Covid-19 is especially life-threatening for the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. That description also fits the European Union (EU), which is sexagenarian and has for over a decade been reeling from one crisis to the next. Institutionally, if not epidemiologically, the EU is more vulnerable to the virus than most nation states.
Since its founding in the 1950s, the European club has by definition been a post-national project, or “supranational” in Brussels civil-servant jargon. Member states pledged to entwine their destinies in mutual solidarity. They even agreed to gradually surrender their national sovereignty for a shared identity in a United States of Europe. That’s the meaning of the “ever closer union” envisioned in the founding treaties.
Back in the real world, intra-European solidarity is strained by the pandemic, and nationalism — in the form of unilateral and uncoordinated decisions taken by member states — is back again. Germany, for example, caused outrage in Austria and Switzerland by stopping shipments of face masks to its neighbours. Several states have export restrictions, usually hidden in impenetrable legalese, on medical equipment from goggles to gloves and ventilators. Italy, in particular, feels let down. When it first tried to invoke an EU mechanism to share medical supplies, no member state helped. Ironically, only China sent equipment.
And, then, there’s the closure of national borders even within the Schengen area of supposedly unobstructed travel. Last week, Poland, the Czech Republic and Denmark were among those slamming their barriers shut. Others followed this week, including Germany, which shut its borders with France, Austria, Luxembourg and Switzerland (a non-EU country that belongs to Schengen). The EU’s normal freedom of movement has been suspended.
The epidemiological case for such border closures is much weaker than for other forms of social distancing, such as cancelling trade fairs or self-quarantining at home. If a virus is circulating in the population on both sides of a border, as this coronavirus clearly is, preventing people from driving across won’t help to contain the spread. Otherwise, Germany might as well “close” the demarcation between Bavaria and Thuringia or its other federal states.
But in a crisis where governments are afraid of looking impotent, border closures have the advantage of looking decisive. That’s why, belatedly, the EU itself is now getting into the game, calling on its members to close the bloc’s external borders for 30 days. Most of them are already shut, of course. The EU’s suggestion is really a plea to member states to save the intra-EU “single market” for goods, services, labour and capital. Ultimately, it’s an attempt to be heard at all.
The clear message is that whenever Europe as a whole is tested, it fails. And then everything — solidarity, allegiance, decision-making — reverts back to nations.
In this sense, Covid-19 is a more extreme version of the refugee crisis of 2015-16. Back then, the EU also failed to find a united answer to the migrants. Instead, individual countries from Hungary to Austria unilaterally closed their borders. They subsequently balked at all attempts to reform Europe’s asylum laws. That’s why the EU still hasn’t fixed the system, and is facing round two of such turmoil. It’s been a similar story in the euro crisis, or really any European malaise.
Unless the EU’s leaders somehow rise to the occasion in this pandemic, one conclusion from Covid-19 by ordinary citizens will be that in a real pinch only their own nations can act quickly and boldly enough to deserve their trust. People like the quarantined Italians will drape their national colours, not the EU’s stars, over their balconies to signal where their primary solidarity lies.
All of this is, of course, especially disheartening for europhiles such as Ursula von der Leyen, the relatively new president of the European Commission. She was hoping to bring “Europe” closer to its citizens and make it more united and stronger in the context of the geopolitical clashes with China, Russia and the United States. But whether the challenge is migration, foreign policy or defence, Europe’s nations just can’t, or won’t, make their union “ever closer.”
Worse, every EU failure of action or solidarity is grist for the mills of populists, nationalists and eurosceptics, from Italy to Hungary, and even Germany. Their narratives already led one member state, the United Kingdom, to turn its back on the EU.
But for Europe to founder, it’s not even necessary for more countries to formally exit. Other blocs have disintegrated throughout history, from the League of Nations to the Confederation of the Rhine and the Holy Roman Empire before that. Some collapsed fast, others slowly. Each in their own tragic way, they simply became irrelevant.