The United Kingdom has been in lockdown for a few weeks because of Covid-19. The National Health System is overwhelmed. The Prime minister is in hospital. The streets are empty and more and more people have started wearing masks or scarves when they go out. Parks are still open and feel like the only breathable escape for people who live in flats. People are allowed to go out only briefly, for shopping, exercise or essential work. Therefore, most of us spend a big part of their days indoors, homeworking, supporting our children’s home-schooling or looking after babies and toddlers.
In this context, anxiety, anger and fear are widespread feelings. We feel anxious because we do not know how long this nightmare is going to last; angry because we do not understand why we, ordinary citizens, have become the only efficient public policy to stop the spread of this pandemic; what about speeding up the development of treatments, medicines and a vaccine? We are also angry that the members of the medical staff have to risk their lives to treat such a huge amount of people in such a short space of time without the appropriate material, treatments and protective gears; and of course we are afraid to get sick or to see our closed ones catch the disease.
Nonetheless, is there any reason to not fall into despair? I do think that there are also reasons to remain optimistic in the short and longer term and at the individual and collective levels.
On a micro level, we now have to enjoy simple things that we normally neglect because of or busy lives: spending more time with our children and spouses, focusing on the simple aspects of live, do more sport, games and spend quality time in gardens or parks in a much less polluted environment thanks to reduced activity. We have stopped commuting to work, stuck in traffic or crowded public transport. Besides, noisy and stressful open spaces have been replaced by working at home for most. Certainly, kids around your work space can be stressful but it is definitely not as draining as the commercial atmosphere most of us work in.
On a macro level, there might be long term positive consequences from this crisis after the obvious collective damage it will have caused. First of all, governments have had to act extremely fast to invest resources in the public health systems and other parts of the economy. This move has now been partly coordinated at the European level. Public institutions have also had to take measures to compensate for the detrimental social impact of this crisis on individual incomes. In that respect, the economic unemployment put in place by the British government could be a huge change for the currently very weak social system in this country. This has happened regardless of the ideological colour of the governments in place.
Even when this crisis is over, political actors might also realise that they can no longer postpone the deepening of supranational cooperation in order to deal with pressing global challenges. With a European sovereign government, managing such a crisis would be much smoother: a sovereign macro-economic policy would alleviate its negative economic impact; a proper management of borders and immigration policy as well as a security union would make it easier to control the flow of people; and if such European government were not only sovereign but also democratic and submitted to the rule of law, such policies could gather the agreement of a majority of citizens and be checked and balanced in order to curb any power abuse (for more on this, see my book “For a sovereign Europe”, Peter Lang, Oxford, 2019; https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=sophie+heine+youtube+for+a+sovereign+europe&docid=607993199218592952&mid=2F8DBE2674C8D1987BC82F8DBE2674C8D1987BC8&view=detail&FORM=VIRE).
These positive outcomes are not predictions, mere possibilities. Rather than following a determined path, human history results from a combination of factors: long term structures that set the context we have to deal with but also contingent institutions and policies put in place by human actors. It is in this second dimension that collective agency can be deployed, since these institutions and policies are the result of a battle of interests and ideologies. If interest cannot be totally subsumed under ideologies, they are often the ground on which the battle of ideas unfolds. These interests are of course very much framed by overall structures imposing themselves of us in the short term – economic, ecological and sanitary – but the discourses and ideologies articulating these interests help shape and make sense of them.
In these unprecedented times, the structural dimension – both sanitary and economic – is a constraint we cannot escape in the short term but the policies and institutions dealing with them are however more flexible : they can be changed to reverse what seems like an inescapable course of events. However this cannot be done at the level of States sonly. this is why we desperately need a properly sovereign government at the European level and, one day, a world government. This last objective is more likely to be achived by the collaboration of several supra-regions.
If social and political actors seize this opportunity to elaborate a mobilising discourse around the notion of European sovereignty, this could be the key to rebuild political agency. the demise of effective national sovereignty that has taken place over the last decades has not been compensated by the creation of sovereign power at supra-regional level. Yet, without sovereignty, political agency only becomes a demagogic fiction.
Dr in Politics
Author and consultant