Conflict and Leadership
How the COVID-19 Pandemic Exposed EU’s Weaknesses

The EU’s failure to prevent and manage crises does not only concern crises outside of the Union’s borders. The EU has been equally slow and inefficient during intra-Union crises, writes Enes Bayraklı, Associate Professor at the Turkish-German University.

As a unique supranational organisation, the EU is undoubtedly a success story, but one has to add that this is only true in normal times. The same cannot be said in times of crisis. Since its establishment, the EU has faced a series of internal and external crises. The Covid-19 virus, which first appeared in China in 2019, affected the whole world, causing a global crisis. In addition to the health dimension of the crisis, economic, political and social dimensions have emerged. In particular, the Covid-19 crisis has caused debates on the functionality of international organisations, which are important actors within the liberal world order. The inability of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to produce a common policy on the Covid pandemic constitutes the basis of the discussions. Furthermore, the fact that the European Union (EU) could not take quick decisions in terms of managing the crisis due to its cumbersome bureaucracy resulted in the questioning of the functionality of the Union’s political structure as well.

The EU’s History of Failures 

The selfish differences of opinion of member states, the clumsiness of ‘eurocracy’, and the absence of a common foreign and security policy mechanism have hindered the EU’s ability to prevent and manage a series of crises which have transpired both inside and outside its borders. As is especially evident in Syria and Libya, the EU’s inability to voice a common policy in the field of foreign affairs and security constitutes a perennial problem. 

The resilience of a political system is evident in times of crisis. It is really difficult to claim that the EU has scored enough to pass this test time and again. The failures of the EU are especially evident when it comes to crises in its immediate neighbourhood, for instance, in its inability to prevent or stop ethnic conflicts in the Balkans during the Yugoslavia crisis. One can easily claim that the EU has been spectacularly unsuccessful, dysfunctional and ineffective in a series of crises that emerged after the Cold War where the EU was tested, especially with regards to security issues.

The EU’s failure to prevent and manage crises does not only concern crises outside of the Union’s borders. The EU has been equally slow and inefficient during intra-Union crises. One significant domestic crisis, or challenge, during which the EU’s resilience was tested was the Eurozone crisis. The financial crisis, which started in the US and spread to other countries, caused a major debt crisis in the EU. In this process, the EU could not show sufficient solidarity in the face of the serious effects of the crisis on member states such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal, and the late intervention of the EU deepened the crisis even more. The Eurozone Crisis has also driven polarisation and strengthened anti-EU movements within the EU due to the reluctance of the northern EU countries to help others. In this process, the “North-South divide”, which was frequently mentioned in the Union, started to deepen and serious differences of opinion were experienced between countries with fragile economies and countries with stronger economies.

Aside from the countries neighbouring Syria, the 2011 Syrian War affected the EU the most, leading to a new wave of refugees, terrorist attacks and the resulting rise of the far right. Despite this, the EU’s response to the conflict in Syria has been almost invisible. Although the EU claimed that it preferred to find a solution mostly by using diplomacy in the Syrian War, it could not put forward any concrete policy that would contribute to a solution. However, as the civil war became more intense, the EU’s “deadlock” on the refugee issue, which affected many countries, including member states, clearly revealed its failure.

In this way, one can claim that the EU has not even considered tackling the root causes of the Syrian crisis; it has only taken steps to manage its symptoms.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, also criticised the EU over the issue of Syrian refugees, stating that it has become a humanitarian crisis and that the EU countries have failed in this regard. The EU refugee policy, which was shaped specifically to keep refugees away from the European continent, has caused the refugee crisis to deepen since 2015. The fact that the member countries follow a selfish national interest-oriented policy instead of adopting a common policy has shown that the EU has moved further away from the Union spirit. Issues such as the sinking of refugees’ boats in the Aegean Sea and Mediterranean Sea, the closure of border gates, the health problems of refugees and the sexual abuse of refugee children in the makeshift refugee camps also damages the validity of the EU’s human rights discourse and the functionality of its normative power. With its ‘Festung Europa’ policy, which has been implemented in violation of all international agreements regarding refugees, the EU has built a “new iron curtain” around itself.

Another issue that the EU has failed to address adequately has been the Libyan crisis. Due to the differences of opinion between France, Italy and Germany, the EU has again failed to develop a common foreign policy with regards to Libya. Despite France’s active policy in the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, Germany abstained from voting at the UNSC and revealed the differences of opinion in this process. The mediation activities carried out by the EU during the crisis in Libya after the NATO intervention were also ineffective and insufficient. As the crisis in Libya deepened in 2019, the EU was not able to develop a coherent policy. The EU and EU countries were insufficient in resolving the conflict between the Government of National Reconciliation, which is considered legitimate by the UN, and the militia groups affiliated with General Haftar. The EU’s actions were insufficient and mostly unsuccessful in addressing issues such as ensuring a ceasefire and putting a dialogue mechanism into practice. 

Migrants in Europe
Movements of people across the Mediterranean decreased compared with 2016. Numbers significantly declined for the Eastern Mediterranean crossing beginning in April 2016 and for the Central Mediterranean since July 2017.

The Failure of the EU During the Pandemic

During the pandemic, cracks in the EU became visible with issues such as ‘mask wars’, export bans, the closure of borders, and vaccine nationalism. For example; At the beginning of the pandemic, masks due to be sent to Italy and Spain were confiscated by France. The ban on the export of respirators by countries such as Germany and France were also criticised by the EU Commission. However, the pandemic, which is a global problem, has caused the Union spirit to lose its meaning even more, since member states selfishly started to look for national solutions to an unprecedented international health crises. The bans on vaccine exports have also sparked the debate on vaccine nationalism within the EU countries. These countries, which have resorted to vaccine hoarding with their vaccine nationalism, have also made it difficult for poor countries to access vaccines with their policies. Moreover, leaving the non-EU countries especially the Balkan countries alone in the fight against the pandemic has seriously damaged the image of the EU. In this process, it has been seen that the UK has been much more successful in the management of the pandemic compared to the EU, after leaving the EU as a result of Brexit. This fact made the cumbersome eurocracy and the fatal consequences of slow decision-making mechanism in the EU apparatus in times of crisis visible to everyone.

The Covid-19 crisis, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel described as “the biggest crisis since the establishment of the EU”, caused many problems due to the EU’s inability to produce a robust and common approach. The “Union spirit” has been replaced with “my country first at all costs” policies among some member states. All these policies, which deviated from the founding spirit of the Union, were also criticised by member and non- member states. For example; Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić drew attention to the EU’s failure in crisis management by evaluating it as “a fairy tale on paper”, that there can be no talk of solidarity within the EU. Similarly, French President Emmanuel Macron stated that if the EU does not provide the necessary assistance to countries like Italy, it will “collapse as a political project”. In Italy, one of the biggest victims of the pandemic in the Union, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte emphasised the failure of the Union’s structure in crisis management by expressing that the “EU will either cope with the greatest test it has faced since World War II or it will become history”.

However, the failure of the EU in the pandemic process is not only expressed by the politicians, it is also seen that the public is aware of the inadequacy of the EUs failure.

For instance, in a survey conducted by the European Parliament in July 2020, 68 percent of respondents said the EU should have more power to deal with crises, while 56 percent said the EU should have more financial resources to overcome the consequences of the pandemic.

In addition to the political debates caused by the pandemic in the EU, it also caused some economic debates. Similar to the Eurozone Crisis, during the pandemic period, the coronabond proposal, which was put forward so that countries with high debts such as Italy and Spain could pay them off more easily, was rejected by countries such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. The fact that countries such as Italy, which think that they bear all the costs in the refugee issue, cannot receive sufficient economic support during the pandemic has strengthened the notion that there is a clear North-South divide within the EU. In addition, the fact that the members with fragile economies were more affected by the pandemic caused the rapid spread of far-right movements and violence, which had been going on for many years in the EU. In the annual reports published, it is stated that during the pandemic, far-right violence has increased significantly all over the world, especially in European countries. This situation caused the social crisis in the EU to reach its peak with the pandemic. As it can be understood from all these crises in which the EU’s resilience has been tested, the EU has serious problems in producing policies on issues that require quick decisions such as the refugee crisis, the fight against the pandemic, and the determination of a common foreign and security policy.

Conflict and Leadership
Covid-19 Pandemic as a Stress Test for the Unity of the European Union
Tatiana Romanova
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.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.