The economic, social, political and cultural consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic are continually being discovered. Learning to think differently will become more and more necessary as we become aware that far from being a passing event, the pandemic is profoundly transforming our societies, our ways of living, working, producing, moving, consuming, celebrating and entertaining. This profound transformation becomes considerably more complicated when we consider the, sometimes, incomprehensible geographical dynamics of the virus. Countries that prided themselves on having contained the epidemic are suddenly being hit in the most brutal way, while those that were bending under the weight of Covid-19 a few months ago now seem to be doing better than others. This is one of the most striking differences from the financial crisis of 2008: it seems that no government dares to give lessons of virtue to its European partners any more. However, this strange geographical dynamic could pose a threat to the economic, social and territorial cohesion of the European Union and its member states. A kind of socio-economic desynchronisation. This is why we need to learn to think about a new multi-level governance of the pandemic.

One of the somewhat unexpected effects of the pandemic is the current rise in tensions between large cities within the same country. In France for example, the cities of Paris and Marseille have been the subject of much media attention, because of the strong desire not to have health protection measures "imposed" by the central government. This tension also occurred in Germany, between "Munich the disciplined and Berlin the libertarian". In the United Kingdom, between London and the north of England, demonstrations were held both in Liverpool and Manchester to contrast the decision "imposed" by the capital to close down bars and pubs. In Belgium, the same dynamic occurred between Antwerp and Brussels, and between Flanders and Wallonia. In Spain, the situation is slightly different as Madrid itself is the city most affected, and the conflict is, therefore between Madrid and the federal government. This shows that, in addition to a dispute between cities, it is above all a dispute between the central power and other large urban areas which fear that they will be subjected to special health measures taken to contain the pandemic.

Such an increase in conflict within EU member states is caused by the fact that no national authority wishes to implement a nationwide lockdown, throughout the whole territory, as was the case in the spring of 2020. Consequentially, measures will have to be taken at regional or even city level. This desire to avoid national lockdown is undoubtedly legitimate, given the economic and social damage of the measures taken, sometimes "blindly", according to some, last spring. But the consequence that we are beginning to observe, and which could become even stronger in the months to come is the increase in national and territorial conflicts between cities and regions of the same nation.

Lack of coordination

Such a risk cannot be taken lightly. At the European level, the lack of coordination between member states was widely criticised at the beginning of the pandemic. Each country then took its own decisions to close borders, order medical equipment, ban travel to this or that country and so on, leading to a cacophony of measures and regulations. It took many months for the term "policy coordination" to emerge in the diplomatic discussions of the Council of the EU. On 13 October, a recommendation was - at last - adopted by the EU Council establishing common criteria and mapping to enable member states to take more coherent decisions. However, such a recommendation is not legally binding. It is a political call for member states that is to be hoped to be taken seriously.

For the major political difficulty ahead will be to reconcile European coordination of measures (for greater coherence, efficiency and transparency), and the adaptation of these measures as closely as possible to regional or even local situations to avoid national lockdown, at the risk of a sharp rise in intra-national tensions, or even economic and social fragmentation: Can we imagine seeing one city affected by severe local containment, shops closed, SMEs on the verge of bankruptcy, workers made redundant, while another neighbouring city would see its shops and restaurants open, its businesses prospering and its workers at work?

The challenge to avoid fragmentation not only between states but also within states is enormous. It is likely that national governments will find themselves somewhat caught between the need to coordinate at the European level and the rising tensions at sub-national levels. In reality, this forces us to break out of the classic patterns of division between what should be the responsibility of the different level of power. We are called upon to invent a new form of multi-level governance of the pandemic, in which the challenge will be to manage to optimise the links between European coordination (on common criteria, mapping), the implementation of national policies on the basis of these common criteria, proportionality and non-discrimination at the level of regions and cities.


Photo credits slon_dot_pics from Pexels