BRUSSELS – With the rapid spread of the new coronavirus, the flattened world has developed some speed bumps. With trade disrupted and economies paralyzed, some consider the nation-state has returned, as if it had ever disappeared.
For countries like the United States, China and Russia, that is normal. But for the European Union, this ongoing experiment in shared sovereignty, borderless trade and freedom of movement, the virus has been a serious systemic shock. Some have even wondered if the block could break under pressure.
But after a clumsy start, the European Union and its institutions, including the European Central Bank, have begun to better face Europe's new challenge as the epicenter of the virus.
However, there are still big problems to solve. The whole concept of European "solidarity,quot; is being questioned.
The question, said Marc Pierini of Carnegie Europe, is a very simple one: “Can an EU-wide response to this massive crisis demonstrate to citizens that the EU? Will it protect and show solidarity?
The response so far has been mixed. There is no doubt that the first impulse of major states, such as Germany and Austria, was to withdraw within their borders, which panicked.
Despite Brussels' best efforts, six countries still have export bans on medical equipment: Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. France has nationalized its supplies, and 12 states have established internal borders, blocking easy transportation of goods through the block.
But despite the fact that some borders have been kept closed to combat the spread of the virus, that initial setback is constantly giving way to pressure from the big states, like France, Italy and Spain, joined by six others, to do more collectively, especially financially, to issue a "common debt instrument,quot;, a kind of eurobonds for the virus to help affected countries.
For now, the most frugal northern states like the Netherlands and Germany are opposed to that idea, who think there are other ways to help Italy and Spain, but it will surely be discussed on Thursday night, when European leaders meet in a teleconference summit.
The meeting is part of the deepening coordination effort in Europe, after a tentative start.
"We need to be quite honest and say that the E.U. Initial the response was chaotic and belated, ”said Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska of the Center for European Reform in Brussels.
At the end of last year, it was obvious that the virus would reach Europe, he said, but even after it developed in Italy, "member states took center stage while the commission," the bloc's executive arm, "and Other US institutions were quite absent, and the damage had already been done, playing in the hands of the Eurosceptics. "
As Europe faltered, states recreated internal borders, damaging the single market. Germany in particular has been criticized for initially banning the export of supplies such as masks, protective equipment and medical equipment.
Once the commission proposed an export restriction across the European Union, Germany lifted its restriction, but that took some time. Since then, he has shown more solidarity in accepting some coronavirus patients from Italy and France.
Only now the bloc is organizing 50 million euros, around $ 54 million, to buy the necessary medical equipment to distribute it to hospitals where it is most needed.
Shamefully for Europe's leaders, and Even for the United States, it was China that intervened early with medical help.
The blame for Europe's fractured response lies primarily with the member states, argued Fabian Zuleeg, executive director of the Center for European Policy in Brussels.
"If there is an ineffective European response, it has a lot to do with what member states are doing," he said. "EU. Institutions must do the right thing, but they need permission from member states to act."
There was confusion at first, Zuleeg said. "People did not understand the magnitude of the crisis," he said. "Different countries took different approaches and the commission did not know what to do."
"There is still a great risk for the union," said Daniela Schwarzer, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "All disintegrating trends can accelerate."
Even when Chancellor Angela Merkel made a rare national speech on the crisis a week ago, she did not mention Europe at all.
"It was possible to frame a national approach in a European perspective," Schwarzer said, noting that President Emmanuel Macron of France did so, emphasizing "the Europe that protects,quot;, but Merkel did not.
A senior adviser to Mr Macron noted that Europeans have now provided as many masks to Italy as China, but given the delay, they are getting little credit for it.
"The mistakes were made for sure, there were some changes, hesitations, but that is the case worldwide," said the official. "When we look at what is happening today in the United States, Europe is not the least organized continent."
Part of the problem for Brussels is structural. Health, like terrorism, is considered a matter of national security and is the responsibility of individual member states.
According to the While government treaties, while Brussels has exclusive competence over trade, and has shared competence with member states on issues such as agriculture and the single market, in health it can only "encourage cooperation,quot; between states, promote research and "complement national policies,quot;.
The best instrument in Europe in a crisis, then, is money. While it could have acted faster, the European Central Bank on March 19 presented a Huge and unmatched plan for further quantitative easing, a bond purchase plan of up to € 750 billion, about 6 percent of the eurozone's gross domestic product, with the promise of more if needed.
The European Commission has relaxed its rules on state aid to companies and limits on annual fiscal deficits, and the European Investment Bank has so far pledged € 40 billion in financing to help with liquidity for companies.
But more will be needed, especially as the size of the economic impact becomes clearer in a block that has already seen anemic growth.
Germany is crucial, and policy slowly changes with the current coalition. But Germany has moved, or been pushed to move, more towards economic support from member states, Zuleeg said.
Since "no country can be blamed for being affected by the virus, there is a clear reason to show solidarity," he said.
It is increasingly recognized that no member state can handle the crisis on its own, but it is unclear whether that strengthens the European Union after the nebulous aftermath of the pandemic. There are already calls for the commission to work to coordinate how the crisis ends, given the economic and human disruption, to avoid the chaos at the beginning.
"We do not know if Europe will strengthen, since we are only at the beginning of this pandemic whose course we do not yet know," said François Heisbourg, a French analyst.
"The United States can be strengthened if it demonstrates measures relevant to the crisis and if it can use its scale to overcome the limitations of purely national policies," he said. But the border fuss is overblown, he added.
"The virus travels with the person, so the borders are relevant," he said. "People talked about how catastrophic it was to have temporary borders between France and Germany, about the fragmentation of Europe," Heisbourg added. "But not everything is geopolitical. You cannot fight this without borders. It's about the logic of taming the epidemic. "
If populists criticize Brussels' performance, the pandemic is also an argument to give Brussels more power over health research, standards and policy coordination, he argued.
Mr. Zuleeg agrees. "When it comes to cross-border issues like this, we need to establish ways to react quickly," he said. “We had to do it in the financial and monetary field with the debt crisis, and now we will have to do it in health. Not because someone wants "a bigger Europe,quot;, but because we have to. We are interdependent across borders. "
Monika Pronczuk contributed to the Brussels investigation.