The coronavirus epidemic has exposed the European Union’s gravest flaws. It failed to make plans for state cooperation to combat a pandemic such as the one the world currently faces. The E.U.’s open-border policy in accordance with the Schengen Agreement, which it considers its cardinal achievement, has turned out to be a major hindrance to the effort to contain the virus. The E.U. refused to suspend the Schengen Agreement even as the outbreak rapidly picked up momentum, and minimized the dangers of the pandemic to the general public, missteps with grave human costs.
Europeans, often rightly critical of China’s human rights abuses and fearful of Beijing’s burgeoning economic strength, strongly criticized the fierce and undemocratic steps the People’s Republic took in the fight against coronavirus. But they failed to internalize the lessons of the virus’s human toll in China and rapid spread to other Asian countries. Instead, the E.U. pointed to China as an example that would not be followed by enlightened and progressive Europe.
When the virus spread to Italy, several E.U. countries responded by criticizing Italy for having become a viral hub while refusing to close their own borders with that country, a step that could have curbed the spread of the epidemic across Europe. It was the Chinese and the Russians, not the E.U., who supplied desperately needed equipment to fight the plague in Italy. The Chinese also delivered equipment to Spain and France, which soon followed Italy into the heart of the crisis.
It is interesting to note that, in contrast to its non-response to Italy, the E.U. provided around 20 tons of aid to China as it struggled with coronavirus. It is not yet clear whether this marks a tightening of diplomatic relations between Europe and China to compensate for Europe’s worsening relationship with the United States.
Europe’s complacency about the deteriorating situation in Italy was evident in the conduct of many E.U. countries. In France, for example, mass events took place at the annual agricultural fair in Port de Versailles, which opened on Feb. 22 and continued even after the virus had appeared across the continent. French President Emmanuel Macron attended the opening of the fair, where he was surrounded by crowds and talked to people with no apparent concern. On March 6, Macron and an entourage visited a nursing home to announce a ban on visiting nursing homes—the irony compounded by neither the president nor his entourage taking even elementary precautions while at the site.
On the same day, the governor of the Haute-Rhine district in eastern France held a press conference attended by experts, senior province officials, and health authorities announcing new limitations on public gatherings, closures of educational institutions, and banning visits to nursing homes. During the meeting, the speakers handed the microphone back and forth, in violation of the very precautions they were discussing. Local government elections in France were held as scheduled on March 5, although the second round, which was scheduled for March 22, was canceled due to the rapid spread of the outbreak.
The E.U. gradually began to internalize the danger as the virus surged across the continent. On March 6, a special conference on coronavirus was held at the Union Health Ministers’ Forum, where it was decided that the states would cooperate and exchange information on the crisis. On March 17, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged that the E.U. had underestimated the danger and declared the E.U. closed to citizens of non-European countries. Some E.U. member states, such as Spain, Denmark and the Czech Republic, announced a total closure of their borders.
The E.U. has achieved considerable gains, mainly on economic issues, during non-crisis periods, but has failed more than once to deal with crisis situations. Over the years, the E.U. has grown to include 28 member states and has gradually increased areas of integration across many spheres, including foreign policy and security. As a result, the E.U. has become a cumbersome bureaucratic body with a slow decision-making system that does not match the dynamic pace of events in the global arena or, for that matter, the domestic arenas of the member states. Unanimous decisions are required on key issues, including emergency situations, which makes action slow and difficult.
The E.U.’s handling of the massive refugee problem, for example, highlighted differences of opinion among its members that would ultimately have implications for the coronavirus pandemic. Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland initially balked at receiving refugees. In 2016, the E.U. reached an agreement with Turkey according to which Ankara would stem the influx of refugees in exchange for financial aid and the E.U. consented to receive refugees under certain conditions. The E.U. complied with this agreement, sending Turkey about €6 billion, but Ankara recently allowed refugees to reach the Greek border on the pretext that the E.U. had breached the agreement.
The E.U. is essentially being extorted by Turkey. Greece has had to deal with this latest flood of refugees alone, a surge that was intensified by the recent military offensive in Idlib, Syria. This situation, which would be difficult even under relatively normal circumstances, could be dramatically more damaging for the Greek islands as it could lead to a broader local outbreak of coronavirus. Lesbos, for example, is crowded with refugees.
In recent years, the European Union has faced harsh internal criticism from Eurosceptic parties in addition to challenging developments such as Brexit and a weakening of German-French cooperation, which has for years been the main engine for deepening and expanding European integration. The coronavirus pandemic should clarify for Europe that the E.U. has dangerous flaws that must be corrected so it can cope with global crises.
Dr. Tsilla Hershco is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies and a member of the Israeli Association for the Study of the European Integration (IASEI).
This article was first published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.