EU governments have adopted a diverse range of measures to tackle the coronavirus crisis, but there has been a perceived lack of coordination and unity among member states. Michael Cottakis argues that for Europe, the danger is obvious: the normalisation of new measures of protection and of the belief that national solutions are sufficient for addressing problems on a global scale. Yet the new coronavirus is the clearest demonstration thus far that borders do not protect us – and that borderless problems require political responses that are themselves borderless.

Leaving aside China, nowhere has the new coronavirus struck with greater devastation than in Europe. Thus far, its death rate exceeds that of East Asia and North America. In its capitals, a general panic reigns. Against this backdrop, citizens, with increasing anxiety and clamour ask: where is the European Union? Depending on the commentator, the EU’s response is described as anything from ‘ponderous’ to ‘shambolic’. Unsurprisingly, a recent Eurobarometer poll shows that only 4% of Italians believe the EU has done enough to mitigate the crisis and 88% believe it needs to do more.

Yet it is wrong to blame the European Commission and the institutions. Health policy is a member state competence. The sacred cow of national budgets, it is an area guarded jealousy by ministers, with few successful experiments in data, equipment, and personnel sharing. Such experience ought quickly to be acquired. A better prepared Europe – with a common strategy and the pooling of key medical resources – may yet have slowed the outbreak. In theory, it could still do so. To see how, let us imagine that the last two months involved a different sequence of events:

February 1, 2020

The European Council, concerned about a new pneumonia-style illness spreading rapidly in Hubei, convenes all member state health ministers. The aim is to adopt a pan-European approach in the event of a pandemic. Observing the ratio of infections to hospitalisations in Hubei, it is expected that a European outbreak would disproportionately affect southern European health care systems – already resource-thin following a decade of cuts.

In response, ministers agree on a joint ministerial statement undertaking to share intelligence, resources, and equipment in a bid to limit the potential damage. The statement pledges to adopt a pan-European crisis management strategy involving unprecedented cross-border coordination. This involves measures on testing, containment, social distancing, and even locking entire communities down, should the situation require. The UK and EEA countries are invited to participate. All agree. Invitations are made to countries across the world, some of whom agree to a limited sharing of resources.

February 15, 2020

Following a fortnight of talks, the new common approach is revealed by an intergovernmental medical steering group established to oversee its coordination. The aim is to contain the virus’ spread until a mass-market vaccine is available. Airline passengers entering the EU will thus be tested for coronavirus at all major airports. Pan-EU lock down measures are agreed, with plans to close schools, offices, and restrict travel within hours of a major outbreak. National experts pool knowledge to establish a set of guidelines for each.

Importantly, member states publish detailed information on stocks of ventilators, drips, intensive care beds and anti-viral drugs, as well as numbers of doctors and nurses, apprentices and retired medical professionals. Using member state data, the steering group reveals a series of projections on the level of additional resources that each member state will require in the worst-case scenario. Importantly, it is agreed that the group will have the capacity to oversee the re-allocation of equipment and the re-distribution of healthcare professionals to member states in need. While containment across the EU is the aim, it is understood that the virus may peak at different times in different places. Thus, resources re-allocated can be re-pooled and allocated again, upon necessity.

February 16, 2020

The next day, the European Council holds an extraordinary meeting. No internal borders will close: the virus is a cross-border phenomenon, and the EU’s response will be cross-border in character. Angela Merkel stands before the Bundestag stating that supply chains need to remain unbroken and the transfer of medical equipment and professionals facilitated, in line with the strategy. Against the backdrop of increasing economic uncertainty, new European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde echoes her predecessor in promising to do ‘all it takes’ to protect the integrity if the euro area. The ECB announces it will purchase a large portfolio of passive assets and government debt to generate some economic wiggle room for governments, injecting over a trillion euros into the European economy.

Moreover, it is announced that manufacturers of medical equipment will be incentivised to fast-track production. This involves a commitment by all 27 member states to buy, at a speed unprecedented in the sector’s history, all medical equipment in line with national need and 1% more, to help generate a pan-European surplus for redistribution. Importantly, the German government succumbs to French pressure for a set of joint fiscal measures, including the issuing of a ‘coronabond’ and extension of billions of euros in emergency liquidity for health care spending via the European Stability Mechanism. To cap off a tumultuous day, the European Commission offers states maximum flexibility on budgetary rules. European stock markets, and particularly the Borsa Italiana, begin to calm. Whatever is coming, Europe – it seems – is prepared.

March 1, 2020

The medical steering group gets to work. Italy, whose case numbers are beginning to rise, will receive a stock of 20,000 additional testing kits from Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria, who are ahead of the curve when it comes to production. It also receives a stock of 15,000 additional ventilators, with northern member states, and the UK, contributing from their existing medical surplus. Over 500 additional medical professionals are seconded from other member states to the country’s ‘red zones’.

New testing in Italy finds that the country has 20 times the number of confirmed coronavirus cases – 40,000, as opposed to 2,000. The European Union declares a state of emergency and advises the Italian government to announce a nationwide lockdown. Spain, France, and others promptly follow suit to limit the spread of the illness. In each case the lockdown comprises closure of schools, universities, and all non-essential shops. Travel is restricted for all but medical professionals, aid workers, and suppliers. Despite pressure from nativist groups, the European Council’s commitment holds fast and borders remain open. New pan-European measures are adopted on travel. Airline and train passengers travelling within and across member states are tested upon arrival and asked to self-isolate for 7 days.

The measures do not halt the spread of coronavirus in the EU. But they support more effectively those countries with deficits in testing capacity and medical equipment. Over the next few weeks, thousands of pieces of medical equipment are shared. With production of equipment picking up pace, member states will soon be better able to support their own, and contribute to a European surplus. By the end of March, coronavirus – in Europe at least – appears distinctly containable.

Europe’s choice

Naturally, such counterfactuals enjoy the considerable benefit of hindsight. It is true that few institutions, except perhaps the World Health Organization, had correctly calculated the risks posed by the new coronavirus.

Today, governments can take better stock. The crisis is still young. Such measures, if adopted with urgency, could yet prove effective. A successful pan-European response to coronavirus will set the tone for greater cooperation across a whole range of policy areas whose nature is transnational, but whose politics and decision-making are strictly national. Yet, should member states opt for isolation, then the risks to public health are many. Perhaps more importantly in the long-term, they affirm a shift back to a politics of hard borders, nationalism, and mistrust. Such is Europe’s choice.

Thus far, most governments have failed to take the hint. Member states refuse to keep borders open. Others jab accusing fingers at neighbours, the institutions, or foreigners in general. Meanwhile, no attempts have been made by health ministers to agree a common policy, despite the Commission’s plaintive missives. A climate of hostility is developing, where even the most globally-minded are retreating behind national walls, their rhetoric coarsening. Strident language, evoking a national can-do spirit in the face of a ‘foreign’ virus is unhelpful and entirely misses the point. Worryingly, such words are not only the preserve of Matteo Salvini or Viktor Orbán – many pro-Europeans utter them in private.

For Europe, the danger is obvious: the normalisation of new measures of protection and securitisation, and of the belief that national solutions are sufficient in addressing problems on a global scale. The new coronavirus is the clearest demonstration thus far that borders do not protect us; that borderless issues require political responses that are themselves borderless. Nothing less will do. Should we draw from the present crisis the opposite lesson, we would be doing Europe and humanity the greatest of disservices.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Bundesheer photos (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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About the author

Michael Cottakis – LSE
Michael Cottakis is Director of the 89 Initiative, a pan-European think tank based at the London School of Economics.

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