As the first few weeks of the coronavirus epidemic demonstrated, European Unity can be a fickle and fragile thing. When the virus first started sweeping across Europe, EU member states quickly shut down borders and implemented quarantine measures. However, these reactions were often done on a completely national basis, and there were many less savoury aspects of the situation.
From medical equipment being requisitioned while in transit between various member states, to public accusations against certain other member states and the European Union for “not doing enough”, March was not a fun time for the European Union. But we have come far since then, and while the future is still far from rosy, the horizon is definitely looking brighter.
As we are on the supposed tail end of the virus, or at least the first wave, most European countries have lifted quarantine for about a month, if not more. Things are slowly returning to normal, the economy is no longer at a standstill, and tourists are gradually making their way across borders. Despite the recent resurgence of Covid-19 cases in a few countries, the situation is much better than it was a few months ago.
This is in large part due to the many actions that were undertaken by member states over the past few months. Massive sums of money have been spent on increasing ICU spaces in hospitals, obtaining necessary medical equipment, and other healthcare measures. On the economic front, EU member countries have come up with various forms of financial stimulus to restart their economies, from direct transfers to tax breaks, and everything in between.
At the EU level as well, the European Commission recently approved the new EU budget and Coronavirus response package. While this is still contingent on the EU parliament’s vote, it is a step forward. Beyond the budget, the EU has taken all sorts of steps to combat the virus, but these actions are often overshadowed in member states by their own national policies.
Some of the most important steps taken so far by the EU were funding various vaccine research projects, making funds available for struggling businesses across the continent, as well as creating the rescEU stockpile. rescEU is a project that manages the stockpiling of common medical equipment for the European Union, with stockpiles being co-funded by the European Commission and countries that choose to host them.
While this is all well and good, it is not enough, especially if the virus returns with force in the Fall. The current “common” response is still only a partial solution, and mostly consists of financial aid programs. Many of the problems caused by Covid-19 cannot be solved with money alone, especially money that will only arrive months after the virus.
There are two inherent characteristics of the EU that make a common response to viral diseases necessary, not just for Covid-19 but for potential future pandemics as well. The first is pretty straightforward, with a common labour market, freedom of movement, and higher levels of economic integration between member states, the closing of borders due to such a pandemic has a disproportionate effect on the European economy. The second is that member states have vastly different capacities to deal with these types of medical emergencies. Germany was able to quickly invest billions of euros into creating more ICU beds specifically for Covid-19 than were available in all of Italy.
While it may seem unfair to suggest that member states with either more resources or greater preparation should assist those countries that are less prepared to deal with the virus, the aforementioned nature of the European economy means that a crisis in one member state will affect the common market, and a virus in one member state will eventually spread. Therefore, it is in the interest of member states to help each other out, because by doing so they protect their own citizens and economy in the longer run.
Of course, this is very easy to say, but common EU projects are always difficult and time-consuming affairs. The most recent 5-day long session of EU leaders’ negotiations showed that even in times of crisis, European states love to play politics. Improving on initiatives such as emergency EU funding and rescEU will not be easy to do, as member states have a tendency to pursue national strategies in the face of common problems, but it must happen if the EU is to recover quickly from Covid-19, as well as prepare for similar crises in the future.
In the featured photo illustration: European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Photo by MTI/EPA/Stephanie Lecocq