Rising coronavirus infections aren’t only testing Europe’s national governments to their limits but also straining European Union solidarity with the governments of member states shrugging off pleas for greater coordination.
Instead, national governments have been paying little heed to Brussels and are pursuing their own ways of containing the virus and coping with the economic fallout, say diplomats and analysts.
One after another, the governments of the 27 member states have ignored Brussels’ appeals to keep their borders open to each other, ending the bloc’s hallowed principle of freedom of movement, and they have been ignoring the bloc’s rules on state support for their domestic industries.
While EU leaders have talked about the need for “more Europe,” national leaders have elected to follow the path of “less Europe,” say observers.
“Logically, the coronavirus now ravaging parts of Italy and Spain and sweeping across the continent should be the ideal opportunity for the EU to move away from complacency and national individualism to solidarity and European integration. Instead, the pandemic, so far, has proven the opposite,” according to Judy Dempsey, an analyst at the Carnegie Europe research organization.
Each member state’s government has adopted its own way of containing the virus, she says. “But this is not a European response. The pandemic has not generated a sense of solidarity among the member states or forced a reappraisal of the EU’s role in setting the agenda, even on something as fundamental as safeguarding the health system,” she adds.
Italian politicians have complained about the lack of solidarity. Mauirzo Massari, Italy’s representative to the EU, appealed for help. “Rome should not be left to handle this crisis alone.”
“In addition to national measures, this is a crisis that requires a global and — first and foremost — a European response,” he wrote this month in an open letter in Politico Europe.
But the early appeals for protective gear from neighbors for Italy’s overwhelmed health workers fell on deaf ears, a breach, Italians say, of the principle of European Union solidarity.
According to treaty law, member states are meant to act jointly to assist another to cope with “a natural or man-made disaster.” Instead, France and Germany imposed bans on the export of medical equipment they anticipated needing, although Berlin lifted the prohibition earlier this week.
Massari says Rome “asked for supplies of medical equipment, and the European Commission forwarded the appeal to the member states, but it didn’t work.” Today, this means Italy; tomorrow, the need could be elsewhere. Italy, like some central European states, has turned for support to China, which has dispatched medical equipment and doctors.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio has heaped praised on China, pointedly noting, “We are not alone, there are people in the world who want to help Italy.”
Other Europeans have found China more responsive than near neighbors. Aleksandar Vucic, president of Serbia, which has applied for EU membership, has highlighted Chinese assistance over the “fairy tale” of European solidarity.
Nor have member states adopted a common approach to detecting and reporting coronavirus cases, with common guidelines for the entire bloc, critics complain.
With COVID-19 case numbers and deaths soaring — only Germany has shown early signs of managing to “flatten the curve” of confirmed infections — COVID-19 would seem to have torpedoed the logic of “more Europe,” according to The Economist magazine. “The EU evolved to deal with a post-modern world, where borders are blurred and markets ruled. Pandemics are a pre-modern problem, best solved by the tool that brought order to a brutish world: the modern state.”
EU loyalists say the criticism leveled at Brussels is unfair. Health care systems are meant to be overseen by national governments and not the EU and Brussels has scant authority or power to act. Governments will always prioritize the health and well-being of their citizens.
Critics say the breakdown of neighborliness has highlighted inherent flaws in the bloc and will leave a lasting imprint. Some Italian populist politicians say they doubt the Schengen open-border system will ever be fully restored — at least they hope it won’t.
But while the virus has served mainly as a centrifugal force, the devastating economic fallout from the pandemic may well force EU member states closer together, say some analysts. The most Euro-skeptical states tend to be the weakest economically and as they struggle to right their economies, they will need their debts underwritten by the bloc as a whole — most especially by Germany. On March 18, the European Central Bank launched a $809 billion bond-buying program with strong French backing, although some richer member states were less enthusiastic.