Conflict and Leadership
Covid-19 Pandemic as a Stress Test for the Unity of the European Union

The decisive factor in the stress for unity and the subsequent speed and quality of the reaction of the European Union has been the distribution of competences between the supranational and national levels. The greatest controversy has arisen with respect to medical care, where all powers belong to the member states, writes Valdai Club expert Tatiana Romanova.

Only the lazy did not speak, in the previous year, about how stressful the pandemic was for the unity of the European Union. Indeed, the 27 countries of the bloc experienced a lot of difficulties (just like other countries). Often the actions of the European Union were slow and the results were suboptimal, so the member states came to the fore. Some of them (for example, Germany) promoted solutions common to all EU members, while others acted purely in their national interests (for example, the Czech Republic with masks at the beginning of the pandemic or Hungary in the process of vaccination. At the same time, the media, especially in countries that are critical of the European Union (including Russia), eagerly covered the failures of the EU institutions and the unilateral actions of individual member countries.

The European Union’s attempt to counteract the pandemic can be reduced to three aspects: healthcare, freedom of movement and the economy. Let’s consider the dynamics of one-sidedness (a stress for EU unity) and solidarity in each of them.

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The first category initially consisted of launching crisis response (supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), provision of ventilators, and assistance by medical specialists). Later the supply of vaccines to the population of the European Union was added. In terms of healthcare, the activity of the European Union placed the most stress on the unity of the EU. At the initial stage, the member states not only did not help each other, but also began to block the supply of PPE to each other, and the case of the confiscation of aid for Italy in the Czech Republic created a sensation in the media. Initially, European institutions did not interfere in the process in any way; the EU countries were left face to face with the healthcare system and civil security that they had created. The EU civil protection mechanism was activated with a delay: it provided a channel for the supply of PPE and assistance to national health systems. For example, Austria, Germany and Luxembourg have provided hospital beds for patients from neighbouring Belgium, Netherlands, France and Italy. Poland, Romania and Germany also sent specialists to Italy. However, these actions were of a limited and symbolic nature, and were carried out after aid had been delivered to Italy from China or Russia.

The European Commission has tried to learn the lessons and move ahead with vaccine purchases for all EU citizens. Tough negotiations were held with manufacturers, millions of doses were contracted for, and the emergency assistance mechanism was used. However, slow vaccine production, logistics problems, the prioritising of contract prices over the speed of negotiation and the need to distribute vaccines to all member countries led to delays in the planned vaccination schedule. As a result, discussions have arisen in many EU countries about whether it may have been more efficient to organise vaccination at the national level. Controversy was also caused by the fairness of the principle of distribution of the vaccine between EU countries. Finally, a new dilemma arose when Hungary did not wait for the authorisation of the European Medicines Agency and began to independently use vaccines from Russia and China.

The results of the EU’s medical track record indicate a constant delay in supranational regulation, accompanied with subsequent symbolic actions. Even the initial successful procurement of the vaccine resulted in delays during the implementation phase.

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The second category of countering the pandemic in the EU is the preservation of the freedom of movement of EU citizens across its territory: the most vivid and understandable symbol of integration for all EU residents. In March 2020, the countries of the European Union independently, one after another, began to restore national border controls in order to limit the spread of the disease. At the same time, countries disregarded the Schengen norms, which instructed them to clearly identify the threats that lead to the closure of borders, and the timing of restrictions 10-20 days after their introduction. This became a vivid illustration of the unilateral actions of the member states.

However, here the initial stress for the European Union was quickly eliminated. On the one hand, this was facilitated by the active policymaking of the European Commission. Already in March 2020, it outlined that the borders should be open to those who cross them regularly for work purposes, i.e. took advantage of the fundamental economic aspects of integration. Then, in May 2020, the Commission proposed a package of recommendations for an agreement that would abolish border controls. On the other hand, individual member states reached their own agreements to restore freedom of movement across their borders (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France and Benelux, Baltic countries). As a result, the control of internal borders in the Schengen area was terminated relatively soon: by June 2020. Subsequently, individual EU countries re-implemented border restrictions only for a limited time and in accordance with the norms of EU legislation. At the same time, by October 2020, the Council agreed on recommendations on the procedure for introducing and removing border controls within the Schengen area, depending on the level of epidemiological danger. Finally, in March 2021, the Commission proposed a system of so-called green certificates, which should allow the restoration of freedom of movement within the EU for vacation purposes (and thus support the economies of the southern EU countries).

So, on the second category, the initial stress for EU unity in the form of the closure of internal borders was quickly resolved in favour of a coordinated approach and implementation of EU legislation, and the existing legal gaps were filled.

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Finally, the third category is the economic response. It has concerned stimulating the economy to overcome a catastrophic recession and restore employment and growth. The impact of the pandemic on the economies of the member countries has been different, but for all of them the pandemic was the largest market shock since World War II.

With respect to the economic aspect of the response to the pandemic, the mobilisation of the European Union has proceeded quite quickly, and actions will have far-reaching consequences. First, the European Union has mobilised funds from the 2020 budget, including regional assistance programmes. Second, the EU countries were provided with 450 million euros in loans to restore employment, support small and medium-sized businesses and EU countries. Third, the criteria for macroeconomic discipline were weakened, which allowed the EU countries to exceed the established ceilings for their state budget deficits. Fourth, the European Central Bank used its previous experience and intensified the buybacks of member countries’ bonds in order to reduce market pressure on national public finances. Compared to the funds allocated by the United States or individual EU countries, the EU’s programme was limited. At the same time, the EU’s regulatory competences were used to the maximum.

However, the EU institutions, in agreement with the EU countries, have achieved the greatest success with respect to the long-term stimulation of economic development. On the one hand, the taboo on coordinated borrowing by the European Union in the market was overcome: for 2021-2027, a New Generation EU recovery fund is being created totalling 750 billion euros (of which 312.5 billion will be spent on non-refundable grants to member countries). Negotiations on this initiative were dramatic, leading to clashes between countries which are net contributors and recipients of the EU budget. The discussions dragged on for months, but this is quite comparable to how long it usually takes to approve a long-term budget in the EU. On the other hand, the European Commission under the leadership of Ursula von der Leyen took advantage of the crisis to restart both the concept of EU economic development and the ideological basis of integration: it became the so-called Green Deal. And this, in fact, proved the viability of the European Union itself, although the practical implementation of the Deal remains a cause for much debate

Thus, if we’re to evaluate the third category, we can speak of success in mobilising various resources (traditional for the EU), both in terms of scale and speed. Moreover, tactical successes in using the crisis to restart integration should also be noted.

Summarising the EU’s response to stress regarding the three categories we have identified, the following conclusions can be drawn.

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First and trivial. The decisive factor in the stress for unity and the subsequent speed and quality of the reaction of the European Union has been the distribution of competences between the supranational and national levels. The greatest controversy has arisen with respect to medical care, where all powers belong to the member states. (This, incidentally, became the subject of discussions within the framework of the Conference on the Future of the European Union, designed to outline the contours of further reforms.) Regarding freedom of movement, EU unity was quickly restored; since there are clear norms of EU law, the Commission quickly intervened in the process, and the member states worked in this direction through interstate cooperation. Finally, regarding the economy, the EU reacted quickly and on a large scale, not only preventing stress which could have threated unity, but also forming a new concept of economic development and the ideological basis for integration.

Second. The division of competences that has developed in the EU was not created in order to respond to crises similar to pandemics, or to the unpredictability of modern world development in general. Therefore, inevitably, the reaction of the member states will show both reflexes of cooperation in the EU and attempts to resolve issues at the national level. At the same time, a characteristic feature of discussions about vaccination has become the activity of not so much national as subnational units. In this context, the European Union exploits the familiar, already-created resources, reformatting them. These are, first of all, regulatory instruments (for example, the European Medicines Agency, macroeconomic criteria, Schengen norms) and financial (budgetary funds, emergency aid instruments, the possibility of ECB involvement). In this sense, we can talk about the EU’s “tradition” of “pouring old wine into new bottles.”

Third. Discussions about what the European Union has (not) done to overcome the pandemic and its consequences, first of all indicate that experts, politicians, citizens continue to suffer from the capability-expectation gap. In the early 1990s, Christopher Hill applied this phenomenon to the external activities of the European Union. However, they can fully characterise everything that has (not) happened in the internal life of the European Union since the beginning of 2020. Paradoxically, this criticism testifies to the success of the European Union, which was able to form a reflex to appeal to itself in any difficult situation. But this is also a danger, since the European Union is far from always able to respond to a request quickly and efficiently (and the efficiency criteria themselves remain ephemeral). Consequently, stress threatening the unity of the European Union will arise again and again, and will be stopped regularly with more or less success.

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