Global Governance
European Integration and the Problems of Internal Divisions Under the Context of Covid-19 Pandemic

How the EU reacts today will definitely shape the EU’s tomorrow. “Sovereign Europe” has been a buzz phrase over the past two years, and its establishment has been posited as a potential solution to the EU’s challenges. There is no exact meaning of Sovereign Europe, but the core of the concept is its unity and the ability to protect citizens, writes Jin Ling, Senior Research Fellow at the China Institute of International Studies.

It is widely believed that the unexpected Covid-19 pandemic, which has dealt another serious blow to EU integration after a series of crises, constituted a “make or break” moment for the EU. The EU is one of the most important powers in the world, and the future of the Union is critical to maintaining the currently-evolving world order. Therefore, the ability to objectively see and evaluate the EU’s response to the pandemic and its impact is a precondition for understanding the coming evolution of the bloc.

No more, No less: The EU’s response to the pandemic

Those who criticize the EU and claim that it has been useless in dealing with the pandemic are being unfair; they mistakenly equate the supranational organisation with a nation-state. The EU is a special entity and acts in accordance with the competences conferred upon it by its member states. These states remain in total control of their own health security; the EU has a limited role and few tools at its disposal.

Over the past three months, the EU has taken measures proportionate to its competences on different front lines. At the beginning stage of the pandemic, the EU took coordinated steps to evacuate EU citizens from abroad. When Germany and France introduced export bans on medical equipment, the EU used its competence within the single market to make them lift these. When confronted with its member states’ unilateral actions regarding borders, the European Union set guidelines regulating border management measures in order to safeguard public health and ensure the availability of goods and essential services. Besides that, the EU also took action to send direct support to its member states’ health systems with the RescEU initiative and by launching the joint procurement of protective medical equipment.

In addressing the economy, the EU has taken action more quickly compared with its handling of the Eurozone debt crisis. After hesitating briefly, the ECB quickly changed its tone to signal that it will do whatever is necessary within its mandate and that the new Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) would have an overall budget of €750 billion and, to a large extent, could prevent another debt crisis. Also, without much of a struggle, the EU has almost for the first time loosened its budget and fiscal and state aid rules, providing flexibility for member states hoping to fight the epidemic and its impacts. Although it encountered a struggle at first, the Eurogroup finally reached compromises with the three-pillar support programme, amounting to around half a trillion euros, to show solidarity.

However, in relaying the EU’s efforts, one should neither praise the EU for its performance nor deny its inability to coordinate effectively. The main point is that many expectations have been misplaced and reflect a poor understanding of what exactly the EU is and isn’t.

Institutional Deficiencies and Worsening Internal Divisions

The past three months have been marked with examples of chaotic, unilateral activity among European states in their approach to the pandemic and a disregard for the principles of unity and solidarity. To some extent, it is quite natural when health care responsibilities are among the burdens borne by member states and the nation states become the predominant actors, and they act in a somewhat “selfish” way instinctively. However, it ruthlessly exposed the EU’s internal deficiencies and internal divisions. These have been visible amid the ongoing crisis more than once, leading the entity into unchartered waters.

Institutionally speaking, Covid-19 once again demonstrates the mismatch between the EU’s responsibility and its competences. As a highly integrated entity, member states are interwoven with each other without visible borders. However, there are invisible borders politically and socially, which fundamentally limits the efficiency of the EU’s governance. It is a plain fact that no member state is equipped to handle any systemic crisis alone, whatever it concerns debt or refugees, let alone the current pandemic crisis. These all need answers involving all of Europe, but the EU is not empowered to act unilaterally while the member states fail to respond effectively in an intergovernmental way because of the borders, within which different interests, values and political factors play far more important roles than the handling of the crisis itself. As a result, when systemic challenges come, the EU fails to meet them and questions arise concerning its credibility and legitimacy.

The Eurozone debt crisis and the refugee crisis have laid bare the EU’s internal divisions, between the East and the West, the North and the South. The Covid-19 Pandemic once again makes the division even worse. Poland and Hungary have collided with Western European countries and EU institutions over the rule of law for many years, and the pandemics has made these tensions even higher. The European Commission warned Hungary not to flout democracy with coronavirus law and The European Parliament passed a resolution on 17 April describing the recent Hungarian and Polish government actions during the coronavirus outbreak as “totally incompatible with European values”.

On dealing with the possible economic fallout, the North and the South have found themselves deeply divided again. Italy and Spain, which have been hit hard by the pandemic, sought corona-bonds but met strong opposition from the North, which made the scar left by the debt crisis raw again. In response to Dutch finance minister Wopke Hoekstra’s provocative suggestion that Brussels should investigate why some other countries may be financially unable to weather the impact of the pandemic, officials in Spain and Portugal hit back, arguing that Hoekstra’s approach was “senseless” and “repugnant”.

Resilient enough to move forward to a “Sovereign” Europe?

Weathering lines of crises during the past ten years has demonstrated the EU’s resilience in facing different challenges. In handling the debt crisis, the EU built up the ESM; In dealing with the refugee crisis, the EU has reinforced the European border and coast guard; Faced with the Brexit challenge, the EU has by now successfully been able to stick together with a unified face. From this perspective, it echoes what Jean Monnet predicted: that Europe will be forged in crises.

But we should never forget the increasing dilemma EU has been facing at the same time. While showing its resilience by finding ways of muddling through, its more half-baked ways have raised more doubts about its legitimacy as an entity to provide added value in promoting peace, stability, and prosperity. As a result, nationalism, populism and Eurosceptic powers have never been stronger in the EU’s history, which has that further limited mainstream parties’ manoeuvre space in promoting further integration, with more power transferred to the EU.

Despite confronting the unprecedented pandemic crisis, the EU is still muddling through. But this time, the crisis is much more devastating than ever: Tens thousands of lives have been claimed, the worst economic recession since the Great Depression is on the horizon, and political divisions have become deeper. Perhaps even worse has been the further loss of faith in the EU. A recent poll shows that 67 percent of Italians believe being an EU member is a disadvantage for Italy, up from 47 percent in November 2018. Regarding the coming danger from pandemics, Italy’s Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte has warned that if the bloc fails to stand up for it, the entire project might “lose its foundations”.

All of those factors call for a more ambitious Europe to take more decisive action. How the EU reacts today will definitely shape the EU’s tomorrow. “Sovereign Europe” has been a buzz phrase over the past two years, and its establishment has been posited as a potential solution to the EU’s challenges. There is no exact meaning of Sovereign Europe, but the core of the concept is its unity and the ability to protect citizens. So it is high time for the EU member states to move beyond petty nationalist instincts and courageously take action to show unity, not only in fighting the pandemic but also in navigating out the coming economic and social crisis. Institutionally, it also means member states must show courage to equip the EU with more powers in coordinating and organising responses to cross-border crises. Otherwise, even if the current crisis is not the last straw to bring the union crashing down, it is doubtful that its resilience would be strong enough to withstand more unexpected challenges ahead.

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