While billions of people are quarantined at home, while on our balconies we sing and clap to thank the healthcare professionals and the active workers in the current crisis situation and with great despair, we empathize with the deaths of those who have not been able to resist the virus, we realize that the survival of our Mother Europe is in danger.
Faced with an unprecedented pandemic, it is not just the American Dream that is weakened by the image of an often undemocratic and cruel American healthcare system in a country hit by the full force of Covid-19. It is also the European dream. A dream of solidarity and identity, expressed through common values and objectives that is threatened by populism, which is becoming more and more powerful in some countries, unilateralism and the shadow of an economic and social crisis which has already started to knock at our door. Here Europe appears in all its fragility. In Brussels, the atmosphere is incredibly tense. The Union’s motto “United in diversity” has rarely met everyone’s agreement and seems almost ironic, as political, cultural and linguistic divergences between the 27 members of the EU have never ceased to question the existent European system. Today, albeit still with our differences, we are all facing the same enemy. However, this does not seem to create consensus on the way to react, to help each other, to cooperate and to try to fight against the virus. We are far from feeling “united”.
Are we close to the end of our dear European Union? Will the EU cope with present difficulties and rise above them as a reinforced entity? At this time, challenges look as if they are numerous and insurmountable. Undoubtedly, it is not the first time that the Union has trembled. Let’s hope it is not the last either.
Facing a populist breakthrough, the Union is likely to remain motionless
Lately, the European Union has been challenged by several difficult situations. The 2008 crisis which deeply affected the European area, testing its way of functioning, has not been forgotten yet. Because of this, some countries still have not been able to get back on their feet and restore their previous socioeconomic position. Terrorism and the refugee crisis also undermined Europe and sometimes issues have been overtaken by inertia and inactivity, without the underlying problems actually being solved. Finally, with Brexit, the remaining 27 states bid farewell to an important member of the Union, highlighting the possibility for any European country to follow its own will and take its sovereignty back if it wishes to do so. The feared chain reaction did not actually come about, as on the contrary, the European Union seemed to have gained confidence and support. Indeed, the citizens of the 27 member states have been dissuaded from the desire to secede from the EU after observing the destabilizing impact of Brexit on British politics.
Yet, since the end of February, the new virus has brought the EU to its knees, causing a whole series of difficulties which affect all the members of the Union to a greater or lesser degree.
First of all, the Union is confronted with populism. At the end of January, one of the most prosperous regions of Italy, Emilia-Romagna, held its regional elections which are extremely important for its internal administration (in a country which is less centralized than France) but also to confirm the current nationwide political coalition. This region, where the unemployment rate is 5,9% (compared to the 9,7% of the national rate) and which boasts economic growth of 2,2%, risked falling into the hands of populists, led by the League Party¹. However, this did not happen, particularly thanks to the political movement of the “sardines”. This antifascist, popular movement, created by young people to mobilize the population to oppose populism and the sovereignist discourse of Matteo Salvini’s far-right, played a pivotal role in assembling thousands of people in several squares in Italy and worldwide, like sardines in a box, peacefully reunited against hatred and extremism. This was an undeniably positive signal for Italy and Europe, yet insufficient.
In fact, in the midst of the current health crisis, populism came back at high speed – after lying low for a period, awaiting a breakthrough. We know that populism goes hand in hand with misinformation, especially as in the context of coronavirus fake reports are commonplace on TV, in the newspapers and on social networks. Concerning this, the director-general of the WHO has declared that the coronavirus epidemic is also an infodemic, stating: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic, we’re fighting an infodemic”.
In addition to this, populism tends to exploit the situations of weakness in the population for electoral purposes by playing with the citizens’ feelings and precarity in order to nourish their national sentiment and identity, in opposition to the so-called “elites” and the European Union, making it responsible for their unstable situation. This is what is happening in Italy and in many other countries in which, furthermore, populist leaders lagged in recognizing the threat imposed by the virus and in taking measures to act accordingly in order to contain its spreading. They even criticized governments who did not act the same way- governments who actually took real measures against the virus straightaway. One need look no further than the US Whitehouse for examples, as President Trump’s was criticized by both the Democrats and the Republicans, in the current electoral period, for having minimized the crisis and fallen behind in taking decisions.
Coming back to Europe, what has drawn the greatest attention, aside from the unfortunate and growing list of infected people, has been the reaction of Hungary’s Prime Minister. Viktor Orban, leader of the Fidesz party, at the head of the Hungarian government since 2010, is already known for establishing the first “illiberal democracy”², questioning the rule of law principle and many other values pertaining to liberal democracies such as the plurality of the press or the independence of justice.
In 2018, the European Commission voted to trigger Article 7, the only instrument in the hands of the Union to “punish its bad pupils”, since the expulsion of a country is not allowed by the constitutive treaties of the EU. It was a final warning for Hungary, the same had also been done against Poland a few months earlier, based on the failure to respect the fundamental values of the EU expressed in article 2, including the rule of law principle, freedom, democracy and human rights. The article 7 procedure aims to remove a country’s voting rights in the Council of the EU and provides for attentive and specific monitoring of the evolution and correction regarding the member state’s behavior.
Not only did the procedure not work properly, proving the uneffectiveness of the European means to tackle a “clear risk of a serious breach³ ” of European values, but it also weakened the dialogue between Budapest and Brussels and exacerbated the situation, eventually worsened by the current crisis. On the 30th of March, facing coronavirus, Orban was entrusted by the Hungarian Parliament with full powers as an exceptional measure to handle the crisis. It is true that almost every European nation has had to adopt extraordinary steps, yet these have been and will be explicitly temporary, which is not the case for Hungary. In fact, in this country, the Prime Minister could rule by decree as long as he wants, as the new law has no temporal limit.
Needless to say, this extreme gesture has been compared to a “coup” by many, to a dictatorship (the first corona-dictatorship) by others, or to a “quarantining of democracy”. This has occurred right at the time when demonstrations are not possible and the European Union finds itself half-paralyzed and dealing with many other priorities, other than investigating and acting against Orban’s authoritarian choices.
Unilateralism as a prevailing characteristic of today’s EU
Additionally, we must say that the European Union did not see the pandemic coming. Many countries were unprepared in terms of material, including supplies of masks, medicines, and respirators, their health workforce, but also regarding the legal and political choices to be made, to pass necessary laws and take essential preventive measures. The lack of preparation can be explained by the emergence of an entirely new strain of coronavirus and the global scale of the pandemic, the likes of which we have not seen in a century. In a very short time, Italy, and right after Spain, felt the impact of the virus on their territory and population. Their warning was not loud enough to alarm the neighboring countries so that they would apply isolation measures straightaway. Hesitation and panic dominated the period between the end of February and mid-March. All of a sudden, the European borders were closed, most of the flights canceled and travel forbidden. The Schengen Area was locked down on the 16th of March for a minimum duration of 30 days following a collective decision in the European Commission.
For the first time since the implementation of an area guaranteeing free trade, free circulation of goods and people and free, undistorted competition (1985) and as part of the health emergency, barriers were reinstated and controls were re-established at the borders. But if this decision seems to have been taken through consultation and consensus, the case is different for the measures applied. In fact, Europe has not launched European directives allowing every country to follow precise rules in order to fight the virus and prevent its spread. The Commission, Parliament and Council could have followed the ordinary legislative procedure under article 168 on the Treaty on the functioning of the EU (TFEU), yet this practice is known for being slow and rather inefficient in a context characterized by the EU countries’ colliding opinions. Besides, article 168 states that the member states are primarily responsible for legislating in the field of public health which illustrates why the EU left the countries decide on their own.
However, for many people it is now clear that the response to the virus cannot but be implemented on the scale of the continent, or even of the world, in order to be effective. Since concertation and coordination of policies between member states are taking a long time, we can question whether the EU institutions are fit for purpose as they currently exist. It is true that all the countries have heterogeneous populations in terms of age and conditions, different economies, a curve of infection which increases at a distinct speed and some countries have been more affected than others. Still, we are experiencing unilateralism like never before.
A heavy price is quite likely to be paid by our societies due to the absence of anticipation and coordination. Today more than ever, it is not just a question of protecting countries financially, it is a question of saving lives as choices can turn out to be mortuary not only for their impact on the economy, but also concretely for the lives of people. Sweden and the Netherlands, for instance, have refused to carry out a complete quarantine, believing that draconian measures are not efficient enough compared to their impact on society, whereas scientists have confirmed that social isolation measures over the long term are the right solution to be adopted to flatten the famous curve of contagion.
Nevertheless, it is still too early to be able to judge the measures adopted by all the different countries. This will be possible only at a later time, once the situation has returned to normal and we have understood what should have been done, what has worked correctly or what, inversely has hindered the fight against the virus.
A health emergency which is turning into an economic and social downturn
In the aftermath of World War II and in the context of an increasing separation of the world into two blocs leading to the Cold War, on the 5th of June 1947, General Marshall pronounced these words: “But to speak more seriously, I need not to tell you that the world situation is very serious. The remedy lies in breaking the vicious circle and restoring the confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries and of Europe as a whole”.
By granting a 17 billion dollar aid program and by establishing the Organization for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC), the Marshall Plan allowed a large part of Europe to progressively recreate a favorable economic environment, which contributed to the later economic boom and set the scene for the European construction. Today the speech reveals an incredible modernity. The references to the Marshall Plan abound, as the program is taken as an example to be imitated to ensure the wellbeing of the European identity and recreate a positive economic context for the whole Europe.
In fact, for several weeks we have heard that the ongoing crisis is not only sanitary but is merging with an ever-deepening social and economic downturn. Quarantine has brought to the closure of almost every activity leading to a massive increase in unemployment. The financial market, firms and the state’s budget have also been affected. The European Central Bank estimates that the EU’s GDP may have gone under a 5% decline between February and March. Moreover, if the lockdown goes on until June, Europe could experience a crisis comparable to or worse than the 2009 recession. Many countries seem to be willing to play the “whatever it takes” card to shield their citizens, implementing all that is necessary to protect them: from lowering taxes, to granting an additional compensation, from distributing grocery discount vouchers to the disbursement of special funds. They use the words of the former president of the ECB, Mario Draghi, pronounced in 2012 to counter the economic crisis and relaunch the economy. Nevertheless, the most economically unstable and overly indebted countries (Greece, Italy, France and Spain) have already begun to feel the weight of such engagement of public finances and appeal for extra aid which should come from the European Union. Still, on the economic question, the Union is again divided.
On the one hand, on Monday the 23rd of March, the EU Finance Ministers temporarily suspended the “golden rule” approved in 1993 and the Pact of Stability (1997) concerning the public accounts deficit which should not be higher than 3% and the public debt which should not be higher than 60% of a country’s GDP. The easing of this rule has been favorably welcomed mostly by Mediterranean countries, which now can further invest in their healthcare systems and resort to public expenditure to help the citizens. As a consequence, this will increase national debt levels. An investment fund to support the healthcare systems, the workers and firms has been created by the EU as well. The Union also intends to use other already existing funds (the EU Solidarity Fund, the European Globalization Adjustment Fund …) to respond to the economic needs of its members. However, the measures have been slow in coming – not being taken until the Union realized the gravity and the common difficulty deriving from the fight against coronavirus. Italy and Spain, for a long time on the frontline against the virus, had felt abandoned up till then. Hence, a coalition of 9 Southern European countries (with Italy, Spain, France and Portugal, among others) was formed favoring the creation of “coronabonds”, debt equities issued in the eurozone to allow the overly indebted countries to easily finance themselves on the market. This proposal has been ruled out by less indebted nations like Germany or the Netherlands, fearing that further debt for Southern countries will destabilize the euro zone and plunge it into another subsequent crisis, or disagreeing with a policy which would help countries that are already indebted over the norm.
At this critical time, a certain tendency to think of their own interests can be observed among countries. Nonetheless, this thinking cannot bring anything good in a system founded on cooperation and interdependence. In order to evaluate the measures to adopt, it is of paramount importance to highlight that over the long term, allegedly, if one member of the EU suffers, so does the whole Union.
The European crisis, particularly between the North and the South, is being played with letters. The Italian politician and permanent representative of the EU in 2016, Carlo Calenda, together with many other Italian mayors and governors addressed a letter to Germany at the end of March. They underlined that Europe is facing an existential challenge, showing a lack of means to react in a unitary way and “if it doesn’t prove its existence, it will cease to exist”. The goal of the letter was to spur the Germans to stick together so that the EU’s “leader” would abandon its apparent nationalism and join the 9 Southern countries in the idea of shaping an emergency plan for the survival of Europe and of its members’ healthcare, economic and social systems.
Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in his Easter speech invited German citizens to show solidarity with others and especially with Europe, perhaps an indication that German leaders have heard the message.
Afterwards, on the 2nd of April 2020 the President of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, showed her regret to Italy for the EU’s lack of solidarity in a letter entitled “I present you my apologies, we are with you”, in an attempt to smooth over the fracture which risked opening wider. Finally, came the response of Giuseppe Conte, the Italian President of the Council of Ministers who underlined what the EU should do not only for Italy but to secure its own existence, ensure its survival and its proper functioning. The challenges are political and social, before being economic and the solidarity among countries is what Europe needs to guarantee its future.
The letter positively backs the recent proposal of a “Sure Plan” for 100 billion euros, mostly to deal with unemployment and support those who have lost their jobs. In short, proposals and programs seem to be progressing, although consensus is far from being reached and the positions remain divergent within the Union, especially around the use of tools such as the European Recovery Bonds.
A risky lack of solidarity
The lack of European solidarity does not apply only to the economic issues but also to other sectors, first and foremost, the public healthcare one, which has been devastated by the pandemic.
Throughout the media, the news stories about deliveries of supplies, medical and military personnel from Cuba, China or Russia have been proliferated thanks to negotiations between embassies and their host states worldwide. The new “mask diplomacy” could arguably be questioned for its real selflessness and the true goal of its operations. As a matter of fact, in the eyes of many, it may translate a strategy of image and aggressive soft power, as well as an instrumentalization of the crisis. In any case, either as a strategy or as simple and sincere solidarity, countries like Italy or Spain need aid and welcome these operations enthusiastically.
In the recent days, Albania and Ukraine as well as Qatar, among others, have also sent personnel to assist Italian hospitals, contributing to the question that is now being asked by several people: “What is the EU doing for us? as help and solidarity seem to arrive almost exclusively from the outside.
Related to this, on social networks, the number of Eurosceptics is growing and in the countries most affected by the virus, the voices of citizens criticizing the Union can be often heard. They support Brexit and hope that the model (of leaving the EU) will be imitated by their country once the health emergency is over. This attracts and reinforce the populist discourse, bringing about an unprecedented anti-European vicious circle. It is precisely for this reason that the EU should wake up soon. The less it shows cooperation and solidarity, the more the population is driven away from the European dream, the less efficient the Union is, the more populism exploits its fragility for its own propaganda. In a nutshell, the less we act united, the more the crisis will weigh not only on public and private finances but also on politics, or even democracy, of all our countries.
A few glimmers of hope in an overwhelmingly bleak picture
After all the above-mentioned drawbacks, it is time to reveal some positive notes. In fact, there are more pleasant episodes worth highlighting. The fracture within the EU over economic issues, the measures to adopt and the lack of solidarity in terms of supplies of material between European members states, might be explained by the fact that the EU is, at the moment, at the heart of the global pandemic.
For instance, Germany is taking charge of several Italian and French patients seriously infected by coronavirus. Other transfers have occurred either by air or land towards other countries such as Luxembourg, for example, showing that in reality, even if it is not as developed as it should be, European cooperation still exists.
In addition, Portugal has just regularized migrants pending of authorization of residence and asylum-seekers to protect them from the spreading of the pandemic. Although it is temporary, this measure aims to grant, even to the most vulnerable populations, access to medical treatments in case of symptoms and to possibly benefit from policies for the protection of employments, awaiting the official regularization of their situation which will take place only at the end of the international health emergency. The news has been gladly received by the supporters of human rights worldwide, setting Portugal as a model country to imitate. Indeed, unfortunately, the decision has been taken only on the national scale, the European Union has not yet pronounced itself on similar measures to adopt everywhere on its territory. Thus, the numerous refugee camps in Greece or France, among others, continue to expose their inhabitants to the danger of the virus. Consequently, migrants are abandoned by a Community which does not appear ready to assume its responsibility in terms of human rights, in a situation as serious as the one we are experiencing today.
In conclusion, the Union is confronted with a pandemic which presents both a challenge, and an opportunity to reflect on what is not working in our dear Mother Europe. Notwithstanding, the European dream cultivated for years and years, capable of resisting economic crises, terrorism, the 2015 refugee crisis, may not endure the coronavirus and break into pieces. Is the global health emergency putting an end to the project of a politically and economically united Europe? Today, within an inch of breaking up, nothing can be affirmed with certitude. Europe must overcome several obstacles to prove its effectiveness, in other words, through concrete intervention and decision-making, the Union will be able to guarantee its survival. Inertia and absence of consensus and solidarity will continue to play against it, when confronted with common problems and the upscaling of populism. We may hope that in a decade, we will look at this as an episode which has finally reinforced our European identity, raised the awareness of being all equal in the face of an unprecedented problem. Eventually, if we manage to cope with this, we will emerge stronger and more unified than ever. Fundamentally, trusting one of the Fathers of Europe, we can remain optimistic and keep hope for the future. In fact, according to Jean Monnet, “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises”.
In the meantime of waiting to see the evolution of the European dream and its destiny, please stay home!
¹ “The League” is a right-wing Italian party, it has officially emerged as “The North League for the independence of Padania” since the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. Today, its leader is Matteo Salvini and its ideology is constructed on populism, nationalism, sovereignty and euroscepticism among others.
² The term “illiberal democracy” or “illiberalism” opposes “liberal democracy” and indicates a democracy lacking some of its liberal aspects, especially as far as the separation of powers and the plurality of the press are concerned. This refers to a political situation in which the Rule of Law principle is threatened. The term was coined in the 1990s but has been concretely adopted since 2010 to refer to the Hungarian and Polish governments.
³As expressed in article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union
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