The European Union at the beginning of 2021: mounting pressure, widespread criticism, steadfast determination.

Overcoming the Corona pandemic continues to overshadow the other pressing matters that EU is currently dealing with, all of which are proving to be no less complex.

Three current fields of action which could hardly be more complex

It is also important to keep an eye on the fallout from Brexit. It could be assumed, and justifiably so, that Brexit would have more serious consequences for the UK than for the EU. The tonnes of rotting fish in the lorries lining up at the Eurotunnel at the start of the year shone a spotlight on what Brexit really meant. The British Prime Minister is staying true to his techniques of distraction and bluster and was described scathingly in an interview with the former French ambassador in London on 24.2.2021, Sylvie Bermann, as an inveterate liar, who accepts no rules and thinks and governs by the principle “the ends justify the means”. She predicts that he will brush the Brexit bill under the carpet and pin the blame on the efforts to tackle Corona. Meanwhile, the problems with Northern Ireland are moving into a new round; the laboriously-negotiated Northern Ireland protocol, which came into force at the beginning of the year, is being called into question once more. To avoid a flare-up of old conflicts, the agreement states that the rules of the EU Internal Market and Customs Union continue to apply to Northern Ireland. The resulting customs border in the Irish Sea saw not only empty shelves in Northern Ireland at the start of the year, but also created a mass of additional red tape that has been almost unmanageable. The EU Commission President’s misstep in demanding export licences for vaccine deliveries from the EU to Belfast (with Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol as the legal basis) was grasped by Boris Johnson as a prime opportunity to water down the Northern Ireland protocol. With the Northern Irish Unionists breathing down his neck, Johnson threatened in the House of Commons to invoke Article 16 so that there would be “no barrier down the Irish Sea”. This sequence of events shows just how much potential for conflict there is in the question of Northern Ireland.

Another simmering conflict is the Rule of Law question with regard to Member States Hungary and Poland which, because of the what many perceived as long-overdue departure of Victor Orban’s Fidesz Party from the European Parliament’s Christian Democrat EPP Group, is massively in the spotlight once more. Orban declared the EPP Group an “annex of the European Left” and announced that he would rally the right-wing forces in Europe around him. The fact that a State must fulfil certain accession criteria when joining the EU but then afterwards is seemingly given broad leeway to act as it pleases is being described as the Copenhagen Paradox. Moreover, the Community’s core standards represent a certain grey area. The EU’s Rule of Law report published in September 2020 continues to have no impact in the short term. Despite the fact that Hungary is being challenged over a breach of EU basic values according to Article 7 of the EU Treaties, the process looks set to rumble on for years. Hungary and Poland’s tactics of delay and blackmail have paid off and it is becoming abundantly clear that the EU may have small hand tools at its disposal, but certainly no large weapons in its arsenal.

In Poland, the national conservative PiS party has been in government since 2015 and is attempting to take control of the judiciary by, for example, appointing judges. The ECJ recently stated that when it comes to appointing judges, there must be the possibility of judicial review, especially if there are already doubts about the independence of the Council for the Judiciary, which proposes judges and then proceeds to elect them. Both parties, Poland’s PiS party and Hungary’s Fidesz, have mistaken the EU’s fundamental philosophy as being first and foremost a community of values which all signatories accept and respect as being inalienable. Eyeing up the massive payments from Brussels whilst simultaneously shunning European values is undignified and shameful for the EU Member States.

In view of the lamentable shortages of vaccines, the EU Commission and in particular its President have been on the receiving end of accusations for weeks that far too few doses have been ordered, and far too late in the day. This is worth examining more closely: Biontech and Pfizer are initially said to have demanded 54 euros per dose from the EU, whilst the EU ultimately paid just 16 euros. Given the enormous quantities at stake and the vast sums of money involved, the Commission cannot have fared too badly in the negotiations. Nevertheless, the EU has failed to organise a coordinated European procurement process that has met with widespread approval. For example, Hungary and Slovakia are looking beyond the EU to the Sputnik V vaccine and the Danish Prime Minister has embarked upon a vaccine-buying mission in Israel. At the same time, a Danish-Austrian cooperation for vaccine procurement has recently been set up.

Clearly, not everything is going according to plan. There is intransigence, a shortage of solidarity and mistakes have been made. This is nothing new: the problems are well-documented. But doesn’t this and our unwavering belief in a properly functioning Europe offer a solid basis to keep deploying courage and persistence and developing the Community for the sake of its 447 million citizens? So, let’s follow the example of Europa when coming face to face with the transformed King of the Gods. It’s time to take the bull by the horns.

Bernd Saur, dbb