Coronavirus has been nothing short of disastrous for the European Union. Its commitment to the free movement of workers has been suspended, uncertainty has propelled political discord, and the economies of member states are at the mercy of an invisible virus. The EU’s future has been precarious for years. It desperately needs to be re-educated on the importance of solidarity if it hopes to escape the crisis unscathed.
Yet, this solidarity is nowhere to be seen.
Despite priding themselves on a communitarian spirit, the EU’s member states have tailored their unique paths to recovery, rather than consulting their neighbours on a shared exit strategy. With varying levels of infection and medical supplies, along with a disparity in the quality of health care systems, a considerable gulf has emerged which threatens the existence of the EU.
Take Italy, who became Europe’s epicentre of the pandemic in March. With almost a quarter of its population being older than 65, the virus spread rapidly through more vulnerable communities. Italy’s government was forced to send the country into a severe nationwide lockdown on 9th March 2020. As of writing this article, coronavirus has claimed the lives of 34,945 Italian citizens.
Germany seems to have fared better. Despite having experienced 200,000 infections, the country possesses a comparatively smaller death rate of just over 9,000. Excluding a recent outbreak at a meat-processing plant in North Rhine-Westphalia, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has been successful in quelling the virus and avoiding the cataclysmic shocks that Italy has suffered.
A quick trip across the Baltic Sea exposes a greater disparity in European exit strategies. Stefan Löfven, Prime Minister of Sweden and leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party, made the decision to avoid a national lockdown altogether.
These vastly different approaches to the same pandemic make one thing clear: the EU has distanced itself from a framework of solidarity. If EU member states cannot even agree on a shared coronavirus exit strategy, how are they expected to exist as a united organisation once the pandemic subsides? This may be the beginning of the end for the EU.
The pandemic is not the first example of the EU’s failure to act with solidarity. The 2009 global recession led to an even greater economic crisis for Greece, who was not in the position to repay substantial amounts of debt. Although the EU aided Greece in return for the obligatory implementation of austerity measures, the crisis revealed the cracks in the eurozone, with fears of other heavily indebted EU members meeting a similar fate. The 2013 migrant crisis deepened these cracks. Angela Merkel was keen to accept one million migrants through German borders in 2015 but was disappointed when other EU members, including the United Kingdom and France, did not follow suit.
The sustained influx of migrants into Europe has encouraged the growth of nationalist and Eurosceptic parties. This ‘me first’ mentality threatens continental unity, shared responsibility and amicable cooperation. The Brexit vote put the dangers of this mentality into perspective. It highlighted the rise of far-right populist parties, like the UK Independence Party (UKIP), but also revealed that Britain would rather leave the EU altogether than stay and negotiate. This is what happens when solidarity fails.
The events of the past have followed the EU up to the present, combating both a virus and political divisions. The pandemic could have been the EU’s shining moment – the opportunity to prove to the rest of the world that Europe would survive. Events that have unfolded in the past months, however, prove otherwise.
Political cooperation is what the EU stands by, yet member states have decided to approach the pandemic on an individual basis. Europe does not need or want a national response to a global issue. Despite March offering a chance for the EU to reinforce political solidarity, the organisation floundered in the wake of this opportunity and did little to reinstate its values, leading to accusations from Italy that the EU was being too slow to offer support. Indeed, the EU failed to supply Italy with desperately needed medical equipment. Germany and France, the EU’s leading economies, imposed limits on the export of protective medical equipment, whilst China offered to supply Italy with lung ventilators, masks and protective suits. Maurizio Massari, Italian ambassador to the EU, criticised this failure by declaring that Brussels needed to devise “emergency actions that are quick, concrete and effective.” China’s active response to support Italy, compared to its neighbours, suggests anything but European solidarity.
Germany and France would report proudly that they have donated more masks to Italy than China and have since opened their hospitals to treat patients from the hardest-hit countries. But where was this compassion in March, when Italy needed it most? This was not an act of solidarity, but rather a panicked response to a growing sense of suspicion towards the EU’s validity. Panicked responses risk both a second wave of infection and the EU’s existence as we know it.
The EU needs more than a solidarity reminder if it wants to survive the pandemic; economic stability across the Eurozone is also crucial. April saw weeks of back-and-forth discussions regarding coronabonds. A shared European debt would have been the ultimate test of solidarity, as burdens must sometimes be shared for the greater good. Yet, the reluctance seen from the EU’s ‘Frugal Four’ (Germany, Austria, Finland and the Netherlands) reinforces the economic divide between rich northern member states and the southern economies, who need support the most.
The ‘Frugal Four’s’ stubbornness has postponed any major economic agreement. The EU’s ability to cooperate came to a halt, with leaders shifting the responsibility onto their finance ministers. It was even reported that leaders spent an additional four hours over a single paragraph in the official press release. Although, as head of the European Council Charles Michel stated, a “strong political debate” can be both “useful” and “necessary”, the EU’s lack of solidarity is hindering efforts towards a return to European prosperity. With 27 years of experience, the EU should be progressing – not regressing – in its ability to make emergency decisions.
April established some hope for the EU, as a €500 billion relief deal was finally agreed upon, aiming to support those countries hit hardest by the pandemic. It may be a step in the right direction but the deal fatally omitted coronabonds, meaning weeks of bickering were in vain. The EU was preparing itself for a flood when it should have been preparing for a tsunami.
Such incompetence can sow the seeds of resentment and bitterness, especially as Italy’s indignation at the beginning of the crisis raised questions over its future EU participation. According to polls conducted in March, 88% of Italians feel that Europe is failing to support Italy in the crisis. There has been a stark increase in the percentage of Italians who regard EU membership as a disadvantage, now standing at 67% in comparison to 47% in November of 2018. The EU must listen to its members and their concerns before it is stripped of another shining star.
The potential collapse of the EU may well be on the cards. If it does not begin to act more flexibly in its borrowing and debt-handling, the divisions will only become greater. If member states do not evaluate their actions and rebuild trust and solidarity, this collapse will be imminent. It is hoped that member states will recognise the consequences of such a collapse and will pull together. But surviving the pandemic is not enough, especially for an organisation made to thrive. A post-pandemic world needs a united Europe and it is down to its leaders to make that happen. That is the least its citizens deserve.