Simona Guagliardo / Mar 2020
The latest figures of the coronavirus outbreak are staggering. Since January 2020, almost 135,000 cases have been confirmed worldwide, resulting in 4,967 deaths. Almost 30,000 of those confirmed cases are in the European region, resulting in 1,201 deaths (as of 13 March).
What Europe will look like in the aftermath of this extraordinary public health emergency will most likely depend on member states’ ability to address it together, as a bloc. Looking at how the European Union and its member states are responding to this threat so far, one could argue that the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to breathe new life into the European project. But it also has the potential to weaken it to the point of sinking.
At the beginning of March, the European Commission launched the corona response team to ensure a coordinated EU response to this challenge, acknowledging that this crisis requires solidarity among member states. At the EU level, tools like the Early Warning and Response System and the Health Security Committee support cooperation between member states, can enable a rapid exchange of information and the coordination of preparedness and response measures to the COVID-19 pandemic.
These EU mechanisms can facilitate and support national efforts, but are proving to be insufficient to halt the spread of the virus and relieve the increasing pressure on European health systems. An effective coordinated response mostly depends on member states’ willingness to work together to halt the spread of the virus.
Unfortunately, this is scarcely happening. European countries are reacting very differently to the crisis, sometimes even putting in place conflicting measures.
The Italian government has taken unprecedented measures, placing the entire country – the hardest-hit European country so far – under quarantine on Wednesday. All shops, restaurants and cafés are now closed, cities look deserted and businesses and factories are either encouraging teleworking or limiting their activities to the bare minimum.
Some EU countries have begun to follow suit, but many have been dragging their feet, acknowledging only in recent hours and days the severity of the outbreak and reacting with sometimes ambiguous measures.
On the evening of 12 March Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès announced the suspension of school classes starting Monday. Bars and restaurants will also have to close, whereas shops can stay open during weekdays, with the exception of pharmacies and food stores which can stay open also over weekends. President Macron, a few hours earlier, had announced that all schools and universities in the country would be closed as of Monday, yet Sunday’s municipal elections are still on. In Germany, many states have prohibited all gatherings with more than 1,000 people. The country has recommended that large public events be postponed or cancelled, but overall, has not resorted to stringent measures.
Such a fragmented approach raises concerns as it fails to acknowledge the obvious. Poorly coordinated and uneven measures will not be as effective as hoped for in halting the spread of the virus in Europe. Also, as claimed by the Italian national health institute, the huge sacrifice Italy has been enduring would be for nothing if other countries do not step up their efforts.
Another area where poor coordination and national interests are prevailing is the supply of personal protective gear and medical materials. Even though EU countries agreed to share information about existing stocks to prevent shortages and make sure that medical supplies are headed where they are most needed, some have been putting in place export bans or limitations to sales of personal protective gear. Such measures have a flavour of beggar-thy-neighbour logic, which is unacceptable as it conflicts with the Single Market logic, not to mention the basic principle of solidarity.
Looking at the ‘alarming levels of spread and severity’ (WHO Director General Tedros), it becomes clear that no single EU country can effectively respond to this crisis alone. Nor should they, if they want to act in the best interest of the people. European leaders should stop talking about coordination and actually align their efforts in a structured, coherent and unequivocal way. If European countries do not move fast and courageously in this direction, they will undermine the fundamental principles that glue Europe together, putting national interests ahead of the European values of unity and solidarity.
This is a crucial challenge for the European Union, one that will give renewed impetus to the European project or damage it irreparably. The European Union needs to be more than a borderless market. It needs to be more than a club of countries still holding on to their national interests. It needs to be a Union of countries that share a unique vision of cohesiveness and solidarity, and are there for each other in times of need. Less than that is just not good enough.