Since the beginning of the pandemic and its global spread, I have come across an abundance of articles, passionately announcing that this historic event will change everything; that it will change how we work and live; that it will even change our attitude towards climate change and make us more aware of global threats and the necessity to find together and cooperate. I have been sceptical of these announcements ever since. Sure, some things will change, and quite massively so, but other things will change much less massively, and other things again will stay very much as they have always been. For example, it can be doubted that COVID-19 will change the predatory nature of the human being.
Of course, the historical nature of an event or a combination of events can only be fully appreciated with some reliable judgement in hindsight. Our problem is that we are caught right in the middle of historic events unfolding. And when you are caught right in the middle of a historic storm, any predictions are very much speculative.
So, let’s speculate then about what might change, what might not change that much, and what might not change at all. The Frankensteinian Trump government might be history in half a year – or not. While things are certainly not going well for Trump, six months is still a very long time, and one mistake many commentators around the world have made again and again is to underestimate Donald Trump (as well as the support for Donald Trump within US society). The Bolsonaro government in Brazil, the tropical Frankenstein of our times, is slowly melting away. And in some ways, Brazil might be extraordinarily lucky. Unlike in India, Brazil is currently governed by an incompetent authoritarian, an authoritarian so remarkably incompetent that he is not even able to capitalise on this crisis. And authoritarian leaders need crises to emerge, thrive and prosper. Highly competent authoritarian leaders in China, Hungary, Poland and India show very well how to use such a crisis to their advantage and cement their authority as well as authoritarian rule. Bolsonaro’s astounding incompetence as an authoritarian leader in this crisis is leading to his own undoing, instead. So, again Bolsonaro might be history very soon – or not. The majority of MPs in Brazil’s Congress are as rotten and corrupt and criminal as Bolsonaro and his thugs themselves.
Boris Johnson and his Brexit government, another version of today’s Frankensteinian politics, has come under enormous pressure in the face of their incompetent handling of the crisis. But although Labour is finally led by a competent and serious leader again, exposing Johnson’s clownesk, chaotic and feverish attitude day after day, Johnson is in the lucky position to have a huge majority on his side and not facing elections for several years. Instead, and this shows the competence of this authoritarian-leaning government and leader, he will use this pandemic to finally achieve what this government and prime minister has always been about: a hard Brexit and the most drastic cut with the European Union and the European integration project in history. The ambition of this government from the very beginning has been to restructure the UK economy and society beyond recognition and in line with their neoliberal worldviews. Now, with this pandemic unfolding and the most severe economic crisis in centuries looming, this is their moment. And due to COVID-19, we will never know how socially, politically and economically costly and damaging Brexit (its hard version) at the end of this year will have been to the UK. The UK government will be able to easily attribute all (or at least most) of the damage to COVID-19.
One message this week made me hopeful, though: the announcement of the French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel to set up a €500 billion recovery fund, a coordinated European fiscal response to the crisis. Now, this is, in many ways, an extraordinary moment. This would be the first tiny and cautious step towards a common and EU-wide financial policy, a further remarkable moment in the history of the European integration project. There is lots of opposition to this proposal, not least from within Germany. After all, the German government was the most vocal opponent to so-called EU bonds. Not anymore! Now, it will we up to Macron and Merkel to convince governments from the Netherlands, Austria (Germany’s allies in opposing EU bonds) and others to follow the Franco-German lead. Without any doubt, the German chancellor will have her work laid out. But due to fortunate circumstances, Germany will take over the presidency of the council of the EU on 1 July (the EU presidency, so to say), the ideal platform for the German government to turn the Franco-German proposal into a new historic reality and revolutionise the European integration project.