President of the European Council Charles Michel during a video conference © European Union
The coronavirus pandemic has devastated Europe, particularly Italy and Spain. However, it has also tested and continues to challenge all the other member states’ political, economic and medical resources and responses to this sudden health emergency.
The first test was in the humanitarian area. As Italy was devastated by the coronavirus, it reached out to other member states to ask for emergency humanitarian assistance. This concerned protective masks and other medical equipment. However, there was no tangible response to the Italian request.
This situation encouraged other countries such as Russia and China to step in and provide the humanitarian assistance Italy had requested.
Thankfully, European Union member states did understand the gravity of the situation rapidly and the fact that they had not given the proper response to Italy’s request.
They then provided protective masks and other aid that helped ease the strain on Italian hospitals and the highly overstretched medical infrastructure in that country.
The second test was on coordination on border closures and confinement procedures.
Here again, the European Union failed to act in a concerted manner; individual countries made their own national decisions regarding cross-border activities as well as measures to keep their populations in safe confinement.
The third test – one that has been the most visible – was in the financial area.
The European Central Bank provided economic and financial support to pandemic-stricken countries, particularly to Italy and Spain.
Here, an enormous amount of fire power has been brought to bear but if additional measures are required, the EU will be forced to revisit a question that has proved very divisive : the creation of Eurobonds or ‘Coronabonds’.
This is a mechanism designed for debt mutualisation. In a nutshell, this amounts to the debt of one Eurozone member becoming the debt of all other members.
Through ‘Coronabond’, a member state can ask for a loan to finance its response actions in the fields of health care, hospitals, military and police expenses as well as extraordinary ones such as emergency measures regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
This debt would then be shared among all member states.
This is something that the northern European countries, Germany, The Netherlands, Austria and Finland in particular do not agree to. That will indeed be a very big test for Europe.
The fourth test : democracy.
Here, very specifically in the case of Hungary and its government, democracy seems to be failing.
The government has issued an emergency decree to be enforced during the pandemic but which has no end date, no judicial supervision and no effective decision and oversight by the parliament.
Thus far, the European Union’s response has been very muted.
The fifth test : leadership.
Here, individual EU leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte have taken big steps forward. Others have struggled, especially British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who was himself infected with the virus and had to be hospitalized.
This has also impacted the Spanish government, a very new and very fragile minority government.
We are starting to see the strains of politics in the initial response to the pandemic.
The sixth test has been in the area of geopolitics.
Here again, we have seen China and Russia trying to use their ‘soft power’ in the form of humanitarian aid but also Russia resort to disinformation.
So, we are realising that the great struggle for power doesn’t end with the pandemic; we are seeing it being used as a unique tool.
The seventh and final test is really about the future.
Can the EU decide on a new, ambitious agenda ? Will all those funds be used simply for recovery from the pandemic ? Or will they be used for funding Europe’s ambitions, such as the new Green New Deal and the digital economy ?
And again, getting back to those Eurobonds and Coronabonds, if additional support is needed by various member states, will they agree to debt mutualisation or will this issue strain the European Union to a breaking point ?
The impact of this pandemic is not on just our daily lives and our health but primarily on our economy, on our politics, on our morality, on the way we deal with asymmetric and symmetric threats.
This pandemic, like all pandemics has these two separate but of course related aspects :
One is the impact on our health and the way it changes our lives with confinement, with the cessation of normal activities and the fear of illness.
But at the same time, this pandemic has spread throughout the global political economy and has begun a process that could, if left unchecked, lead to economic chaos and its subsequent fallout on society as a whole.
The time has come for the the European Union to show that it can and will indeed act as a UNION.
Click here to read the 2020 May edition of Europe Diplomatic Magazine