In Depth

Make or break: what the coronavirus means for the European Union

A lack of solidarity among member states puts EU in ‘mortal danger’

The coronavirus pandemic presents an existential threat to the European Union, experts have warned.

Jacques Delors, the former European Commission president, has said the lack of solidarity among the 27 member states posed “a mortal danger to the European Union”.

Will the pandemic damage the EU?

Tensions between EU states are already on the rise, with accusations of countries putting themselves first to the detriment of neighbours.

Early in the outbreak, some countries imposed bans on the export of medical kit, or put up border restrictions that left citizens of other EU states stranded.

“In the early phase of the crisis, Russia and China sent medical supplies to Italy, while its nearest neighbours failed to immediately respond to Rome’s calls for help,” says The Guardian.

If everyone took the strategy of “Italy first or Belgium first or Germany first, we will all sink altogether”, said Enrico Letta, a former prime minister of Italy. He added that the EU faces a “deadly risk” from the coronavirus outbreak.

“We are facing a crisis that is different from previous crises,” Letta says in the Guardian. This is partly because of the unpredictability of the coronavirus outbreak, and partly because “Europeanism” is already weakened, having weathered multiple storms over the past decade.

“The communitarian spirit of Europe is weaker today than ten years ago,” he said, adding that the biggest danger for the EU was “the Trump virus”.

Nathalie Tocci, a former adviser to the EU foreign policy chief, said “this is definitely a make-it-or-break-it moment for the European project. If it goes badly this really risks being the end of the union. It fuels all the nationalist-populism.”

But it seems European countries have moved on from the initial knee-jerk me-first response. Germany, Austria and Luxembourg have been treating patients from the hardest-hit countries, while France and Germany have donated more masks to Italy than China.

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What will happen next?

EU member states remain divided on what they should do next to combat the spread of the virus.

Stereotypes about wasteful southern European countries and mean northern Europeans have resurfaced, says the Guardian, and feel reminiscent of the bitterness of the financial crisis.

“Each crisis has reduced trust between member states and within the whole system and this is a real problem,” said Heather Grabbe, a former adviser to the EU enlargement commissioner.

The Dutch finance minister Wopke Hoekstra apologised after questioning EU counterparts on why they didn’t have the fiscal buffer to deal with the impact of the virus. His comments had been described as “repugnant”, “small-minded” and “a threat to the EU’s future” by Portugal’s prime minister, Antonio Costa.

France, Italy, Spain and at least half a dozen other EU member states want to issue joint eurozone debt, so-called “corona bonds”. But Germany, Austria and the Netherlands continue to reject the idea.

France is pushing for a five to ten-year common EU fund to promote economic recovery in the EU.

French finance minister Bruno Le Maire said: “We are thinking about a fund which would be limited in time with an indebtedness possibility for the long-term response to the crisis,” the Financial Times reports.

“It’s absolutely crucial to keep the door open for long-term, broad instruments that would allow us to face a ‘postwar’ economic situation.

“We should not be obsessed by the word ‘coronabonds’ or eurobonds. We should be obsessed by the necessity of having a very strong instrument to provide us with economic recovery after the crisis.”

Luuk van Middelaar, an EU law professor who worked for the European Council president during the eurozone crisis, says the EU can find a solution. “The EU is internally ill-equipped to deal with any crisis or unforeseen circumstances, and yet each time under the pressure of events it improvises solutions.”

During the eurozone crisis it took “two years of drama and near-death experiences” to fashion the solution of European banking union, “as it always takes time for interests and minds to converge… This time we don’t have that much time so that is worrying.”

Longer term, the EU needs to be braced for future disagreements. “It’s just worth remembering that Italy does not have a monopoly on Eurosceptic politicians. In Germany and the Netherlands there are also Eurosceptics waiting to exploit this issue,” says Middelaar.

“I think that the jury is still out as to whether Europe is going to do what it takes to come out stronger from this,” says Tocci.

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