Before 2020, you would be forgiven for thinking that the post-Brexit European Union had entered a new era of unity. To many seasoned EU-watchers, the Brexit negotiations showed an EU rediscovering the benefits of closing ranks and working together in the common interest. With Britain, its disrupter-in-chief, no longer a member of the club, the EU 27 could restart the process of further integration, improving governance and reforming its labyrinthine institutions to tackle the challenges of a new decade.
Or so it looked before COVID-19 arrived. Much like the Greek debt crisis of nearly a decade ago, the global pandemic has demonstrated the EU’s tendency to devolve into selfish unilateralism at the first sign of trouble. Despite a recently agreed financial package, the wounds inflicted by differing priorities within the bloc are already starting to show. In the words of one European diplomat: “This has not been our finest moment… Solidarity went out the window with the first coronavirus victim.”
So what has happened? After much toing and froing, at the beginning of April the Eurozone agreed a €500bn package of credit worth two percent of nation-states’ annual economic output — earmarked exclusively for fighting the pandemic. But the deal stopped short of spreading the cost more equally across the bloc in the form of Eurobonds, a move of economic solidarity that countries like Italy and Spain, who have been hit particularly hard by coronavirus, had been hoping in earnest for.
Earlier calls from Northern European countries to tie the relief to strict financial rules have been watered down to a loose commitment to keeping national finances in check after the crisis has passed. A near-meaningless hurdle for those countries already swimming in debt.
There’s talk of more help on the horizon, however. EU Commission President, Ursula Von De Leyen, has been instructed by the heads of national governments to produce a further rescue plan, but tensions remain about its contents. Whilst Italy and Spain (backed by France) have called for borrowed money to be distributed among those countries hardest hit in the form of grants, officials from Northern European economies have insisted that it must be paid back. For heavily indebted countries like Spain and Italy, this is simply not a feasible option.
Before the first package had been agreed, the Italian Prime Minister, Guiseppe Conte, stressed the importance of the moment, calling the coronavirus a “challenge to the existence of Europe.” “If our response isn’t strong and unified, if Europe fails to come up with a monetary and financial policy adequate for the biggest challenge since the Second World War, for sure not only Italians but European citizens will be deeply disappointed.”
In recent days, the European Central Bank has begun rolling out its quantitative easing programme, but its critics have accused it of being too slow to act compared to the United Kingdom and the United States, both of which implemented financial rescue packages in the first few weeks of the lockdown. This may not have helped their COVID-19 case numbers, but, once again, in the eyes of many, national governments have proved themselves more nimble and effective in sudden financial crises.
While the rhetoric of top European politicians has almost always maintained that more EU integration is needed—even unavoidable—in practice, when the time comes for the 27 countries of the EU to pull together and act as a common bloc sharing common responsibilities and acting with one will, the project falters. Southern Europe wants more aid, and assistance, Northern Europe—a loose group that is generally more prosperous, less indebted and bigger contributors to the EU budget—is reluctant, and won’t cough up without preconditions. Not exactly the picture of solidarity we’d become used to during Brexit negotiations.
Large disparities in the COVID-19 death-toll across the bloc have been one source of tension, at least among the public. A recent online survey found 45 percent of Germans thought that the pandemic problems faced by Spain and Italy (who are among the worst hit on the continent alongside Britain) are “primarily due to their poor governance.” Only 22 percent disagreed with the statement. Many Germans will look at poorer country’s response to the virus and wonder: why subsidise the mismanagement of others? Those familiar with Europe’s response to the Greek Debt Crisis of 2012 will know that perceptions of mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility are often important in continental politics.
If Italy and Germany were simply common regions of a country with centuries of history, sharing the load would be less controversial. EU politicians of the political mainstream often choose to talk about their constituents as internationalist, socially-conscious European citizens, but the reality is often not as simple. Abstract principles aside, it is hard to convince an electorate of Swedes to subsidize the national budget of Romania, a country many will never live in, let alone visit. Add to this the fact that very few decisions during the pandemic have been made at a European-level, and it becomes easy to attribute different outcomes to the mistakes of foreign politicians, further undermining European solidarity.
The institutions of the EU must fight against this instinct if it is to fulfil its dream of becoming a truly United Europe. Staying as a half-way house, where unity is discussed enthusiastically but never fully implemented, is the surest way to sclerosis-induced doom. A poll from 9 and 10 April this year found the share of Italians that would vote to leave the EU in a referendum was up by 20 percentage points to 49%, compared with a previous poll from the end of 2018. A worrying sign that Europe’s lack of solidarity is already having an effect.
The EU has two choices. It can either follow the path laid out by the architects of the Union—sharing the load and behaving like the supranational state it aspires to be – and by doing so ensure its future. Or, alternatively, it could fall short of its grand ambitions, reinvigorate the nation-state in Europe, and invite its own downfall in the process.
Over the last decade, in all corners of the continent, ‘Europe’ has increasingly become associated with the negative parts of union. For too many nations the term has meant low employment, austerity, economic stagnation and supposed loss of national sovereignty. If the EU is to survive, it must centre itself on a more positive set of associations for the future: empathy, solidarity and a united front against a global pandemic are good places to start. We will have to ask the Europeans of tomorrow how successful today’s EU were in their efforts to respond to this crisis. I suspect that, either way, their answer will be clear and definitive.