decide who comes into the U.K. to work and live, I think that will provide additional protection for the United Kingdom.
I think right now the U.K. is in the same boat as the rest of Europe, but the fact that it has left the European Union is not in any way a disadvantage for the U.K.. I would argue that Brexit will ultimately greatly strengthen Britain’s security, safety, and its overall prosperity in the coming decades.
I do think Brexit is a great, momentous decision by the British people. It’s the right decision, and it will definitely be a decision that will work to the interests of the British people in the years and decades to come.
Allen: Could you speak a little bit to the leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson during this time? Of course, he did have coronavirus himself and has since pretty much fully recovered. Are there lessons that other European leaders should really be taking from Prime Minister Johnson?
Gardiner: I think Boris Johnson has been a tremendous leader, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet with Boris Johnson on several occasions. He’s a very impressive figure. He’s a very charismatic leader.
He also has personally, of course, directly faced the coronavirus pandemic himself. He was placed in an intensive care unit in hospital just a couple of weeks ago. It was a life-and-death situation for the prime minister. He came through that, and I think that he really is a tremendous inspiration for the British people, who look up to the prime minister.
He’s someone who certainly has a Churchillian spirit about him. He has a relentlessly optimistic spirit about him. And I do think Boris Johnson is by far the strongest, most effective leader in Europe today.
He’s somebody who, I think, has the right kind of inspiring leadership qualities that the U.K. needs at this time. I think, out of all the European leaders, Boris Johnson is by far the most effective today.
Allen: Now, in some parts of America, we are beginning to see that businesses are opening back up, like in Georgia and South Carolina, for example. Are we seeing that begin to happen across Europe at all? Are European leaders talking about dates when the economy might restart there and people might be able to go back to work?
Gardiner: Yes. In fact, every single European government is working on an exit timetable here for restarting their economies, an exit timetable for their lockdowns.
It’s interesting that this is not being decided at the European Union level. It’s being decided at the national capital level, and that’s very significant as well.
The EU is not making decisions on this. Individual European governments are making their own decisions about when to reopen their economies. Already, countries such as Germany, for example, are taking significant steps toward reopening.
I think you are going to see a different pace taken by different European countries. Germany will move ahead of, say, France, for example. Emmanuel Macron has been far more cautious about reopening the French economy, and I expect the Germans will be fully reopened a long time before the French, for example.
With regard to the U.K., the British government hasn’t made a decision yet. But I think we’re going to see a gradual reopening of European economies over the course of the next few months, basically.
Every country will have its own pace. Every country will make its own decision based upon the level of the virus threat and the death rates and the levels of infection, so I think that you aren’t going to see wide variations across Europe in the next two or three or four months.
Allen: Nile, both in America and Europe, people are beginning to talk about the need to hold China accountable for COVID-19. Do you think that we might see America working alongside England or other European countries to somehow reprimand China?
Gardiner: Yeah, I think that’s a great point, because I think the COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge wake-up call for Europe with regard to the reality of dealing with China.
The virus originated in China. The Chinese government attempted in its early stages to cover up the spread of the virus. China’s actions with regard to dealing with the coronavirus have been absolutely disgraceful. There’s been a complete lack of transparency and cooperation from China.
I think that there’s a lot of unhappiness across Europe with China’s actions, and now you see China trying to blame the United States and the West for the virus, which is absolutely stunning to see China doing this.
I think you’re going to see a big significant reaction across Europe against China in the wake of the pandemic, and I think the biggest example of that will be on the 5G front.
China’s biggest telecommunications company, Huawei, has made huge inroads into Europe in the last two decades. I think you’re going to see a lot of European governments taking Huawei out of their planned 5G networks, and I think the U.K. will be a prime example of that.
Earlier this year, the British government agreed to allow Huawei a 35% stake in the development of 5G in Britain. I think the British government is likely to reverse course and take Huawei out of the U.K. telecommunications networks over the course of the next couple of years or so, and I expect many other European governments are going to follow Britain’s lead here.
It’s no longer going to be business as usual, as British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said recently with regard to China. China is increasingly going to be viewed as an adversary by Europe, and you are going to see, I think, a much tougher stance being taken by not only the U.K., but many European governments against China in the coming years.
Allen: It’s going to be interesting to see how this all folds, as you say, in the coming years. We really appreciate your time today and your expertise in weighing in on this issue.
Gardiner: It’s my pleasure. Thank you very much.
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