Wednesday

8th Jul 2020

Opinion

How the coronavirus is testing the EU's resilience

  • The EU has gone through many crises over the past decades. But the coronavirus pandemic could well be the ultimate acid test of its resilience as a community based on solidarity and common values (Photo: Council of the European Union)

The coronavirus crisis resembles a medieval morality play.

A bad fairy has put a curse on humankind putting the princes of this world before a terrible dilemma: either save as many people as possible - and, in the process, destroy the economy - or keep the economy going at the cost of thousands of lives.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

For the coming months, national leaders will be torn back and forth between these conflicting imperatives, while everybody hopes - and some pray - for a deus ex machina, a medication or vaccine that would bring the nightmare to an end.

What is the role of the EU in this drama?

As the virus affects all member states - though at different stages on the infection curve - it calls for crisis management at the European level and for strong mutual assistance among member states. This, however, has been slow to arrive.

For many people the spreading virus has led to a rapid shrinking of horizons.

Citizens reflexively turn to what is close and familiar. This is the hour of the nation state and of national leaders, leaving the EU on the sidelines.

In many countries, national egotism is resurging. Hence the rapid shutting down of national borders - even though the health benefits are dubious - and the initial bans of exports of medical supplies.

But this instinctive turning inwards is only one side of the story.

The Covid-19 crisis also marks the return of fact-based politics. Leading epidemiologists have become media stars. Their advice is translated into policy by pragmatic leaders who now enjoy broad support in the population.

The populists, who were recently still on the offensive, have shrunk into the background.

It is not clear how long this window of rational politics will last. If the suffering worsens and no end is in sight, all sorts of irrational behaviour and even greater national egotism can be expected. So this time must be used to ramp up crisis management also on the European level.

The governmental powers for healthcare and economic management remain on the national level.

Supplying intensive care units and bailing out companies threatened by bankruptcy is primarily a national responsibility.

However, the EU institutions must play a crucial supporting role by coordinating cross-border cooperation and mobilising additional funding.

Due to the wave of border closures, Schengen is currently on life support and the internal market shows many symptoms of infection.

By keeping national restrictive measures to a minimum and by safeguarding the free flow of goods, the European Commission must ensure that the single market does not fragment along national lines.

But a large part of the EU's job is also to get out of the way of the member states. By suspending the rules on state aid and on fiscal policy the commission has already given the member states enough room to launch unprecedented spending programs to make sure that sectors hit by the pandemic receive public support.

By initiating a €750bn bond-buying program, the European Central Bank has once again helped to shore up the European financial system.

EU institutions and the governments are now debating how to complement the national fiscal programs by mobilising the vast collective fiscal firepower of the EU.

Now is the time to finally put to rest the old dispute between North and South about the sharing of risk.

One for all, and all for one

It should be evident to everyone that if the economic survival of the countries suffering the worst damage from the crisis is in question, this also constitutes a huge threat for the eurozone and for EU as a whole.

The mindset of everybody for itself, which is so tempting under the acute stress of the crisis, must be countered by stepping up cooperation and mutual assistance among the member states.

Otherwise, the EU will be in great danger.

The worst affected countries will not forget that they have been abandoned by the EU and that the only aid came from China. Divisions will deepen and the cohesion among the EU members will suffer.

The first concrete acts of assistance are therefore encouraging. Some medical supplies have been shipped to Italy and Germany has opened a number of its hospitals to patients from France.

Much more needs to be done urgently to show that all EU countries are in this fight together.

The EU has gone through many crises over the past decades. But the coronavirus pandemic could well be the ultimate acid test of its resilience as a community based on solidarity and common values.

Author bio

Stefan Lehne is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Feature

Vo' - the Italian town that defeated coronavirus

There is a place in Italy where the coronavirus has already been defeated. Its name is Vo', a small settlement of 3,000 inhabitants in the countryside of the Veneto region, about 70km from Venice.

Coronavirus

Denmark: How a 'high-tax' state responds to coronavirus

Denmark's response includes financial help to freelancers and students, compensation for fixed expenses such as rent and easier access to state-guaranteed loans. But some worry even with that, two-thirds of small businesses could collapse within 10 weeks.

Coronavirus

Coronavirus: Greek island refugees in semi-lockdown

Greece has banned large pubic gatherings to curb the spread of the coronavirus, while imposing a curfew on thousands of asylum seekers and migrants living in misery in overcrowded camps, with one water tap for 1,300 people at one camp.

Podcast

Coronavirus vs Democracy

Concern is growing that emergency powers deployed to control the coronavirus pandemic will be used to erode democracy and civil rights.

Column

Only democracy can fight epidemics

As Li Wenliang, the deceased Chinese doctor who was reprimanded for reporting on the virus, said: "There should be more openness and transparency".

Coronavirus

Cybercrime rises during coronavirus pandemic

Cybercrime and cyberattacks have increased due to the coronavirus outbreak. As a result, the World Health Organization, hospitals and research centres are being targeted by organised cybercriminals - searching for information, intelligence, and systems access.

News in Brief

  1. France and Germany warn Israel on annexation 'consequences'
  2. Shipping firms to face EU carbon regime
  3. EU to mediate between Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey
  4. EU to unveil arms-trafficking and drug proposals
  5. EU to discuss people-smuggling with African states
  6. 'Torture chamber' found in Dutch sea containers
  7. Commissioner backs under-attack Hungarian news site
  8. New French government tilts to right

Column

Small states in 'Big Power' games

Twenty years ago the most dominant foreign influence in Iceland was the United States, as it had been throughout the Cold War. Nowadays it is China.

Israel's annexation? - the EU's options

Regrettably, it is no longer a matter of if, but when Israel will begin to annex big parts of Palestine, including the Jordan Valley and all its 131 settlements.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDANext generation Europe should be green and circular
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNEW REPORT: Eight in ten people are concerned about climate change
  3. UNESDAHow reducing sugar and calories in soft drinks makes the healthier choice the easy choice
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersGreen energy to power Nordic start after Covid-19
  5. European Sustainable Energy WeekThis year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) will be held digitally!
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic states are fighting to protect gender equality during corona crisis

Latest News

  1. The opportunistic peace
  2. EU mulls new system to check illegal pushbacks of migrants
  3. EU forecasts deeper recession, amid recovery funds row
  4. Revealed: fossil-fuel lobbying behind EU hydrogen strategy
  5. Commission chief under fire for Croatia campaign video
  6. Parliament vaping booths 'too confidential' to discuss
  7. Belarus: Inside Lukashenko’s crackdown on independent voices
  8. The rationale behind US troop withdrawals from Germany

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us