As European nations struggle to control the coronavirus pandemic, the crisis has laid bare the continent’s political and economic fault lines.
On March 12, a planeload of masks, respirators, and other medical supplies from China arrived in Italy, a day before the World Health Organization declared that Europe had become the epicenter of the pandemic. Days later, dozens of doctors and nurses from Cuba traveled to Lombardy, Italy’s hardest-hit region.
“Our government sent us here to bring our solidarity here,” said Carlos Perez Diaz, the leader of the Cuban delegation.
There has been little evidence of such solidarity between European nations, however. In early March, when Italy requested face masks and other medical supplies through the European Union’s civil protection mechanism, EU member states responded with silence.
And in the face of an unprecedented economic crisis, with businesses shuttered and millions of people out of work, government officials have been mired in debates over what form any economic relief should take, with rifts forming between southern countries like Italy and Spain, and more fiscally conservative northern countries like Germany. After an all-night meeting, European finance ministers emerged on Wednesday morning with the news that they had failed to reach a consensus.
Such inaction is “a worrying signal from the European Union,” David Cormand, a French politician and member of the European Parliament, told HuffPost France. “It has to demonstrate its usefulness. However, one has the impression that it is too little, too late.”
“Admittedly, Europe has been slow to react,” said Tara Varma, director of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Now is the time to see what European solidarity is worth — and not just financially. The coming weeks will play a big role in determining the future of the European Union.”
The impact of COVID-19 on Europe has been nothing short of catastrophic. In Italy, Spain, and France, there have been more than 370,000 confirmed coronavirus infections, and more than 40,000 people have died, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
Last week, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, formally apologized to Italy for failing to respond more quickly.
“Today Europe is mobilizing alongside Italy,” even if “unfortunately it has not always been the case,” von der Leyen wrote in the Italian newspaper la Repubblica. “We must recognize that in the early days of the crisis, faced with the need for a common European response, too many thought only of the problems in their own countries. They did not realize that we can defeat this pandemic only together, as a Union.”
Such statements have failed to quell the discontent among some officials, however.
On Wednesday, the EU’s senior-most scientist, Mauro Ferrari, from Italy, resigned, saying he was “extremely disappointed by the European response to COVID-19.” Ferrari said his proposals to fund scientific research to combat the coronavirus had fallen victim to the EU’s bureaucracy.
“In times of emergencies people, and institutions, revert to their deepest nature and reveal their true character,” he wrote in a scathing resignation letter. “I am afraid that I have seen enough of both the governance of science, and the political operations at the European Union.”
One challenge for the EU is that matters of public health are primarily the responsibility of individual member states. Article 168 of the EU Treaty states that the EU’s role is simply to “encourage cooperation” on health issues, and that any EU-wide action should “complement national policies.”
“The EU is not a state and does not have an executive that replaces the executives of the member states. So it cannot act in an emergency,” François Heisbourg, a senior adviser at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told HuffPost France. “China can decide overnight to send a plane full of masks to Italy for propaganda. Europe is very culturally and organizationally ill-equipped to do the same.”
Heisbourg noted, however, that the coronavirus pandemic represented not simply a public health emergency, but also a challenge to the EU’s core democratic principles. In Hungary, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used the crisis to pass sweeping new powers — establishing what Heisbourg characterized as the world’s first “corona-dictatorship.”
“It is a dictatorship that is born under the pretext of fighting against COVID-19,” Heisbourg said.
If Orban retains these powers, then it might become necessary to exclude Hungary from the EU, Heisbourg said. “The EU cannot coexist with a dictatorship.”
Economically, too, some leaders are looking to the EU to help forge a united path out of the crisis. Spain and Italy, in particular, have been lobbying for European countries like Germany to support economic relief measures.
Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has called for a new Marshall Plan to help rebuild the European economy. “It’s Europe’s time to act,” Sánchez said in a recent national address. “Europe is at risk.”
“Europe must demonstrate that it is able to respond to this historic call,’’ Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said last week. “I will fight until the last drop of sweat, until the last gram of energy, to obtain a strong, vigorous, cohesive European response.”
Efforts to restart the European economy should not resemble the austerity measures many countries imposed following the 2008 financial crisis, warned Pablo Echenique, the spokesman for Spain’s left-wing Unidas Podemos party.
“The people of Southern Europe are no longer willing to be stepped all over, like they were in the last crisis,” Echenique told HuffPost Spain. “That time, it tried to convince many humble people that they had lived beyond their means, and they deserved to lose their homes and jobs. Those recipes have shown to be financially unsuccessful, and no one can argue that an epidemic is the fault of people living beyond their means.”
“This should be understood by some countries in Northern Europe,” Echenique continued. “Their governments should watch out. I am sure that a lot of people in Germany and the Netherlands understand perfectly well what I am saying. The European institutions should understand, because this is a social reality in Europe today. This is the opinion of the majority in Southern Europe. If the Union is not in line, it is risking its future.”
With reporting from HuffPost France, HuffPost Spain, and HuffPost Italy.
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