As the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak this month shifted from China to Europe, with nearly half of confirmed deaths to date in Italy alone, the EU is under fire for failing to mount a united response to counter the virus, also known as COVID-19.
“The EU’s response has been mixed, although it is rapidly improving,” Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, told Anadolu Agency:
“We need to remember that the pandemic is causing two national, EU-wide, and global crises – a health crisis with existentialist dimensions as well as an economic crash,” he added.
According to Ilke Toygur, a Europe analyst for Elcano Royal Institute, based in Madrid: “The main criticism of the EU is its short-sightedness in managing the crisis, along with the externalization of its problems – as in the case of irregular migration.”
The EU has been accused of trying to outsource the irregular migration problem to Turkey, being unwilling to take in large numbers of migrants itself.
In an article posted at the institute’s website titled The EU, coronavirus and crisis management: is “solidarity” real or just a prop? Toygur suggested that the virus crisis in the EU “requires both short- and medium-term coordinated responses.”
“Saving one’s own nation, or minimizing the impact of the crisis and focusing on individual states, cannot be the solution,” she wrote. “Helping one’s neighbors when in need will be the first step towards a more powerful Union to face the pandemic.”
“For the past few weeks, the general image projected by the EU was of inaction, lack of coordination and no solidarity,” she said.
While virus-wracked Italy has seen 9,134 deaths due to coronavirus – the highest numbers in the world – Spain has reported 5,138 fatalities as of Saturday morning, with a worldwide death toll of 27,761.
On March 10, Maurizio Massari, Italy’s permanent representative to the European Union, wrote an article titled “Italy needs Europe’s help.”
“It’s time now for the EU to go beyond engagement and consultations, with emergency actions that are quick, concrete and effective,” Massari wrote for the website Politico.
- ‘Public health or the economy?'
According to Triantaphyllou, although the 27-nation bloc “has exclusive competences for monetary policy for member states whose currency is the euro, the protection, and improvement of human health is primarily a competence of each member state.”
He added: “This has been difficult to figure out while at the same time, there are some ideological differences among member states as to what to prioritize first – public health or the functioning of the economy.”
Triantaphyllou highlighted internal dynamics within member states that have also complicated the situation in terms of decision-making.
“While the tenuous PSOE-Podemos coalition government in Spain has taken a long time to respond with appropriate measures, the single-party New Democracy government in Greece has been much more effective at stressing health first and promoting quarantine measures relatively early,” he said.
“In the German case, the complicated relationship between the Lander [states] that have significant powers and the federal government needs also to be accounted regarding Germany’s commitment to an EU response,” he added.
“The EU institutions on the other hand – be it the European Commission, the European Parliament, or the European Central Bank – have responded relatively well, despite their structural limitations and the differing positions of their stakeholders,” he argued.
On Thursday, addressing the European Parliament at a meeting on the coronavirus outbreak, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “I am convinced that while we may be sitting further apart than usual, we must work closer together than ever before.”
“We must look out for each other, we must pull each other through this,” she added.
“We all share this responsibility,” she said. “None of us can do it alone and certainly no member state can handle this crisis on their own.”
Over the past few weeks, European states decided to temporarily reintroduce controls at borders with other Schengen countries due to the virus’ alarming spread.
Some countries even banned all foreign nationals – including other EU citizens – from entering their territory.
Toygur, the Europe analyst, painted coronavirus as a grave threat to the bloc’s already fragile Schengen Area, which abolished borders between EU member states a quarter-century ago.
“Whenever there is a threat, one of the first reactions is to close borders,” Toygur wrote.
“This endangers the Union’s four freedoms: the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people,” she added.
- Italy gets aid from China, Cuba
Earlier this week, a video showing doctors coming from Cuba to help curb the spread of coronavirus in Italy hit social media. Similarly, China sending medical equipment to aid various European countries also made headlines. Alexander Vucic, the president of Serbia, a country bordering the EU which Beijing has courted, reportedly said: “European solidarity does not exist.”
“The only country that can help us is China,” he added.
“Propagandizing,” Triantaphyllou said about the high profile of the aid, without discounting the assistance.
“It’s true that the EU and its member states have been slow to respond to Italy’s urgent calls for assistance at a time when they themselves have to scramble to obtain the requisite equipment for their hospitals, etc.
“But it’s also true that as the EU and its member states are getting their acts together, more masks are being sent to Italy at this stage from Germany and France than the ones provided by China.”
He added: “There are numerous reports from Spain, as reported by El Pais, that as many as 80% of the coronavirus test kits supplied by a Chinese company do not seem to be working properly while, according to [Italy’s] La Stampa, most of the assistance provided by Russia is useless in that it is not what Italy needs more at the moment.”
So the aid may not be as impressive as originally billed.
On Thursday, the German Foreign Ministry also announced that a total of 47 patients in intensive care from Italy could be treated in Germany. “We stand at the side of our Italian friends,” the ministry posted on Twitter along with a picture of a cargo plane carrying patients.
Triantaphyllou took exception to the idea that European solidarity does not exist: “It is there and getting stronger as EU institutions and EU member states have started to get their act together.”
While deaths from coronavirus are far short of those who have recovered, the virus can still cause major health problems and possibly death for the elderly and individuals with pre-existing conditions, including hypertension, diabetes, and asthma.
After first appearing in Wuhan, China, in December, the virus has spread to at least 175 countries and regions and affected the health of over half a million people across the world, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins.
- Wake-up call for EU
Despite the widespread criticism of the EU response, the focus is that it is not doing enough, not that is should not exist at all, according to Triantaphyllou.
“I think that when the coronavirus crisis is finally managed, the EU will continue to take the lead and be eventually strengthened as the crisis demonstrates that no country can deal with it alone,” he said.
For Toygur, united response to the crisis is “the only way for the EU to be a geopolitical global player, speaking the language of power.”
“The EU should act European as a step towards acting global. This crisis, this global pandemic, should be taken as a wake-up call,” she added.
Triantaphyllou argued the crisis over the virus would help the bloc in the long term tighten its rules of engagement, “undergo major reform, including possible negotiations for a new treaty, and become more political.”
“As the U.S. is faltering with its go-alone approach and China, for all its attempts to whitewash its lack of policy response to nip the virus at the bud and prevent its spread globally, the EU will emerge wiser and stronger despite continued differences among its member states,” he added.
By Handan Kazanci