Last night (8 April), more than 2,000 Greens from across Europe gathered virtually for a European Corona Conference, a sharing of experiences and ideas of how collectively we can come to terms with the viral tidal wave sweeping through our nations.
Aside from the occasional wry comparison to Eurovision, it was a serious, considered, but not downbeat discussion of where we are now, and where the events of the past month might take us.
It brought together Greens from Asturias (northern Spain) to Chisinau (Moldova), Gdansk to Dublin (those were some of the locations I noticed in the chat box) – and among the speakers featured our own former MEP Molly Scott Cato, given pride of place as the first speaker, for as moderator and organiser German MEP Sven Giegold said, “the UK for us always belongs to Europe”.
There was universal agreement on a point made by Giegold at the start – this is not just a health crisis.
As Jamila Schafer, the German Federal Vice-Chair, said: “The claim that neoliberalism kills has been confirmed by the coronavirus epidemic.”
It showed us, she said, that we humans are dependent on biological processes and all live in one shared world.
“The logic of profit maximisation really damages our resilience in epidemics, as well as our climate. We’re acknowledging that we need to think about how to meet our basic needs without being dependent on growth.” (Something I’ve also been reflecting on in the UK.)
It has also exposed democratic weaknesses, and allowed autocratic approaches to expand, as a Polish Green MP and party co-chair, Malgorzata Tracz, noted, turning a health crisis into a democratic crisis. Molly has reflected also how that is happening in Hungary.
Bas Eickhout from the Netherlands said that when lists of the crucial workers were published, “people noticed that they are all in fields where we have been cutting funding for decades”. As Molly said of the UK: “There’s been a complete re-evaulation of the people in our society who matter most”.
Eickhout noted how in the Netherlands, economics was being rethought. “Putting ‘efficiency’ number one might not be the wisest thing to do. Sixty per cent of Dutch people say that this is a moment for rethinking our economic model.” Dutch coronavirus patients were being treated in German intensive care beds, following years of the Dutch mocking the Germans for ‘inefficiently’ holding spare capacity.
We heard from states that are clearly handling the situation well. Austrian Green and health minister Rudi Anschober outlined how his country had united.
Young people are assuming responsibility for the elderly, seeing the state as an institution that protects. And because of the crisis, people have turned away from rightwing extremists. They see they have no answers to a collective threat.
And we heard from states that are struggling, and some of the lessons they are learning. Ernest Urtasun, an MEP and economist from Barcelona, reflected on how Spain has three times as many ICU beds as Belgium. Its health capacity was now completely over-run, while Belgium’s is only 50 per cent occupied. “There is a political and cultural battle – the need to work for the common good – to be won,” he said.
Greek Green Michael Bakas spoke to us from the island of Lesbos, with its acute refugee crisis, but noted how a year ago a right-wing Greek government was saying there were too many doctors and calling for health privatisation. It has changed its tune now.
Claude Turmes, the Luxembourg Minister for Energy, said: “There will be a pre-corona politics and politics after corona.”
One of the things he reflected on was a long-time Green concern with relocalisation of economies. Complex, completely globalised supply chains will be rethought.
Turmes continued: “It is about relief, recovery and reform, as Roosevelt said.” When it comes to the second two, we’d have to look at moving to a zero-carbon steel industry, strong localised supply chains for renewable energy.
“The environment and solidarity, reducing our social divides, can be put first,” he concluded.
Or as Petra de Sutter, a Belgian MEP and gynaecologist, put it: “If the house is burning down, it has to be rebuilt. But we don’t need to rebuild it in the same way. We can rebuild it sustainably.”
As Molly said: “We’ve known for a long time that we have to transform our economy. We missed our chance after the economic crisis of 2008-09, but now we are again asking why we are wasting energy and destroying our climate for an economy that doesn’t meet human needs”.
So the discussion kept returning to the idea of a Green New Deal. As Molly concluded, after the epidemic, there will be a moment when a lot of money will become available for the recovery. “Our job is to make sure that massive public investment is used to create a just and sustainable economy.”