The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

The virus crisis will lead to protectionism, skepticism of international institutions, narrow immigration policies, and other signposts of nationalism; thereby rolling-back policies that characterized the liberal and globalist democratic order.

In early April 2020, the European Court of Justice ruled that Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic had failed their obligations as EU members, because in 2015 they refused to absorb a portion of the 160,000 refugees that made their way into Italy and Greece. The ruling criticized the refusal of these states to abide the EU decision to disperse those migrants among EU member states.

This ruling came just as the coronavirus crisis had begun to expose a growing rift between EU members. The crisis demonstrated George Orwell’s claim that “patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism.”

International institutions have failed significantly in fighting the corona virus. The World Health Organization (WHO), an organization with a respectable history including the worldwide elimination of smallpox as well as significant achievements against other diseases, served in early 2020 mainly as a megaphone for the Chinese official version about the spread of the virus, ignoring warnings by Taiwan and other indicators of an impending pandemic.

The European Union (EU) not only failed to design a unified plan to fight the coronavirus but failed to even come up with a coordinated effort for mitigating the economic shocks of the virus. Italian anger at Brussel’s impotence and the absence of aid from other European countries does not bode well for the robustness of the EU. Not much should be expected of other international and transnational organizations.

This popular anti-Brussels mood will probably grow over time, especially because the crisis has brought to surface basic characteristics of narrow human solidarity. In times of crisis, solidarity is usually limited to a national community or to an even smaller group of people. In Europe, we immediately have seen emergency actions by national governments, accompanied by popular and political protests against transnational frameworks.

In Italy, people burned EU flags while singing the Italian national anthem. Austria has offered support to the Italian autonomous province of South Tyrol, which has a majority of German speaking population, hardly concealing its support for separatist instincts. Germany and the Netherlands have opposed an EU joint debt arrangement in the form of “corona bonds” to help less stable members of the EU. Germany, France and other EU members have banned export of medical equipment, even to other EU members. In Hungary, Prime Minister Victor Orban capitalized on the coronavirus emergency to suspend the Hungarian parliament and rule by presidential decree – with no meaningful reaction from the EU. (Only time will tell if this suspension outlasts the coronavirus emergency.)

Fears about the spread of the virus led to emergency rules limiting free movement between states, reinstating national borders. The effect of those limitations may continue well after the coronavirus disappears. Indeed, the crisis clearly has shown that given the right circumstances, closing a border is possible even inside the Schengen zone, even though the Schengen agreement was intended to create a zone without national borders.

Moreover, under the shadow of the coronavirus crisis, Greece, with support from EU countries, took unprecedented actions in closing its border to illegal immigrants, mostly Moslems, from Turkey. Such steps could become irreversible.

The tendency to distrust international bodies and re-erect national borders, resulting from the corona pandemic, has numerous implications.

One the one hand, even if separatism and isolationism gain momentum, scientific cooperation between countries will likely continue. Scientific cooperation existed in the less-global past, during ages of international competition. In the late 19th century, vaccines and scientific knowledge crossed borders naturally. Frenchman Louis Pasteur’s decorations and honors are a testimony to that. He was honored by the UK, the US, the Netherlands, Tsarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire, among others. And the WHO managed to eradicate smallpox during the height of international tensions, during the Cold War.

However, scientific cooperation against the coronavirus will not strengthen transnational institutions or the globalist worldview. Scientific cooperation is focused on specific projects, and does not translate into a globalist view, much less a readiness to cede significant elements of sovereignty, nor does it encourage support for international institutions, nor open immigration policies. For example, Washington recently declared that it would de-fund the WHO, while continuing to cooperate with other nations in an attempt to find a cure or vaccine to the coronavirus.

Worldwide cooperation between scientists is unlikely to led to altruistic global feelings. It is hard to find in history an example of a widespread crisis or a plague that lead to more tolerance, or a rise in transnational ideas. The Spanish flu (which began in the US) killed scores of people everywhere but did not lead people to identify with “humanity” or other abstract transnational concepts. The wave of revolutions and counterrevolutions that erupted around the world after the Spanish flu (and WWI) passed – do not make for a positive precedent.

In all likelihood, nationalism and even isolationism will continue to gain strength even in the liberal strongholds of Europe, and definitely so in the US. This will serve to balance the processes underway of integration in a globalized world. It is hard to imagine that attempts to create binding transnational and global norms and legal systems will succeed at this time. In fact, openness towards free trade, international investments and population movements may be reversed.

Populist leaders have long sought to spur local production policies even when the reigning economic dogma was that free trade benefits all nations. The world will not now revert to the pre-free trade era, but we will see growing pressures within Western countries to rely on local production of “vital” industries, such as food, medical equipment, and drugs. Even today, many countries still subsidize their agricultural and automobile industries.

It is also probable that immigration to the West will be curtailed. After the coronavirus is eliminated, or a vaccine or a cure developed, it will still be harder to immigrate into economically fortunate states. Such forecast is valid even if people are screened before flying or if a “biological passport” procedure materializes to certify good health. Countries are still likely to put more barriers on the way of migrants, especially from countries with less than satisfactory health systems, and especially if the economic recovery from the coronavirus will be slow. Migrants will probably be perceived (even where this is not justified) as competing with the local population for jobs. The rise of xenophobia is almost inevitable. Silly ideas, such as the “Hug a Chinese” campaign to fight xenophobia in Florence, Italy, have been counterproductive.

In the longer term, the view that immigration is a fundamental human right, as promoted in the UN’s Global Compact for Migration and by some figures within the EU, will probably face increasing resistance. The coronavirus crisis already has shown that countries can take steps that were unthinkable until recently, especially as international institutions have failed to formulate and execute effective policies.

The rift will grow between nationalist impulses and universalist views. In a October 2019 interview, the former prime minister of Belgium and chairman of the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group, Guy Verhofstadt, could claim that the sovereignty of European countries “doesn’t exist in a globalized world” (!). He asserted that the only way for European countries to guard their interests is “in a European framework and in the European Union.” Yet during the corona pandemic the EU has failed to safeguard the specific interests of individual countries. As a result, most European states have chosen to unilaterally defend their own interests, and as mentioned, have refused to render aid other European countries.

The failure of the EU to formulate and execute a unified policy during the immigrant/refugee crisis of 2015 was attributed to nationalist ideology and the failure of specific countries (eastern European countries in particular) to embrace a progressive universalist outlook. This cannot be said of the current crisis. The corona crisis will not bring about a breakdown of the EU, but it is strengthening nationalist preferences at the expense of transnational approaches. This is true for the rest of the world, too.

In such circumstances, Israel faces both dangers and opportunities. The renewed rise of nationalism could increase xenophobia and antisemitism, as it has in the past. On the other hand, the liberal idea that the “nation state” has run its course and that there is no place in the liberal democratic order for nation states (including the Jewish nation state) – likely will lose momentum. Greater understanding for nationalism fortifies the legitimacy of the State of Israel, which is the major national project of the Jewish People.


JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.


photo: Bigstock

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