The coronavirus has ravaged through Europe, shattering any illusions the continent had about being immune to pandemics. The virus has shown Europeans that their petty divides do not matter, and it has raised serious questions about why the EU was so unprepared for the virus and its consequences.
As with anything related to the EU, it appears that it’s division between being a cohesive block and a series of nations with their own goals played a large part in hindering their ability to handle the pandemic. As this report by Politico highlights, when the pandemic first became apparent in China, there seemed to be a lack of concern about it amongst leading EU officials and leading members of member governments. Even when it became apparent that the virus was present in Italy, officials were slow to respond. Some, it seemed, felt there were other more pressing matters as evidenced by a lack of presence at a conference the Commission did in late January to address the matter, with many present in the European Parliament for Brexit day.
EU officials so often quick to want to centralise things previously were now relying on national governments to report on how much equipment they had and how much they would need if any. The consequence was that national governments were found with their trousers down. Torn between wanting to deliver quick results to show the public they were doing something and wanting to cooperate with the block, national governments crucially failed to share enough information with one another over what they were doing and what they needed. Instead, there were border shut downs and travel restrictions put in place, which impeded on the EU’s wider efforts to actually help the nations in desperate need.
Indeed, the EU’s reliance on national governments was hindered by the internal politics of several key nations. Croatia, France and Romania all saw their health ministers resign and be replaced by those who were new to the brief and needed time to get to grips with what it entailed. Time that they did not have, thus for some within the EU it felt as if they were still playing catch up to the havoc the pandemic was just about to bring to their shores. Though national governments weren’t the only ones being hit by internal politics. The EU’s own science agency was recently hit by the resignation of its chief scientist due to tensions within the agency and the inflexibility of the agency to adapt to the crisis, something which will not have filled member states with any greater presence of mind.
Then there is the economy. This area has truly highlighted how unprepared and how fragile the EU truly is. Countries such as Italy and Spain, which were badly hit by the austerity measures Brussels demanded of them during the economic crisis of a decade ago, have struggled to both handle the pandemic from a medical standpoint and from an economic one. Fearing that their economies may completely crash during the lockdowns they have enforced, both nations have appealed for aid from their wealthier northern neighbours. Unfortunately, much like a decade ago the northern members of the EU seem content to dangle aid for concessions in front of countries such as Italy and Spain, concessions that neither country and truly afford. Highlighting once again the massive ideological divide between regions within the EU that prevent it even functioning properly during a crisis. Even when an agreement was reached, it was not what either nation actually wanted, and instead was a piece of fudge that could be left open to interpretation with negative consequences abounding.
The coronavirus has shown that the EU is not the centralised nightmare that Brexit voters complain about, nor is it the liberal paradise that remainers want it to be. Instead, it is an unbalanced mixture of the two. It has a centralised bank that deals unfairly with its members, preferring the northern states over the southern states. It has a Commission which makes various authoritarian proposals but is powerless to handle a pandemic relying instead on national governments to put the common good over that of their citizens. Once the pandemic has gone, perhaps the time will come for a full reassessment of the EU. It must either abandon its current middle ground and adopt a much more centralised approach, or it must fall. For if it remains as it is, it will fail one way or another.