A popular proverb offers a rather accurate illustration of the core principle of the major developments being prepared as part of the so-called Phase 2: “Early bird gets the worm.” That’s true both on a European level and on a global level. No one can say what the market will be like when it comes out of the acute phase of the pandemic, and as it reacts to its unknown and unpredictable progress, but the dominant idea seems to be—if we go beyond the rhetoric of the “era-defining moment”—that it will not deviate much from what we have known so far. Accordingly, the race to be the first to reopen production activities remains the decisive one.
This is all in order to not give any ground to the competition, in order to preserve one’s slice of a market which, however, will presumably be threatened by a crisis of overproduction. It doesn’t take too much acumen to observe how the unequal course of the epidemic, the resources accumulated previously and the staggered timing of the viral spread are putting different economic actors in very different positions (this time without any meritocratic pretexts). Hence the propensity to take risks to compensate for one’s disadvantages. Business is precisely the realm of risk, isn’t it? However, in this case, it’s not so much the risk taken by entrepreneurs, but rather the risk to the lives of their employees, and, as a consequence, to the lives of many others.
In short, there is no doubt that the epidemic crisis is radically altering the sacred laws of competition, but at the same time is preserving them or even exacerbating them. As a result, the reopening strategies of the various governments and the more or less accommodating criteria for the collection and interpretation of data will be strongly conditioned by the impulse to secure the competitiveness of their economies. Forgotten are those rules which, in the European Union, pretended to safeguard the purity of market relations, stigmatizing the intervention of states in support of business and employment as the worst of all heresies.
Now that the framework of competition is dictated by the uncertain development of the epidemic, the European guardians of competition are silent. They are pretending not to realize that the race to restart economic activities is fully within the scope of the abovementioned heresy, with a good dose of gambling and cynicism on top. At the level of the individual states, the exclusive rule of the market is being repeatedly violated, but at the European level it remains the undisputed regulator of relations between competing countries.
If we have learned anything definitive about the European Union, it is that crisis situations (first the financial crisis, then the refugee crisis, then the pandemic crisis) are accentuating the “sovereignist” features set in stone from its construction and the imbalances that run through it. It is moving closer and closer to the moment of collapse, or to the institutionalization of its essentially hierarchical structure. With the current closure of borders and the clashes between national interests, the sheer randomness inherent in what European citizenship means is becoming more and more clear. And the weakness of the Old Continent is bound to affect each of its component countries.
Everything seems to indicate that the seriousness of the crisis we are going through is not leading to any rethinking of the limits of the Union. Quite the contrary. The trap of national priorities is now set. It is now up to the social forces to avoid getting caught in it.
As we know, accumulation is underpinned by a logic that prevents any steps backwards or setbacks. Indeed, this requires adaptation to the given conditions at any costs, no matter how catastrophic they may prove to be. But the accumulation of wealth, individual or national, also comes with another prerogative: the ability to managing the impact of a crisis better and for a longer time. That is to say, the ability to win a war—not against a virus, a death-causing mechanism that does not respond to any war dynamic, but against any mitigation of inequalities, against any attack on situations of privilege; in short, a war to guarantee an undisputed position of power.
Until now, there has been plenty of analysis on who, and how many people, will be brought to ruin by the epidemic, and on what will be lost in terms of income and resources. But as is well known, in catastrophes there is always someone who gains (to give the most banal example, the weapons manufacturers in times of war, or construction companies in case of earthquakes), and we should also start thinking about this aspect (will it be e-commerce platforms? The pharmaceutical industry? The telecommunications sector? Large food distribution? More solid and powerful financial sectors?).
Clearly, this would not be in order to pile hardships on them or to indulge in vengeful moralism. But rather in order to understand how the resources we need will be distributed, and whom we should expect to give up some of them for the benefit of a wounded community. However, in this regard, each country standing alone is powerless.
Only Europe, if it manages to overcome the special interests of its members (for example, tax dumping or other privileges granted to multinationals), would be able to exploit its specific relationship with these economic superpowers and act to ensure a redistribution of resources and prevent the crisis from generating a few winners and countless destitute losers. However, perhaps only an explosive social crisis of unprecedented proportions would lead to movement in this direction—when the flock decides to no longer follow the shepherds and wait quietly for the promised salvation of immunity.