Written by Bella Kama Welle.
Edited by Chiara Riezzo.
When COVID-19 first started spreading in China, it seemed to be a distant and unimportant issue to Europeans and the European Union. The virus first hit the European continent in February when 21 cases were detected in Northern Italy. Italy, as well as Spain, went on to become the coronavirus hotspots of Europe, with Italy registering more than 1,601,500 cases, as well as 55,576 deaths (status 01/12/2020) as the virus continued to spread. To date, Europe is one of the world’s coronavirus epicentres. How could a political union that seemed to have all the resources and cross border cooperation necessary to combat this crisis fail so badly?
In its 27 years of history, the EU has always prided itself on its values of solidarity and unity and yet, when the coronavirus hit Europe, these ideals were quickly abandoned, and each nation stood on its own. Like many times before, the EU failed to take a united approach. Notably, it is no secret that issues such as common foreign policy and military strategies are a constant debate among the different member states. At its core, the European Union is not a federation of states but an international organisation that pools the sovereignty of different member states. This means that each state retains its sovereignty and can disregard the interests of the EU. Such a scenario became tragically apparent during the coronavirus crisis.
A primary example of the EU members’ failure to stand by each other’s side was Germany’s early reaction to the pandemic, when it banned the export of face masks and other medical equipment on March 4th. The German government feared that there would be a lack of medical equipment and therefore took the steps it deemed necessary to protect its population. In doing so, it not only hindered other countries that were more strongly affected by coronavirus at the time (Germany reported no more than 262 cases on the day) from getting necessary supplies, but also demonstrated a strong disregard for the common good of the EU. Further measures included a premature and uncoordinated closure of borders. With Germany being one of the most prominent and arguably powerful member states of the EU, its actions sent an unmistakably clear message to the rest of the EU member states: in times of crisis, the spirit of unity and solidarity is cast aside, and each nation looks out for its own interests. Although Germany has tried to rectify its decision, the damage had already been done. Germany’s unilateral actions, while being part of one of the most important multilateral organisations in the world, will have long-lasting consequences as it questions the basis of the European Union as a whole.
The EU’s problem runs deeper than just a failure to coordinate measures in times of COVID-19. Over the past few years, healthcare has been a debated topic in the EU, with member states having the final say about each country’s healthcare system. Plans such as shared online patient records were being thwarted before they ever came into existence. The EU’s failure to coordinate health policies became tragically apparent when the first wave of COVID-19 hit the continent. And the problem did not disappear once the initial crisis was over. Not only did the EU fail to coordinate its policies and containment measures. It seems that it is still unable to present a united front, with Poland and Hungary vetoing the EU budget for January last month. It includes a vital €750bn coronavirus recovery package. The reason for the veto was the budget’s link with the rule of law, which includes democratic values and human rights. The Hungarian prime minister has called the budget a ‘political and ideological weapon’. This further highlights how divided the EU is, not just on topics such as healthcare but also on questions about the fundamental values of the EU.
In an increasingly isolationist world, I argue that the EU needs to ask itself where it wants to stand and what it wants to look like. Core values of the EU have been put into question, with several member states violating human rights and democratic values in recent years. One example of this being Poland’s new law undermining the judiciary branch that was signed this February. Politicians are now able to fine and fire judges.
The question is whether a union that is divided can stand strong in the face of increasing challenges. Will the EU become a loose cooperation of states able and willing to work together only when there is mutual benefit? Or will it turn into a (more) supranational organisation with common policies? Today more than ever, the world is constantly changing with new powers and partners stepping onto the stage of world politics. Hence, I wonder: where will the EU, or its individual member states, stand on this stage?