The deepening divisions among European nations over their response to the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the inability of the European Union to provide strong and effective leadership in times of crisis.
Faced with arguably the greatest challenge Europe has faced since the end of the Second World War, the EU’s failure to help coordinate the actions of the 27-nation bloc in tackling Covid-19 has once again brought the organisation’s institutional failings into sharp focus.
Not only has the Brussels bureaucracy been unable to provide vital medical assistance to stricken countries in the form of badly-needed protective clothing and key equipment, such as ventilators. The EU has also completely failed in its efforts to provide financial support for those countries, such as Italy and Spain, that have been worst affected by the crisis.
The EU’s inability or unwillingness to respond should raise fresh questions about the EU’s long-term future.
Furthermore, a meeting of EU finance ministers held to discuss setting up a $380 billion coronavirus rescue package failed to reach agreement when wealthier northern European states refused to back measures to help their less wealthy southern partners unless they agreed to punitive loan terms.
This additional failure prompted Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to warn that if the EU proved unable to help member states in their hour of need, it was in danger of collapse.
“If we do not seize the opportunity to put new life into the European project, the risk of failure is real,” Mr Conte said.
The EU’s failure to organise a coordinated response among member states to the pandemic has also been the subject of criticism. The EU’s refusal to set up a special programme for Covid-19 research last week prompted Professor Mauro Ferrari, the President of the European Research Council, to resign in protest. In his resignation letter, Prof Ferrari launched a blistering attack against the EU, citing “a complete absence of coordination of health care politics among member states.”
As a result, rather than heeding the EU’s belated advice for member states to coordinate their response to the outbreak, all the evidence suggests that nations are taking matters into their own hands rather than relying on the EU for guidance.
A letter sent by the European Commission to member states earlier this month appealed for European leaders to coordinate their actions as they sought to ease the strict lockdown measures that have been in place since the coronavirus outbreak. The letter warned that failure to do so would “unavoidably lead to a corresponding increase in new cases.”
Instead, all the evidence suggests that the majority of European governments are ignoring the EU’s advice, and acting unilaterally to tackle the impact of the pandemic on their citizens.
Thus, at a time when countries like Spain, Italy and Austria are taking the first, tentative steps to ease the lockdown, with certain businesses being allowed to reopen, French President Emmanuel Macron has announced that the strict lockdown measures imposed over the whole of France will remain in place for the next four weeks.
The divergence in approach among various member states indicates that European leaders are — as they have been from the outset — acting selfishly in their own national interest rather than for the good of the EU as a whole.
It also means they are in breach of some of the EU’s fundamental principles, such as the single market which requires all member states to conduct business on an equal footing. The fact that several countries are allowing various businesses, such as construction, to return to work, whereas in other nations they have been banned from operating during the lockdown, means that disparities will inevitably develop in the economies of member states, a fact that is likely to increase tensions between European leaders in the months to come.
Brussels now says it wants to present an EU-wide “roadmap” for lifting restrictions next week, which will call for national capitals to co-ordinate their exit.
“At a minimum, member states should notify each other and the [European] Commission in due time before they lift measures and take into account their views,” the document is expected to recommend.
“It is essential that there is a common approach and operating framework.”
The problem for the EU is that, now that so many European countries have already taken matters into their own hands, any attempt by Brussels to impose a unified approach to ending the lockdown will surely be a case of too little, too late.