Polity Maintenance – a SOLID definition
‘For us in Germany, the commitment to a united Europe is part and parcel of our reason of state […] We are a community of fate’.— Angela Merkel, 23 April 2020
In the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic, when states were scrambling to shut borders and protect national populations, why was Angela Merkel so focused on the fate of Europe? What motivated this uncharacteristically impassioned public intervention? Our research suggests she was engaging in polity maintenance with respect to the European Union.
This is a term that features prominently in SOLID’s research, but what exactly does it refer to? In this post, we outline how SOLID team members have developed and applied the concept of polity maintenance in our research on the EU’s recent crisis politics, and how it relates to other key concepts in our series.
What is Polity Maintenance?
Maurizio Ferrera, who has developed the polity maintenance concept over several years, defines it minimally as ‘safeguarding the durability of a territorial community’. But while this is incumbent on leaders in any political territory, he suggests it is an especially present concern in the European Union. Why? Because the EU is a ‘novel and undefined’ a form of compound polity without precedent in world politics. Though nation states have faced the same types of crisis as the EU over the past decade – economic, migratory, public health – statehood has typically afforded them a stability that does not threaten their capacity to govern, or even perhaps even threaten them with a more wholesale breakup. This is not a luxury for the EU. When policies are politicised on this level, as is typical of crisis events, it is faced with ‘polity crisis’, a form of politicisation that questions the very merits of EU supranational governance and membership. This typically comprises calls from Eurosceptics either for powers to be returned from the EU to states, or for states to withdraw from some key European institutions (Greece, when considering withdrawal from the Euro) or from the EU wholesale (Brexit).
Such episodes are typically characterised by polarisation, both within and between states, and as such EU leaders and those seeking to hold the EU polity together must work actively in a mode of ‘polity maintenance’ to encourage the resolution, depolarisation and depoliticisation of crisis events. Our research examines the motives, modes and ultimate effectiveness of how polity maintenance has been deployed in the face of polity crisis over the EU’s long decade of crisis. To date, we have found it to be particularly evident during the extraordinary challenge presented by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Polity Maintenance in SOLID’s Research
In European Union and Cross-National Solidarity, Maurizio Ferrera juxtaposes two bad experiments in bonding and binding Europeans nations within the EU (Euro Crisis, Brexit) with one successful case (Covid-19). For Ferrera, polity maintenance is absent through the introduction of Article 50, facilitating Brexit, and through the Euro Area crisis, where ordoliberal ideas prevailed to leave certain EU states absorbing significant costs and creating lasting fractures and polarisation between northern and southern blocs. However, it is embodied in a ‘ethos of togetherness’ and its ‘deliberate political cultivation’ during the Covid-19 pandemic. With EU leaders facing an unprecedented policy crisis and stalked by the legacy of the Euro area crisis, this involved a two-pronged deployment of polity maintenance. The first was the comparatively rapid policy resolution of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) to assist states in coping with the economic fallout from the pandemic. But this was accompanied by a public communications campaign centred on community values and togetherness.
At the heart of this was Germany, and Chancellor Angela Merkel. Ferrera argues that Merkel used public speech to emphasise the seriousness of the Covid inflection point for the EU, to highlight the possibility of its failure, and convey the impossibility of a prosperous future without it (‘Europe must act together, the nation state alone has no future’).
This public communication element is elaborated in greater depth in Ferrera, Stefano Ronchi and Joan Miró’s paper, Walking the Road Together, which argues that polity maintenance during Covid-19 meant the pursuit of legitimation for a collective response. This goal must be ‘discursively constructed’, and it must flow from ‘constructive conflict’ that aims to resolve difference while remaining attentive to the overriding goal of holding the EU together. Using an extensive dataset of leaders’ speech interventions covered in the European press, the paper shows that Merkel shifted her narration of the crisis at key junctures, allowing her to build on domestic support and carry this into multilateral compromises, such as the RRF, that bridged deep-seated divisions between so-called ‘Frugal’, southern and central-eastern member states.
Finally, in Buying Time for Democracies, Zbig Truchlewski, Waltraud Schelkle and Joseph Ganderson also identify a polity maintenance logic in the EU’s efforts to govern through the Covid crisis. Contra suggestions that emergency politics are antithetical to democratic governance – especially when undertaken at the EU level – this paper argues that crisis politics can intensify processes of inter-state deliberation, consensus forging and institution-building. The paper uses a novel dataset of Covid policy actions to show how the European Commission absorbed member state policy claims and worked to resolve immediate issues, while buying time for communion on more contentious, precedent-setting subjects such as how to fund the European economic recovery. This was polity maintenance to the same ends playing out by different means. Here, it was not holding the EU together discursively, but by sequencing policymaking in a manner that absorbed diverse claims and preferences and creating time and space to defuse conflict and broker consensus. So, in sum, the EU is uniquely vulnerable to wholesale politicisation when crisis events threaten the functioning of its core institutions. Polity maintenance is a behavioural trait or logic of action demonstrated by EU leaders in response, involving deliberate actions aimed at depoliticisation and brokering policy paths forward that core EU instititions. It has been observed most frequently during the most testing of recent crises, Covid-19.
Ferrera – The European Union and Cross National Solidarity: Safeguarding ‘Togetherness’ in Hard Times
Ferrera, Miró and Ronchi – Walking the Road Together: EU Polity Maintenance in times of Covid-19
Truchlewski, Schelkle and Ganderson – Buying Time for Democracies? European Union Emergency Politics in the Time of Covid-19