On 27 March, Pope Francis was standing alone in an empty St Peter’s Square. Media from around the globe showed an iconic image of a man alone under the rain. Usually the Urbi et Orbi blessing is given on Christmas and Easter, or after a papal election. But in such “epidemic” times, the Pope was praying in front of gigantic crucifix for the coronavirus plague to end.
Given the current hardships, the pontiff suggested how people should be “abandoning for a moment ... eagerness for power and possessions.” We should instead all find “the courage ... to allow [such] new forms of hospitality, fraternity ... solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering”.
The Pope’s compassionate words echoed widely across the world, especially in coronavirus-hit Italy. Some areas of the country are no longer in a simple quarantine. Instead it is like a warzone; there is a bunker-like atmosphere. Police and the army are patrolling deserted highways; ambulance sirens are the only sounds heard from the outside world.
Italy’s cry of pain is also addressed to the international community. The risk is that this pandemic disaster will bring economic troubles, further unemployment, perhaps even social unrest. Countries such as Cuba and Albania are proudly sending doctors, while the European Commission and the European parliament seem ready to take the necessary economic measures. Yet, such cry went almost unheard in some central and northern European capitals.
During last week’s Euro meeting, fractures emerged on the financial help to member states such Italy and Spain, and leaders were only able to agree that finance ministers would meet again after a couple of weeks to discuss new options. Governments in Rome, Dublin, Paris, Lisbon and other member states pushed for the creation of a Eurozone (common) debt instrument to avoid market speculations and share the financial burden across the union.
But some other European countries led by the Netherlands, Finland, Austria and Germany, refused such plea. Solidarity, for them, when merged with economy is a sort of moral hazard and excessive public debts should be avoided. Dutch finance minister Wopke Hoekstra even claimed that the EU “should investigate countries like Spain that say they have no budgetary margin to deal with the effects of the crisis provoked by the new coronavirus in spite of the fact that the eurozone has grown for seven consecutive years”.
Such worrying statements open up old divisions, harking back to the mishandling of the 2008 debt crisis and the harsh austerity measures imposed on Greece. They also play on existing stereotypes on the alleged character of southern Europeans.
When, in a recent interview, the British celebrity doctor Christian Jessen claimed that Italians had to “shut down everything and stop work for a bit and have a long siesta” he was unintentionally exposing the western European bias, the sense of grandeur and superiority which in turn generates xenophobia. It undermines and minimises the serious work other nations are doing to deal with the coronavirus as well as people’s hardships, and it’s widespread inside the EU.
It may indeed lead to further splits within European societies and at the EU institutional level. The economic impact and the social consequences of the pandemic emergency might be devastating. The Dutch idea of a moral hazard of economic solidarity is pure nonsense and is caused by genuine financial dullness. It is also generating widespread criticism. According to France’s former European Commission president Jacques Delors, the so-called moral hazard is actually represented by this northern Europeans’ lack of solidarity. But this represents also a gigantic financial miscalculation. “The Netherlands must understand: if a major crisis is to happen, to whom are they going to sell tulips?” added another previous European Commission president, the Italian Romano Prodi.
The moral weakness and hypocrisies are on the shoulders of those rejecting solidarity. In a letter to “German friends”, published in the leading newspaper Frankfurter Allgemein Zeitung, European MP Carlo Calenda and other relevant regional politicians from Italy openly criticised the Netherlands’ absence of ethics and suggested Germany should be instead on the side of European institutions and not following the “little national egoisms”. On a similar line, Portuguese prime minister Antonio Costa described as “repugnant” the comments by the finance minister of the Netherlands as they undermine the spirit of the European Union.
This is the core of the problem. The debate on the future of the EU will soon become central to European politics. Germany and others overlook that the European community was built to prevent economic nationalism and conflicts. The ignored question is how the coronavirus crisis will change our societies and priorities – and, inevitably, the shape of the EU.
Many citizens will pay a huge price because of coronavirus and public opinion in some member states will not easily forget any further austerity or lack of help. This process is fuelling the far-right nationalist vote and leading to rising Euroscepticism.
Addressing the Lord in St Peter’s Square, Pope Francis said that this is “a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not”. More practically, the pandemic is telling us that, after decades of cuts, the time to come to strengthen the funding of European health systems and welfare provisions.
Years ago, a huge mistake was made with Greece. Today’s emergency may be the chance to readdress a failing economic approach and reshape the EU on some very different basis.
Andrea Mammone is a visiting fellow in the Robert Schuman Centre at the European University Institute, and a historian of Modern Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London
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