Only one thing is for sure about the post-pandemic world: there is no going back to the globalized economy that preceded it. Everything else is at stake, including the rise of China, the fate of the United States, and the survival of the European Union.
You have seen many crises. Is the covid-19 pandemic comparable to any of the above?
No. This is the biggest crisis of my life. Even before the pandemic, I had realized that we were in a revolutionary moment, where what in normal times would be impossible or even inconceivable had not only become possible but, almost certainly, absolutely necessary. And then came covid-19, which has completely altered people’s lives and demands a very different behavior. It is an unprecedented fact that probably never happened in this combination. And it poses a real danger to the survival of civilization.
Is that the biggest problem in the current situation, the lack of certainty about how to deal with this virus and how to proceed in the coming months or years?
There is no doubt that it is a very big problem. We are learning very fast, and now we know much more about the virus than when it first appeared; but it is shooting at a moving target, because the virus changes very fast. Developing a vaccine will take a long time. And even when we have developed it, we will have to learn how to modify it every year, because the virus will most likely mutate. It’s what we do every year with the flu vaccine.
Will this crisis change the nature of capitalism? Even before COVID-19 produced this catastrophic recession, the negative aspects of globalization and free trade were already receiving more attention.
We will not go back to where we were when the pandemic started. That’s pretty clear, but it’s the only thing. The rest is all in doubt. I don’t think anyone knows how capitalism will evolve.
Are we seeing it in the mutual blame game between the United States and China regarding the origin of the virus?
The conflict between the United States and China complicates matters, because we must work together on climate change and developing a vaccine against covid-19. But we can’t seem to – we are already competing to see who will develop and who will use the vaccine. The fact that we have two very different systems of government, democratic and …
Yes. That makes everything more difficult. Many say that we would have to work very closely with China, but I do not agree. We must protect our open democratic society. At the same time, we must find a way to cooperate in the fight against climate change and the new coronavirus. It will not be easy. My feelings are with the Chinese people, because they are under the rule of a dictator, President Xi Jinping. I think that many more educated Chinese are sorry for it, and that the general population is still very angry with him for keeping COVID-19 a secret until after the Chinese New Year.
Can it happen that Xi Jinping loses power when the Chinese understand that the handling of the crisis was not optimal?
Definitely. When Xi abolished consecutive term limits and essentially appointed himself president for life, he left the most important and ambitious members of a very small and competitive elite without a political future. He made a big mistake. So although in a sense it is very strong, at the same time it is extremely weak and now perhaps vulnerable. I closely follow the internal struggle of the Chinese leadership, because I am on the side of those who believe in an open society. And in China there are many who also agree to an open society.
But the current president of the United States does not really represent the values of a free and open society …
It’s a flaw that I hope won’t last too long. Donald Trump would like to be a dictator. But he can’t, because in the United States there is a constitution that people still respect. That will put some limits on you. It does not mean that he is not going to try, because he is literally fighting for his life. I must also say that I am hopeful that Trump will self-destruct, and in that sense he has far exceeded my fantasies.
What role does the European Union (your home, which worries you so much) have in this struggle for power?
I am particularly concerned about the survival of the European Union because it is an incomplete union. It was in the process of being created, but that process was never completed, and that makes Europe exceptionally vulnerable; more than the United States, not only because it is an incomplete union, but also because it is based on the rule of law. And justice is slow, while threats like the covid-19 virus are very fast. This creates a particular problem for the European Union.
Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court caused a stir with its ruling on the European Central Bank. Does that worry you?
It worries me a lot. The ruling poses a threat that can destroy the European Union as an institution based on the rule of law, precisely because it arises from the German constitutional court, which is the most respected institution in Germany. Before issuing the verdict, the German judges had consulted the European Court of Justice, and later decided to rule against. So now we have a conflict between the German constitutional court and the European Court of Justice. Which of the two takes precedence?
Technically, European treaties give the TEJ supremacy in this area. That is very clear …
It is true. By joining the European Union, Germany committed to submitting to European law. But the ruling raises an even bigger question: If the German court can challenge the decisions of the European Court of Justice, will other countries follow suit? Can Hungary and Poland choose between European law and their own courts, the legitimacy of which the European Union has questioned? Poland immediately seized the opportunity and asserted the supremacy of its (government-controlled) courts over European law. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has already used the emergency due to covid-19 and a controlled parliament to name himself a dictator. The parliament only continues to meet to endorse its decrees, which is clearly contrary to European law. If the verdict of the German court prevents the European Union from opposing these events, it will be the end of the European Union that we know.
You sound very pessimistic.
Quite the opposite. I admit that Europe faces several existential dangers. It is not a rhetorical figure, it is reality. The verdict of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany is just the latest challenge. But once this is recognized, we can rise to the challenge and take exceptional measures appropriate to the exceptional circumstances that we live in. It certainly applies to consols (perpetual bonds), which should never be issued in normal times, but are ideal right now. As long as I can propose measures such as the issuance of consoles, I will not lose hope.
Gregor Peter Schmitz is editor-in-chief of Augsburger Allgemeine and co-author, with George Soros, of ‘The Tragedy of the European Union’.