What the Pandemic could mean for the EU

EU Priorities |

Will it bring nations closer together or pull them apart?

The Financial Times commentator, Martin Wolf, has wrote an article on March 24th entitled the Pandemic is an Ethical Challenge. There seems little doubt that it will change the world fundamentally affecting every other issue, rivalries and conflicts, the role of governments, the role of markets and the role of international and regional organisations like the UN and the EU. There will be good effects and bad effects but whether the former outdoes the latter or vice versa cannot at present be known. There does seem reason to hope that, albeit at terrible cost, national societies will be brought closer together at least for a time. But there is a very real danger that countries, or groups of countries, will be pulled apart. With regard to the EU, the pandemic could, in a worst case scenario, fatally weaken its underpinnings, which have already been damaged by the euro zone crisis and east-west divisions over refugees and other matters. The two countries which, at the moment at least, have been most severely hit by Covid 19, Italy and Spain, were also the two largest countries to be hit by the euro zone crisis. Spain had emerged from that crisis but only for a short time before being hit by Covid 19 which is of course also an economic crisis with a huge impact on public finances, the key element of the euro zone crisis. Italy had not really recovered from the euro zone crisis. Both countries also felt abandoned by northern EU countries in their efforts to tackle the influx of migrants coming across the Mediterranean, which in the case of Italy have swung from initially compassionate to increasingly harsh.

The role of Germany in EU unity

Although there are many northern European countries, the key one is Germany. Germany has, at least so far, managed the Covid 19 crisis extraordinarily successfully compared to most other European countries. One reason is that its very strong economy has enabled it to have a well funded health service, but this is not the only reason. It has also since January planned ahead, especially by building up its testing capabilities, following in part the example of counties like South Korea and Taiwan. Any democratically-elected government is bound to give priority to its own citizens but the EU, and the UN, were founded by statespeople who believed that, whether from the point of view of longer term enlightened self interest or a feeling of common humanity, governments had to be part of a wider international community. There is a perception, at least partly justified, in southern Europe, that the German led (albeit supported by other countries sometimes even more zealously) enforcement of fiscal austerity was motivated not just by the view that their policies were right and should be emulated, but also by a smug self satisfaction and ultimately a not very enlightened self interest. It is too early to say whether that will be the feeling that is left by the present crisis. A hastily imposed German export ban on key medical equipment was slapped down effectively by the (German) president of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, but she then caused outrage in Italy by calling the idea of Corona bonds to help the EU tackle the economic effects of the crisis a mere “slogan”. A few Italian patients are being treated in German hospitals but overall the impression in Italy is that much more help has come from China, Russia, Cuba and even Albania, than Germany, or other EU countries. Far more important, however, will be how the long term economic consequences of the crisis are dealt with. As Martin Wolf says, it was at least possible to argue that the countries hit by the euro zone crisis were paying for their own profligacy. That cannot be argued in the present case. If euro zone and EU solidarity means anything, it will have to be shown in the coming months, and it if it is not perceived to be shown, the EU, though it may nominally, survive, could become  little more than a formalistic, empty shell.

Will internal problems lead EU  to try to shut out the world outside

However, the EU cannot afford only to look at its own cohesion in the crisis. Covid 19 is a world pandemic, which does not stop at the EU’s external borders any more than its internal borders. Just before Covid 19 came to dominate the news, the Greek military were firing on refugees crossing the border from Turkey with the support of Ms von der Leyen who described Greece as a “shield”.  In a move described by EU and Greek spokespeople as “blackmail”, Turkey had allowed a few thousand of its 3 million refugees, the largest part from Syria, to cross, in a bid to obtain more help with supporting these refugees and with trying to prevent another 1.5 million fleeing from northwest Syria as Assad regime forces advance. A desperate plea for help could also describe the Turkish move. The fact that there have been major disagreements with President Erdogan on aspects of his foreign policy, and that he pursues some deplorable domestic policies, such as jailing large numbers of journalists, should not be an argument for not making an effort to show solidarity with a country which is still a democracy, as shown by the victories last year of opposition coalitions in all Turkey’s three largest cities. Now Covid 19 means that the refugees in Turkey, especially those still in camps, and the civilian population still inside Syria face a new danger. If the EU is to come out of the Covid 19 crisis looking like a force for good, it will have to be both tackle its internal tensions and its external challenges simultaneously. (Whatever happens, the UK, which has led the way towards insular nationalism will be in no position to criticise.)