Brussels, 13 January 2022
This post does not necessarily represent the positions, policies, or opinions of the Council of the European Union or the European Council.
Whilst much has been written about the EU’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, few commentaries, if any, can equal Luuk van Middelaar’s comprehensive and critical analysis of decision-making by the EU and national governments during the crisis. From the moment that pandemonium was unleashed on an inattentive Europe by an insidious virus, van Middelaar chronicles how the EU moved from initial inaction to orchestrating a coordinated response, including an unprecedented level of financial assistance.
Pandemonium is a strong word; it denotes a place of chaos, tumult and confusion. First penned by John Milton in 1667 in his epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’ about the biblical fall of Adam and Eve, Pandemonium was the capital city of Hell. In the first days and weeks of the pandemic in February 2020, amidst the confusion and hellish scenes of doctors and nurses scrambling to save lives, the EU had no joint response. Fear and deep uncertainty compelled member states to close their borders, destabilising one of the central tenets of the EU – free movement.
An academic and expert on the history and workings of the EU, Luuk van Middelaar provides an insightful analysis of the coronavirus pandemic, which not only posed a threat to citizens’ lives and livelihoods, but, according to the author, also risked weakening the stability of the European project itself.
The book is divided into five chapters, a prologue and an entr’acte, charting the turns of events and the role changes on Europe’s political stage during the crisis. The prologue vividly paints the scene of the early days of the disaster, with panic unfolding in Europe. Chapter 1 reflects on how the EU survived previous threats, such as the banking and Euro crises from 2008, massive migration flows in 2015-16, and Brexit, and analyses why the COVID crisis caused such an unprecedented political challenge for the EU, initially paralysing action and solidarity.
In Chapter 2, van Middelaar’s analysis is that the pandemic is creating a revolution before our very eyes, with a move from ‘rules-politics’ to ‘events-politics’. More than during any other major crisis, the public’s calls for the EU to act have prompted political action. Amid the pandemonium of the pandemic, citizens indeed expected political leaders to act quickly to save lives, safeguard jobs and stem the spread of the virus.
The remaining chapters examine the fascinating interplay between the public and politics, looking at :
- the COVID crisis through the lens of events-politics, triggered by the enormity of the public health crisis and the deep shifts in public sentiment (Chapter 3);
- the metamorphosis of the EU from a ‘depoliticised Brussels rules-making factory’ to a more visible and open way of forging political decisions and joint action amongst the 27 national governments and with the Commission (Chapter 4);
- how the public is beginning to regard Europe’s geostrategic position, particularly in relation to China and the USA, as ‘its business’ (Chapter 5).
The longest part of the book, dedicated to a gripping chronicle of the coronavirus crisis, is broken down into the key political phases: ‘Sickness and Health’; ‘Borders’; ‘Debt and Credit’; ‘The Vaccine Wars’; and finishing with ‘Disbursement Uproar’ in May 2021. Readers are taken on a journey back through the pandemic, reliving this recent history through van Middelaar’s politically perceptive eyes.
‘Pandemonium – Saving Europe’ serves to clarify and deepen our insight into the reasons why the EU institutions and national governments reacted and interacted as they did during the coronavirus pandemic and how they were able to improvise to find solutions. Luuk van Middelaar is at his best when describing the dynamics of decision-making at EU level during a crisis, often revealing insights into the personalities involved. Commenting on the limits and dynamics of the ‘Zoom diplomacy’ of the virtual European summits, van Middelaar enables readers to grasp the unprecedented challenges to collective decision-making faced by the President and members of the European Council.
To anyone interested in the politics and evolution of the European Union, this book provides a vivid description and a perceptive analysis of the response in Europe to the dramatic events we have all been living through since March 2020. It is indeed a compelling account of how crisis solutions were improvised and how this latest crisis has created a sense of common responsibility and resilience amongst European leaders as well as an awakening to the need for a Union with strategic autonomy.
About the author :
Luuk van Middelaar, a historian and political theorist, is Professor of EU law at the Europa Institute of Leiden University and is a member of the Dutch Advisory Council on International Affairs.
If interested in reading the book, the library has print and electronic versions.