The current coronavirus pandemic presents another crisis that again requires the European Union and its member states to be on the same page.
Precedents, however, are not on Europe’s side. Previous crises in Europe — such as the debt crisis, refugee crisis, terrorism and foreign policy decisions — were often marred by infighting and an inability to come together toward consensus. At least at the outset, it seems that in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, the old nemesis of political divisiveness is again threatening Europe.
The European Union — and indeed, the whole idea of European integration — was created with the hope of stronger European bonds and the expectation of a peaceful and prosperous future for Europe. There has been the idea that every decision made in Europe is for the benefit of all European citizens. That no country in Europe is bigger than another. And that the political and economic future of each country in the EU is tied to the success of the European project. Consensus building is a major part of decision making in Brussels. Thus, the foundational idea of a European community is that of consensus and solidarity among member states, with no place for political games.
Those ideas remain only in European treaties. The European Union’s biggest ideals proved to be their biggest weakness. It is inconceivable that 27 member states with differing political mindsets, economic strengths and interests could build an “ever-closer union.” And the journey has been marred by divisions and the inability to create consensus.
Starting from the early days of the EU in the late 1990s, with the Balkan War in their backyard, European leaders could not agree on a strategy to handle the conflict. The divisiveness continues now, especially after the eastern expansion in 2004. The EU witnessed a failure in creating their constitution in 2005; the inability to fix the debt crisis in the aftermath of the global financial crisis; and a lack of agreement on how to handle the influx of migrants. The result is that the EU is now riddled with political divisiveness between North and South, East and West.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic. The European Union, as the rest of the world, is now faced with the biggest public health crisis in a generation. This pandemic should have been Europe’s finest hour in mustering unity and creating a common objective in handling the virus together. This, however, has not been the outcome. Instead, divisiveness between countries again appeared, affecting the timing of their response.
Time is of the essence
The key to minimizing the damage from COVID-19 is timing. Countries should have been immediately alarmed by the highly contagious nature of the virus and its rapid spread in China. After the first initial outbreak of the virus in Italy in February, the European Union called for a continent-wide joint response to combating the outbreak. Italy called for EU member states to implement a lockdown to help curb the spread of the virus. However, member states remained divided on whether or not to implement a lockdown. Until it’s too late.
According to Politico, leaders in Europe chose to “wait and see” in response to the virus, instead of doing their best to manage the outbreak. This has been a negligent response to a highly dangerous virus. In April, Mauro Ferrari, head of the EU’s top research agency, the European Research Council, resigned his post because of the EU’s inability to respond together to the coronavirus. It is the same old story as in previous crises. Ferrari spoke of the “complete absence of coordination of health care policies among member states, the recurrent opposition to cohesive financial support initiatives, the pervasive one-sided border closures, and the marginal scale of synergistic scientific initiatives.”
When faced with a crisis like this, Europe should have been able to come together and get on the same page. Instead, the EU behaved like those panicking when a fire’s in the building. People often participate in fire drills that instruct them on what to do in case of a fire. But when the real fire occurs, people often forget the procedures, instead creating a chaotic situation that doesn’t help to save lives.
This metaphor is perfect in describing Europe’s response to the coronavirus. In this case, the “fire-safety drills” were Europe’s previous crises. EU leaders claimed that lessons had been learned — most importantly the need for solidarity and a common response. But once the coronavirus reached the rest of Europe after the outbreak in Italy, member states reacted chaotically, and many prioritized their own interests in dealing with the virus. Again the same old story. The time Europe wasted with chaotic responses and prioritization of national interests could have been spent in creating a common response, coordinating with the healthcare systems of member states in order to make sure all were on the same page, and preparing a contingency plan. Instead, they’ve bickered with each other, especially on the economic fallout of the crisis.
Revival of the North-South Divide
At present, European finance ministers have recently agreed on half a trillion euros worth of stimulus package designed to help European citizens who are struggling in the pandemic. The journey to get to that decision, however, has again been marked with bitter divisiveness, which provided the clearest indicator of a north-south divide in Europe.
Historically, the north-south divide referred to the division between richer northern European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and much of the Scandinavian states, and the poorer countries in southern Europe, such as Italy, Portugal, Spain and most notably Greece. The divisions were first evident during the debt crisis in the early 2010s. Germany, in particular, was irritated at the way Greece, Spain and Italy have managed their finances. Germany blamed the debt crisis on fiscal irresponsibility by southern countries, and, as the largest European economy, influenced austerity measures in Greece. This has been the seed of the north-south divide in Europe.
In response to the coronavirus ravaging the world’s largest economy, EU finance ministers convened to debate a potential stimulus package. The EU ministers negotiated, back and forth, finally reaching a stalemate on April 8th.
When it comes to financial matters, EU finance ministers have been notoriously difficult in reaching agreement with each other. Richer northern states are highly suspicious of the southern states, which in their eyes are corrupt and often irresponsible in managing their finances. Northern states, particularly the Dutch and the Germans, are fiscally conservative. They simply could not trust countries in the south to manage money their own taxpayers would eventually contribute to the EU. Thus, Germany and other northern states are very influential in determining the outcome of any coronavirus stimulus package.
One glaring issue has been the attempt to create “coronabonds,” which would have required countries in Europe to pool their debts together. Wopke Hoekstra, the fiscally conservative finance minister of the Netherlands, argued that pooling European debts together would be “unfair to the Dutch taxpayer.” Other member states agreed with that sentiment, noting that if any state were to become bankrupt due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus, their member state taxpayers would have to foot the bill to save that country.
The so-called “corona bonds” represent re just the latest division in Europe, even in the face of a major public health crisis. Hoekstra even questioned why southern member states are unable to financially handle the pandemic themselves. His comments were met with criticism by the Portuguese prime minister, criticizing northern countries for choosing to provide a lecture on fiscal responsibility rather than helping. The overall Dutch resistance to providing a bailout was met also by criticism from the Italians, who argued that the Dutch lacked solidarity.
Despite the vast differences of opinion, EU finance ministers still managed to agree on 500 billion euros in economic aid. There are no bonds in the deal, however. Market analysts welcome the economic aid, which will allow the European Investment Bank to set up 200 billion for loans, and for the European Commission to provide 100 billion for a re-insurance plan to assist with unemployment. An additional 240 billion euros worth of credit is to be made available for countries that are struggling — with strict conditions that the money would only be used to combat the coronavirus.
However, the bickering relating to the “coronabonds” issue could impact the legislative train of this deal. It still has to go to the European Council to be discussed with multiple European heads of states. This deal is only the beginning of either another period of bickering without end, or a miraculous result of eventual consensus and unity.
Future of European Integration
In 28 years of existence, the European Union has had its fair share of crises. Brexit, the financial crisis, migration and terrorism have all threatened the unity of the Union. But it appears that the COVID-19 pandemic stands to eclipse all of those crises in its effect on the European Union.
It can be argued that the European Union has had enough “fire drills” to have prepared them for this crisis. Lessons should have been learned. But the fundamental ability to reach consensus is one lesson that European leaders still have not learned — even in the face of a deadly pandemic. Bickering over financial assistance makes clear that despite being a “union,” there are still national interests at stake, and countries still want to protect their sovereignty. The coronavirus pandemic has just painted a bleak picture for the future of the European Union.
However, European leaders still have the chance to make things right. For any who remain in pursuit of an “ever-closer union,” a dream that is not yet a reality after 37 years, they must now come to see the bigger picture. And to remember that their countries’ futures are tied to the success of their European Union.