When the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the suspension of every flight from and to China on 31 March to counter the spread of COVID-19, the cases documented in Europe were still quite few. Europeans who saw the danger as distant called Rome’s act of foresight nothing but psychosis. A lot has happened since then.

Italy was the first European country to ask for a more choral response from the European Union (EU), shortly after becoming the epicentre of the pandemic. Meanwhile, other European countries started taking frantic and disparate measures according to their individual threat assessments. Austria and Poland closed their borders, Czech Republic hijacked a truckload of masks that had been donated by China to Italy, and Germany banned export of medical equipment in order to retain its own crisis-time stocks.

An additional mixed message came directly from the EU early in March. European Central Bank (ECB) chief, Christine Lagarde, who was expected to reassure markets launching anti-crisis measures, came out with an ill-considered remark on how the ECB was not there “to close spreads”. The comment, which sounded like a word of caution for weaker economies to not expect too much from the EU, had some grave ramifications – Milan’s stock exchange dropped 16.9%, while Italian bond yields sky-rocketed.

This happened in a dual context – surging euroscepticism in the country; and China’s display of solidarity toward Italy in terms of medical expertise and supplies, alongside the important role played by local Chinese communities living in the Peninsula.

Such displays of individualism by EU member states speak to a prophecy of the failure of the organisation in not just creating a de facto “union”, but also managing the crisis as a single great organism. Some may argue that this was much expected from the EU.

Disunited Union? 

The reality of the EU is very different from what one may believe. The EU is not a federation, but rather, more of a confederation of sovereign states, which do not even share the same language, culture or identity. In this context, self-centred behaviour by individual member states is simply another proof of the anarchical system envisioned by the Realist school of International Relations decades ago. 

We know our weaknesses and it is exactly to overcome them that our precursors envisioned an institution like the EU. Where parochialism, egoism and competition hold back nations from creating a unique choir, there begins the EU’s domain of action. Understanding the events through the lens of this framework, it becomes clearer that the real issue here is not whether Brussels has played its part or not – indeed it did – but rather if it acted promptly and properly.

EU Commission President Urusula von der Leyen, has an answer. During a speech that she delivered at the European Parliament on 13 April, Leyen said:

“Yes it is true that no one was really ready for this. It is also true that too many were not there on time when Italy needed a helping hand at the very beginning, […] For that, it is right that Europe as a whole offers a heartfelt apology,” Leyen said.

As hinted above, Brussels is actually playing a role in managing the pandemic “collectively” and some achievements were also secured. The European Commission has, for instance, already issued several guidelines on public health and mobility. Further economic measures by Brussels include state aid, support for the production of medical equipment, fiscal flexibility and additional funds in conjunction with the ECB’s €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP). 

However, most of the aforementioned steps were announced between March and April, when the situation had already deteriorated in many European countries.

Theory versus practice

Part of the problem is systemic and can be directly attributed to the highly bureaucratic nature of the EU system that aims to achieve a common good while respecting state sovereignty. European institutions, in theory, aim to serve the community, but in practise, are impeded by singular nationalistic motives. 

A further evidence of this “jammed mechanism” is the current debate on how to address the economic crisis that the EU is reeling under. Italy’s desperate plea for a breakdown of the debt faced opposition from countries that do not want to take on such an economic burden – especially due to Italy’s well-known previous economic reforms, imprudent spending and notoriety as the member state with the second highest public debt. The legislative process, easily subjected to power games by internal cliques, often sees the agreements ping-ponged between offices. 

Embed from Getty Images

A similar turn saw the last Eurogroup meeting, which took place on 9 April, rejecting the “corona bonds” and assenting to their “negative surrogate”, that is a loan from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) without conditionalities – at the expenses of those economies most affected by the pandemic, that is, Italy, France and Spain.

In conclusion, us Europeans truly believe in the EU’s commitment in addressing this crisis with all its aftermaths, but we also recognise that it often struggles to wriggle out of the pressures exerted by individual members. When the health emergency starts to fade away, an even bigger economic crisis will rise on the horizon. The EU still does not have a clear idea of how it is going to face it. 

Fair to say that this huge project called ‘Europe’ seems far from being realised, and in this condition, it is not surprising that common agreements on this crisis lag behind. One question stares us Europeans right on our faces – is it not time for us to rethink Europe, and maybe even give up a little bit of our sovereignty and some of our nationalistic pride to truly stand united as European citizens?

Views are the author’s own.

Dr Marco Luisi is pursuing Masters in International Relations and Diplomacy at the College of Liberal Arts, Shanghai University, China. He tweets at @marco_luisi.

Featured image taken from Flickr.