Things are gradually going back to normal. Pubs, restaurants and hairdressers have reopened. People can be seen in pubs again. The streets are as busy as before the lockdown. The traffic gridlocks during peak hours have returned. During the weekend, the city centre is as crowded as usual. After a drastic drop in greenhouse gas emissions over the last few months, emissions are once again picking up – and faster than expected by many climate scientists. Face masks, gloves, gowns, disposable wipes, plastic screens, shields and visors have added to the global plastic pandemic. Used face masks can already be found in rivers, forests, the oceans, and it will not take long until we find bits and pieces of face masks in the stomachs of whales, dolphins and other marine animals.
And yet, things are different. The normal of July 2020 is a new normal, a new normality. Not the same normal as in January and February 2020. Lots of things are the same again. And yet, they aren’t. Now, when you enter a shop, arrows and specific markings on the floor guide your way. When you go out for a day-trip to visit some popular tourist attractions in the region, you have to pre-book time slots. Hand sanitisers are everywhere so that you are constantly reminded to keep your hands sanitised. And when I leave the house, I always carry my face mask with me, probably the most poignant symbol of the new normal.
Reality feels reconfigured; everything feels slightly out of place—a new reality imposing itself over a previous, outdated, obsolete reality. Everything is the same, but it isn’t. The virus has not only reconfigured our daily lives. It is also reconfiguring geopolitics, potentially laying the foundations for the next few decades. At a time when the US is descending into turmoil, chaos and anarchy, on the other side of the planet an ever more assertive China is flexing its muscles, giving us a first taste of the potential threats that will come with the rise of this authoritarian power. India and Brazil, still a few years ago deemed as major emerging economies, will come out of the pandemic severely damaged. And Brazil’s democracy severely undermined. The UK is marching on in its suicidal mission. At the end of the year, the most severe economic recession in the UK for centuries will be compounded by the consequences of a Hard Brexit.
But some developments in this new normal I did find promising and encouraging, at least from my point of view as a passionate European. It seems that in this major crisis, the EU is having its great moment. A new founding moment, to be more precise! The result of the EU summit this week will pass into history as a monumental moment in the history of European integration, laying the foundations for the transformation of Europe and the next logical step in its integration process. The agreement of the financial recovery plan means nothing else than the first step towards a fiscal union with the European Commission having borrowing power. The introduction of EU-wide taxes will soon follow. This EU-wide fiscal response, the new normal in Europe, would have been impossible in the old normal a few months ago. While only the first cautious step, it means nothing less than a revolution in the integration process of the EU.
It is not certain at all if a similar outcome had been possible, would the UK still be a member of the EU and had the UK government thrown its weight into the negotiation process. But this is another aspect of the new normal. The UK is going its own ways, no longer part of the “Community of Shared Destiny”. And the Brexiteers will certainly feel vindicated. After all, a fiscal union would have been the Brexiteers’ worst nightmare come true.
The EU’s achievements have always been based on the art of hammering out compromises among its many nation-states; this consensus-finding process can be cumbersome, frustrating and at times disappointing. But in the end, democratic politics is essentially about compromise. We see in the UK and the US what happens when the virtues of compromise lose their value. But in this new normal, with US democracy in decline and China’s authoritarianism on the rise, it will pay off for European countries to stick together, seek compromise despite their many differences and push further the integration process. In this new normal, small European countries can only survive (and defend their own interests) in a union whose purpose is greater than the sum of its parts. And this fact is as valid in the new normal as it was in the old normal.