By LUCAS BONHOMME VAZQUEZ
Since the inception of national lockdowns across the world many have demanded societal change and a reform of political institutions, arguing that the pandemic is an ideal moment of societal reset. Although it is still impossible to foresee if the world will “go back to normal”, it is evident that change, whether it be countering environmental degradation or tackling political abandonment and lack of transparency, is badly needed. The European Union, which has since 2019 drafted a European Green Deal and other ambitious policies and programmes in order to counter the multiple crises over past decade can seize the opportunity to accelerate necessary societal and political trends, reform itself and improve democracy and the lives of its 446 million inhabitants, as well as becoming a role model for the world to follow.
COVID-19 and its effects had been extremely harmful for a sizeable portion of the European population: EU member states had experienced an 8.5% GDP loss since 2019 and unemployment, in particular youth unemployment, had dramatically increased, hurting several countries such as Spain, already suffering from the remnants of the 2008 Great Recession. Mental health deterioration, which was already an issue before COVID- 19, was also accentuated by the effects of the pandemic. To counter these disastrous effects, the European Union approved Next Generation EU, a recovery package of over 750 billion euros: Although the package obviously will mitigate the negative impact caused by the virus, the future generations will probably face increasing tax rates to cover up for the expenses.
Everything is not grim however: COVID-19 can be an accelerating mechanism to solve pressing issues which might have otherwise taken several decades to solve. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission had placed the fight against climate change and the further digitalisation of European society at the forefront of her agenda even before the pandemic struck. With the imposed lockdowns, the patterns at the workplace have completely changed; commuting has been heavily reduced and a significant portion of the labour force who work in “office jobs" had to rapidly adapt to remote working (which was considered a privilege before the pandemic) and learn how to operate using online meetings and familiarising themselves with software programs. This was also applied to schools and places of higher education in several member states, contributing to the acceleration of von der Leyen's pro-digitalisation agenda. The increase in familiarity with remote working in European countries has also further emancipated parenting, especially mothers who previously found difficulty in accessing the workplace due to being unable to find a balance between caregiving and their job.
Transportation accounts for over 16.2% of global greenhouse gas emissions and although a large amount refers to the transportation of goods, commuting and travel also contribute to global emissions. Both as a result of growing environmental concern during the pandemic and the travel restrictions themselves, attitudes towards frequent human travel are changing at an unparalleled speed: An escapade to the Caribbean or South-eastern Asia used to be seen as desirable, now it is seen as environmentally irresponsible. This process has been accelerated by travel restrictions, and without them, this change in societal habits would have taken even longer. Home energy efficiency had been disregarded by many for a long time, as their presence at home was limited to their sleeping time, however with national lockdowns set in place, there might be a collective realisation that insulation and domestic energy efficiency are fundamental. By properly giving importance and finding solutions to domestic energy usage it is possible to reduce 10.9% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.
Largely initiated by the 2008 Great Recession and the diminishing standards of living, over the past decade the world has experienced a dissatisfaction with the political status quo which manifested itself with the rise of several anti-establishment parties spanning the entire political spectrum. One of the many popular sentiments was Euroscepticism and the impression that the EU is a non-transparent neoliberal organisation which undermines national sovereignty and only benefits the elites, culminating in the 2016 Brexit referendum. With a 51.9% vote in favour of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, the British officially left the bloc in January 2020. Although the EU is currently experiencing backlash at different levels during the pandemic, it can reassess its position and how it can politically reinvent itself. Most agencies of the EU are based in Brussels and in Luxembourg and with the announcement of lockdowns and remote working, several EU civil servants expressed their wish to work from their home countries and were willing to renounce their expatriation bonuses. In addition the European Union is currently considering letting 40% of its personnel to remain working from home. The EU could seize this opportunity to reallocate a segment their current 87 billion euros (around 7% of the 2021-2027 budget) destined for public administration to be reinvested in other projects which would benefit the welfare and wellbeing of European citizens such as increasing funding to research and development to counter the climate crisis or the improvement of public health, which had been neglected at the supranational level prior to the pandemic. This would increase the faith in EU institutions (which is currently below 50% in some EU member states) and would set an example to governments worldwide. This would also have an impact at a more local level: If European institutions authorise some of their personnel to be able to remotely work away from Brussels, this would increase economic growth in their places of origin and would lead to a fairer and more balanced distribution of wealth.
COVID-19 has undoubtedly been an economic and social blow to both European nations and the world. However, by seeing it as a ‘starting point’ for a better, greener, happier future it is possible to take advantage of this tumultuous crisis to accelerate badly needed trends that will lead us to a more resilient, prosperous and fairer society.
IMAGE - Flickr (Renew Europe)