The European unity and solidarity stand at the precipice now: how can the members trust in each other in times of a greater peril when even during a global epidemic help is forsaken?
How to convince Spain to commit to Poland’s protection from Russia, or prevent Italy from deepening its ties with China via the Belt & Road Initiative?
The EU appears to be a house divided; the European unity must mean more than just travelling around visa-free. Failing to get their act together, Europeans will fall under approaches of the USA, Russia, and China, all vying for a slice of the European Cake.
Europe must come together politically now, not after the crisis has passed. Politicians from Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, Madrid to Lisbon must unite as quickly as possible, coordinate, show the European people: we stand as one, nobody gets left behind, no one in our common European home.
Remember the good of the united Europe, common values, and the most powerful have to move forward together in unison: Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron have to do more than just emotional appeals or the war rhetoric against the enemy named Corona. Europe must fight the virus with its common strength.
This rich, diverse continent with its educated, diverse people must now prove that it is more than an economic community. Political leaders have to lead by example, or else risk losing everything that generations of statesmen and the society have so painstakingly erected: peace, stability, and friendship across a historically war-torn continent.
Maybe the real pandemic is friends having been breaking apart along the way?
The EU has long not stepped forward during the ongoing Corona Crisis. While the EU usually maintains supremacy on virtually every other issue, in the case of the Corona Crisis it has been shamefully silent. Surely, health is a national issue; however, one can expect more from the entity that regulates the shape of cucumbers and the lamination of light bulbs.
Yet, in the event of a global pandemic, the EU relegates responsibility to local or regional administrations. While federal states such as Germany have been just as slow to react, leaving the organisational responsibility with local governments (and only recently nationalising the purchase of medical equipment), other more unitary states such as France have been quicker to react.
Even the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has admitted that the coronavirus has been underestimated by politicians. Besides appeals to member states to not shut down their borders and calls for solidarity, the EU leadership has once again showed its powerlessness during a crisis.
The Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC), founded in 2013 precisely for managing a situation like the ongoing pandemic, has failed to provide Italy the help and supplies it urgently requested.
European Member States can utilise the ERCC to request assistance from other members, but Italy’s latest call in this crisis has remained largely unanswered by its neighbours.
It’s a free-for-all out there. Yet before we conclude the loss of European unity, let’s examine some examples of cracks in the said unity.
Everyone for Themselves?
On March 17, 2020, the EU leadership finally decided to shut down borders, effectively banning entry into the EU for foreigners a half eternity after nine individual member states had already unilaterally decided to shut down their respective national borders.
Among these member states are the Visegrád States (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia), as well as Austria. These states previously had taken unilateral action during the Migrant Crisis of 2015.
In reality, this directive facilitates the reintroduction of border controls with ID checks, but implications are far more severe. The free movement of people in Europe is one of the four tenets of the EU, and it has been rendered moot during the Corona Crisis, all under the pretense of fighting the viral epidemic.
The next concern has been how member states interact with each other in handling the crisis, or rather the lack of interaction thereof. France has unilaterally announced an export ban on medical equipment, such as masks and respirators, with Germany following suit.
The rationale behind these decisions was to keep medical equipment in the country and prevent opportunists from selling them abroad at unethical prices. For smaller and severely impacted countries, though, this spells a death sentence.
While Italy has called upon its European allies for aid in this dark hour, the response has been meagre. China, on the other hand, answered the call by sending medical equipment via shipping to Rotterdam, to be transported to Italy through Germany.
Germany initially blocked the export of these masks under the guise of its new emergency law, and only after the immense pressure from the European community did it relax the law and let the shipment pass. At the same time, Austria banned entry for Italian nationals unless they prove they are corona-free with a doctor’s note.
Italy is feeling left alone, but Italians have learned to get used to this already during the Migrant Crisis of 2015 and the Financial Crisis of 2009.
Yet the Chinese gesture of supplying crucial equipment has left the EU stand in the rain, and it continues to compound this feeling, with ECB’s Christine Lagarde implying that it isn’t the ECB’s responsibility to help Italy. Her comment on how it was not her job to “close the spreads” between 10-year German and Italian bonds caused the largest daily increase on record.
The FTSE MIB, the Milanese stock index, dropped significantly. Solidarity may be many things, but not that. In times of crisis, Europe’s bureaucratic machinery is painfully slow.
These three examples are only the latest to prove that the European Union does not stand as united as it likes to believe. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said, “We didn’t need to wait for Brussels to give us any advice,” when he announced the Czech Republic would effectively shut down public life.
These cracks in unity are really showing now during a global pandemic, but, truthfully, they have been there from the start and have been widening since then.
A History of Discord
A more historic example of discrepancy in unity was the preferential treatment of the United Kingdom in terms of their financial contributions to the EU budget. The so-called “UK Rebate,” active from 1985 to 2020, ensured that the UK retained the majority of its financial contributions.
Many EU member states have repeatedly sought to right this wrong, but to no avail. While certainly not the first injustice to sow discord among the member states, it was a particularly significant issue, showing the duality of treatment between larger and smaller economies in the EU.
The Greek Government debt crisis demonstrated that the reversal of the previous example could be true. Greece, with seemingly criminal energy, forged its financial data to gain entry to the EU and its unlimited coffers.
Only the impact of the 2009 Global Financial Crisis revealed the scam. The EU with Germany and Merkel at its helm fought tooth and nail to keep Greece solvent and in the union, much to the chagrin of hard-working Northern and Eastern members.
When the UK would later declare its desire to leave the EU, it at least seemed like the EU (and again, Germany) felt personally insulted and could not wait for the UK to leave, as a form of punishment or vindication.
The result is, however, a higher financial burden for the net paying members as the EU would not be expected to decrease its budget after all.
In 2015, another crisis would once again show the failure of the EU to stand united. As a myriad of migrants entered Greece and Italy illegally, unequivocally claiming asylum and short-circuiting the Dublin II Treaty, the EU remained silent for too long until Germany unilaterally decided to issue an “invitation” and really kick off the crisis.
While indeed most of these migrants would (illegally) continue their paths on to Germany and Sweden, Italy and Greece had to deal with the impact of their arrival on their shores.
As Germany took in more and more migrants, calls for Eastern European member states to take in their “fair” shares became louder from the very same German officials claiming this Willkommenskultur.
Even in the current time, the strife is evident. The ongoing Turkey-Greece 2020 Refugee Crisis showcases this yet again.
Greece is expected to uphold the European law and protect the EU-borders, whilst German commentators decry her actions as “racist” and fascist.” Instead of shaming Erdogan, who unilaterally broke the EU-Turkey refugee deal, the European public hounds Greece.
Against what next? Greeks have been very tolerant and welcoming over the years, but the situation on the Greek Isles has reached a tipping point, and again a member state is left alone. The ongoing crisis has been pushed back from the spotlight.
The Breaking of the Fellowship?
These historic examples, combined with the previously mentioned failures to aid during the ongoing epidemic, paint a less than favourable picture of the European Unity. There will be a time after Corona.
But what will it look like? How can the EU turn from such distrust and egoism? Surely, national governments own primary allegiance to their electorates, their own citizens, and most governments are steering through this crisis by heavily relying on virologists and immunologists, who often quarrel with differentiating viewpoints.
This explanation would work for other alliances, but the EU aims to be more than just an alliance, more than just a union of states. With everyone on the lookout only for themselves, it’s easy to forget these European ideals. Nevertheless, the appeal must now be made: Don’t Forget Europe!