Conflict and Leadership
COVID-19 Is Not the End of EU Solidarity

The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.

Article 2, Treaty of the European Union

The EU is a learning system. Most of its members are well aware that they fare better in a functioning union, based on mutual support and solidarity. It will take time and energy, but there is a good chance that the EU will not only survive the COVID-19 pandemic, but emerge from it stronger and in more solidarity, writes Valdai Club expert Sabine Fischer.

Many actions taken by EU member states in the early days of the crisis were considered egoistic and even nationalist. Sceptics felt vindicated in their belief that solidarity among nation states, a key pillar of the European integration, is delusional. The COVID-19 pandemic put the EU under enormous stress. But it is neither the end of EU solidarity, nor of European integration.

The first cases of COVID-19 infections in the EU were confirmed in January 2020. On 11 March, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the fast spreading virus a pandemic. Just two days later, on 13 March, it stated that Europe had become the “epicenter” of the pandemic. 

Northern Italy was most affected by the disease. For weeks, images from Lombardy of overloaded hospitals, despairing health workers, coffins piling up in morgues and churches shocked the world. And yet, Rome’s late February call on Brussels for the urgent supply of personal medical equipment first went unanswered. It took EU member states almost three weeks to start deliveries. During that time, China, Russia and other third countries stepped in and made their support a powerful representation of their willingness and ability to compensate for the EU’s failing its own member state.

The Italian case was the most blatant and depressing example of the EU’s inability to appear as a “union founded on solidarity” during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. EU member states reacted in a largely uncoordinated “cacophony of national health emergency measures”, including the closure of borders in the Schengen zone and national requisition measures of medical equipment etc. This triggered a grave debate about how the pandemic accentuated the crisis of European integration and the prevalence of national interests.

EU solidarity was tested in four areas in particular: borders, emergency aid, individual government (re)actions, and strategies to meet the economic consequences of the pandemic. 

Seeing border controls reinstated between France and Germany, Finland and Sweden, Portugal and Spain and so forth, came as a nasty shock for many. The freedom of movement is a key aspect and symbol of European integration, both in terms of relations between EU member states and of the rights of EU citizens. 

What looked like (wealthier) EU member states banning medical supplies to other (less wealthy but more affected) EU member states reinforced the impression that nationalism had taken the better of European governments. To make things worse, some leaders and many populist politicians throughout the EU demonstrated a glaring lack of empathy and, indeed, solidarity with their fellow Europeans. 

It is frequently overlooked in the debate that European law entitles EU member states to restrict the freedom of movement in case of an epidemic or other major threat to public health. The hasty decisions taken by EU capitals in the first weeks of frantic crisis management implied protective measures fully supported by the legal framework of the European Union. Opinions diverge about whether the closing of national borders was an efficient means to contain the pandemic. Future research will hopefully provide answers to this question. What is important here is that borders within the Schengen Area are now being re-opened in a gradual and better coordinated process. It would not be possible otherwise: the EU’s member states and societies are too interdependent to keep them closed over a longer period. 

Similarly, no EU member violated European rules by restricting the export of medical equipment. The question remains, however, why the EU proved unable to use its Civil Protection Mechanism quickly and efficiently enough so as not to disappoint the early distress calls from Italy. The EUCPM can be invoked “when the scale of an emergency overwhelms the response capabilities of a country”. Any country in the world, but also the United Nations and its agencies or other relevant international organisations, can call on the EUCPM – and have done so on numerous occasions (for instance during Ebola outbreaks in African countries in 2014 and 2015, after an earthquake in Albania in 2019 or during forest fires in Sweden and other EU and non-EU countries in 2019). Once the mechanism is activated, the European Commission coordinates the response and covers up to 75 percent of the costs. However, the COVID-19 pandemic was and is an unprecedented challenge (not only) for the EU. In the early days of the crisis the EUCPM did not live up to an emergency situation of this scale. The EU (institutions and member states) will have to work towards better coordination and more capacity to act if they intend to avoid such pitfalls in the future. The current pandemic should give them ample opportunity to observe, draw lessons, and learn them.

It is a fact, though, that EU institutions responded to the pandemic from January on, including through co-financing the mass repatriation of EU citizens to their home countries (for this the EUCPM was activated successfully), joint efforts for research on the coronavirus outbreak, coordinating joint procurement of protective equipment, and shipping protective equipment to third countries (in February 2020, more than 50 tons of protective equipment went to China alone). From mid-March, help from inside the EU to heavily affected EU member states outmatched by far any support from outside its borders. 

Communication seems to be at least as big a problem as the actions that have – or have not – taken place. The EU once again exhibited its well-known weakness in communicating (as) loud and clear (as others) what it is doing, and for whom. Only from mid-March did the European Commission start to publish more comprehensive and systematic information about its actions. The EU came (and perhaps still is) very close to losing the “battle of narratives” to countries such as China or Russia. Brussels cannot and should not match those actors’ communication techniques. But more can be done to make EU action transparent early on, both to EU citizens and to the world.

The bigger communication problem, though, lies with EU member states. Not all governments gave the impression that they were prioritizing European over national solutions. The fact that EU member states were affected very unevenly and took different roads in the battle against the pandemic (from near total lockdown in Italy and Spain to the very liberal policy in Sweden) has added to the controversy. Hungary evoked criticism in Brussels and other EU capitals for using the pandemic to further unhinge democratic principles. Poland’s Law and Justice Party’s attempt to carry out the presidential election on 10 May, in the midst of the pandemic, triggered similar reactions. Like a magnifying glass, the pandemic exposed cracks and tensions between EU member states that undermine solidarity. It remains to be seen if there is enough political will in member states’ capitals to shrink them back to their pre-pandemic size.

The economic response to the pandemic will be of key importance for the EU’s future. First initiatives, like a “Corona Response Investment Initiative” of EUR 60 billion, and fiscal and other measures to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, entered into force in early April

But yet again, the EU depends on its member states for more decisive action – and for solidarity. The pandemic added fuel to the dispute about Eurobonds, which dates back to the financial crisis of the early 2010s. The Franco-German economic recovery plan, presented on 19 May, marks the end of long years of German resistance to a more flexible European fiscal policy. To be sure, Berlin’s decision is not a purely altruistic one. Germany would itself benefit from the newly created fund. Moreover, the German economy is highly dependent on, and therefore has a very strong interest in, a functioning single market. But the initiative has the potential to revive and strengthen the feeling of solidarity among EU member states, and also to unlock the lingering blockade between Berlin and Paris in other policy fields. The Commission has expanded and transformed it into a proposal for the European Council on 19 June. The meeting of the EU heads of states and governments will show if the EU is ready for this impulse.

Societies responded to the pandemic in a similarly multifaceted manner. Where governments enjoyed societal trust, vast majorities supported the drastic confinement measures. This was the case in countries such as in Denmark, Finland, or Germany. In France, where state-society relations had been tense before the outbreak, the government found it more difficult to gain approval for its pandemic policy. The situation of right-wing populist and euro-sceptic parties is inversely proportional – for now, the pandemic has eroded their support base. A multi-country survey, commissioned by the European Parliament in April 2020, showed that six out of ten citizens were dissatisfied with the solidarity shown by EU member states. Only 42 percent approved of the measures or actions initiated by the EU. However, 69 percent said that the EU should have more competences to deal with crises such as the pandemic. Individuals, civil society organisations and companies across the EU have been engaging in impressive actions of solidarity to support elderly people, other vulnerable groups, and health workers. However, societal solidarity and support for governments may collapse if the economic crisis related to the pandemic drags on and compounds social inequalities.

The EU will have a lot to process after the COVID-19 outbreak. This is a crisis of unprecedented scale. It accumulates and reinforces many aspects of the three crises of the past decade (the financial crisis, terrorism, and migration). The EU was slow to act in the early days of the crisis. Since mid-March, Brussels has taken a much more active role, particularly with regard to managing the economic fallout of the pandemic. Its success will depend on two factors: First, will EU member states muster the political will to allow for the ambitious economic recovery plan to go forward? Secondly, will economic recovery policies manage to stabilise the socio-economic situation in member states and to curb social inequalities? The EU is a learning system. Most of its members are well aware that they fare better in a functioning union, based on mutual support and solidarity. It will take time and energy, but there is a good chance that the EU will not only survive the COVID-19 pandemic, but emerge from it stronger and in more solidarity.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.