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In the second week of March, the World Health Organization warned of the rapid spread of the new coronavirus as a result of an “alarming level of inaction.” Day by day, the perception grows that the crisis is a litmus test of governmental authority, and that regaining control and saving lives require drastic measures to limit individual freedoms.
First Europe watched closely to see how autocratic China was dealing with the virus. Reports of local authorities suppressing information about the outbreak and even destroying proof of the virus reminded Europeans of the Soviet Union’s disastrous handling of the 1986 nuclear explosion at Chernobyl.
Similarly, European citizens were not surprised by the Kremlin’s initial reaction to the situation in Russia: one of denial and deflection, and a convenient excuse to push through a quasi-referendum to change the Russian constitution and allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036. The Kremlin has since adapted to progressing realities.
But the democratic self-congratulation did not last long. After the initial denial, China launched an impressive mobilization that apparently contained the danger. European observers started worrying whether their governments would be able to organize the social will and capacity to act in time to “flatten the curve” of the virus’s spread. Political leaders across Europe realized too late that they had wasted precious preparation time.
The political fallout in EU member states has been mixed. Two weeks after Europe became the epicenter of the global pandemic, two Irish parties that have never shared power entered into coalition talks to form a government. In Belgium, the caretaker government was granted far-reaching powers for six months to fight the virus. In Germany, political parties closed ranks behind Chancellor Angela Merkel and abandoned their commitment to the “black zero” (a balanced budget).
In Hungary, however, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is opportunistically moving into full authoritarian mode by using his party’s supermajority to suspend parliament and obtain the power to rule by decree and silence dissent. Other governments—in Estonia, Latvia, and Romania, for example—want to use the crisis to break free from their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
This public health disaster is affecting every nation’s society and body politic. In phase one, each government has its own reflex. When the medical emergency hit a chronically unstable environment in which every bit of information is weaponized for political gain, a well-intentioned yet ill-advised Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte took one misstep after another. Italy became Europe’s first casualty of poor crisis management. Relying heavily on the authority of science and statistics, French President Emmanuel Macron declared “We are at war” and mobilized all manpower and resources to save lives through state coercion—but not until after the first round of municipal elections was held. Brexit Britain distanced itself from the mayhem on the continent, kept calm, and carried on—until growing doubts in the ruling Conservative Party over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s laconic bluff pushed him to confront the seriousness of the situation.
Three and a half months after the outbreak in Wuhan, the death toll in Europe surpassed that in China. Governments in phase two of the virus’s progression—most EU member states right now—will increasingly do what Asian countries with experience in fighting the SARS virus did previously: introduce maximum restrictions on the freedom of movement to reduce pressure on hospitals. Governments everywhere will take measures that previously seemed unimaginable.
This instinctive self-preservation is only one side of the story. The coronavirus outbreak also marks the return of fact-based politics in much of Europe, countering the spread of disinformation and pushing populists and cyber warriors into the background. And as the virus affects all EU countries—albeit at different stages on the infection curve—it calls for crisis management at the European level.
Even if political union in the EU is scarce and the European Commission treaty-bound to only act in support of member states confronting this public health crisis, rather than to take the lead itself, three measures can work to close the perennial expectations-capabilities gap from which the bloc suffers. The first is coordination: the EU’s twenty-seven national leaders have launched a joint bid to ensure the procurement of personal protective equipment, increased funding for vaccine research, and taken action to mitigate the socioeconomic impact of the crisis.
The second measure is relaxing regulatory enforcement. The extent of the damage to the economy is not yet known, but much of the service sector and manufacturing industry has closed down. It would not be surprising if this quarter’s GDP has been slashed by about a quarter to one-third.
In response, conventional norms have been set aside. The European Commission’s proposal to trigger an “escape clause” in fiscal rules governing the budget deficit and public debt has been approved by the bloc’s finance ministers. Brussels has also laid out its guidelines for establishing “green lanes” to allow the free circulation of goods in the single market, after concerns over border closures and fears of backlogs. In addition, the EU executive adopted a temporary framework for state aid to ensure that companies have sufficient liquidity during the coronavirus crisis. The European Central Bank has committed to 750 billion euros in interventions—equivalent to 4 percent of GDP—via its Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program.
The third measure is solidarity, following Italy’s complaint that its fellow member states had failed to answer its appeal for medical supplies. The message was clear: its EU partners need their ventilators and masks for themselves. Instead, it was China that sent aid to Italy. Surprisingly, Russia too is apparently able to afford to export medical equipment, thereby scoring some points in the battle of geopolitical narratives.
The European Commission has now announced new measures to organize (and fund 90 percent of) strategic stockpiles of medical equipment, saying explicitly that the new initiative is putting “EU solidarity into action.” Further initiatives are expected, including more investment in biotech research and the development of an industrial base to guarantee Europe’s strategic autonomy in the medical sector.
Such concrete measures are not just essential to assist member states in their hour of need. In times of social distancing, they also help to show European citizens and international partners that the European Union can provide added value to individual EU countries, and that it remains a force to be reckoned with.
The EU has weathered many crises during the past decade, and will no doubt prove its resilience once again. Despite a slow start, the measures that have been put in place at the supranational level show a strong willingness to preserve the essential pillars on which the EU is built, notwithstanding the massive impact of the virus on people, businesses, and states. What doesn’t kill the EU will make it stronger.
This article is part of the Russia-EU: Promoting Informed Dialogue project supported by the European Union in Russia. Steven Blockmans is one of the EU-Russia Expert Network on Foreign Policy (EUREN) core group members.
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