Why the European Union is not doomed to fail

The coronavirus crisis has exposed frailties but the EU’s regulatory superpower status will endure

May 06, 2020
German and Italian leaders Angela Merkel and Giuseppe Conte earlier this year. Photo: Kay Nietfeld/DPA/PA Images
German and Italian leaders Angela Merkel and Giuseppe Conte earlier this year. Photo: Kay Nietfeld/DPA/PA Images

The European Union’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been marked by insufficient acts of coordination and solidarity. Member states have turned inwards, closing their borders and curtailing medical exports. Italy has felt abandoned by its fellow Europeans while the attempts to craft a common fiscal response to the crisis has revived the well-rehearsed north-south battles over solidarity and sovereignty.

This feeble and fragmented response, coming on the heels of multiple other crises that the EU has endured in the past decade, has hastened the already prevalent narratives of growing disunity and inevitable decline. The grimmest projections predict a collapse of the monetary union or an eventual disintegration of the EU. A more common view portrays the EU as a powerless entity that has little to offer to its citizens. Its dwindling influence over world affairs, the argument goes, will further wither away with each crisis.

Yet this narrative is too quick to predict the erosion of the EU. It also rests on an outdated view of what power means in today’s world. There is an important aspect to the EU’s unity and global influence that remains robust, relevant, and largely unaffected by the crises—the unilateral ability to regulate global markets.

The EU regulations influence the everyday lives of individuals around the world. They affect the food we eat, the air we breathe and the products we produce and consume. Few realise that EU standards determine the default privacy settings on our iPhones or the type of speech that Twitter will delete as unacceptable. They also determine how timber is harvested in Indonesia, how honey is produced in Brazil, what pesticides cocoa farmers use in Cameroon, what equipment is used in dairy factories in China, what chemicals are used in plastic toys in Japan, as well as how much privacy is afforded to internet users in Latin America.

Despite its well-known inefficiencies, through its regulations, the EU wields unique and highly penetrating power to unilaterally transform global markets, making Brussels a major force in the global economy. All the EU needs to do is to regulate the single market. In search for scale economies and other benefits of uniform production, multinational companies often voluntarily standardise their global operations around the most stringent standard, which is typically the EU’s. As a result, powerful global companies ranging from Google and Facebook to Unilever and Dow Inc., design their products to meet European standards.

Regulatory power persists even when many traditional tools of influence have become less deployable. Military power is particularly costly to leverage; few would characterise the US-led wars in Afghanistan or Iraq as examples of successful deployment of power. Economic clout leveraged though sanctions or conditional loans is similarly difficult to project as it can easily be undermined by other governments. In comparison, unilateral regulatory power relies on companies’ self-interest, allowing the EU to forgo costly coercion and difficult cooperation in projecting its influence globally.

The EU’s regulatory strength is also largely unaffected by crises because of its technocratic nature. The commission bureaucrats remain focussed on their assigned regulatory domains without being distracted by the broader crises, allowing the agenda to flourish even when a major political or economic shock hits its core. For example, neither the refugee crises nor the Brexit referendum derailed the GDPR, the EU’s stringent data privacy regulation. The commission will similarly likely go ahead and unveil an ambitious Digital Services Act later this year. The pandemic may lead the EU to rethink how to balance the individual right to privacy with the need to harness technology to trace public health emergencies. But Brussels is unlikely to scale back its regulatory ambitions, or allow unmitigated digital surveillance to be entrenched as the new normal.

This regulatory supremacy is not only largely shielded from crises; it may well grow through them. Since the euro crisis, ambitious efforts to reinforce the eurozone architecture have taken place. Brussels has gained rather than lost powers. Migration crises similarly led to the strengthening the role of Frontex, the common European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

Brexit offers another example of how sticky the EU’s power is and how this may grow through crises. The UK is struggling to untangle itself and reclaim regulatory sovereignty, with many UK businesses prone to follow EU standards long after UK departure, due to the proximity and importance of the EU market. Meanwhile, after leaving, the UK’s pro-market voice will be gone from the table where EU regulations are set. This will open the door for more interventionist regulatory standards advocated by member states such as France and Germany. Brexit may therefore lead to more, rather than fewer, EU regulations emanating from Brussels to London.

Vesting the EU with more powers may well be the ultimate response to the coronavirus pandemic as well. Today, the EU has limited powers to regulate public health, which remains a prerogative of the member states. Post-crisis, member states might conclude that joint diagnosis, testing, procurement of medical supplies, exchange of critical information, and joint research on developing a vaccine are needed to keep Europeans safe in the future.

The challenges the EU faces today should not be underestimated. But this pandemic—like the other crises before it—does not need to signal the EU’s weakness nor its unraveling. The bloc has repeatedly proven its ability to survive, and even grow, through difficult circumstances. Nation states alone cannot fight a global pandemic, manage migration flows, mitigate climate change or respond to the financial crises that shake the deeply intertwined global economy. The strength of the European regulatory state provides a crucial ballast for Europe to weather storms, and the post-pandemic world may well be marked by a more, rather than less, powerful EU.

Anu Bradford is Henry L Moses Professor of Law and International Organisation at Columbia and author of The Brussels Effect: How the European Union Rules the World (OUP)