Covid-19 is straining EU relations

08 May 2020

The bloc needs urgently to rediscover Christian solidarity, argues Alexander Faludy

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The President of the European Commission, Dr Ursula von der Leyen, speaks at a press conference in Brussels, on 15 April

The President of the European Commission, Dr Ursula von der Leyen, speaks at a press conference in Brussels, on 15 April

“EUROPE will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”

These words of the co-founder of the European Union, Robert Schuman, read uncomfortably in the context of the coronavirus crisis. If the European Union is to survive, its leaders will have to give a more radical answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?”

To date, Covid-19 has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Europeans. It has also severely undermined three vital strands of the EU’s identity: free movement of goods, financial solidarity, and respect for the rule of law.

The free movement of goods was the first casualty of the pandemic. In early March, France and Germany both imposed bans on exports of medical equipment, just as Italy’s mortality statistics became apparent. A few weeks later, in contested circumstances, Czech authorities went further and seized face-masks that were being sent to Italy from China via Prague.

Reparation shipments of clinical supplies have since been made to Italy by all parties. The President of the European Commission, Dr Ursula von der Leyen, has issued two placatory statements within a fortnight. “It is right that Europe as a whole offers a heartfelt apology,” she told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 16 April. Even so, the damage to relationships has been acute.

Money, no less than masks, has been scarce where it has been most needed. The use of clumsy pre-existent EU “cohesion” budget mechanisms to distribute emergency funds meant that eastern states, which had been less harshly affected by the virus, gained much more help than the Italian epicentre. Poland received €7.4 billion in emergency aid, Italy, only €2.3 billion.

Worse, the refusal of richer Northern European states to share crisis debt instruments (“Corona bonds”) with devastated southern economies has added financial insult to medical injury. The Dutch finance minister, Wopke Hoekstra, has admitted to showing “too little empathy” by asserting that partner countries’ economic pain resulted from poor expenditure-planning.

Analysts are discussing the possibility of an “Italexit”, led by the country’s former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, should the party that he leads, Northern League, win the 2022 General Election. Furthermore, the insult to southern states risks provoking anti-EU sentiment not only in Italy, but in Spain and Portugal, too.

 

EU INACTION on democratic backsliding is also a failure of solidarity. It suggests a belief that Eastern Europeans need fewer democratic rights and legal safeguards than their Western counterparts.

On 30 March, the Hungarian parliament passed an Enabling Act that allows Viktor Orbán, the country’s far-right Prime Minister, unlimited power to rule by decree indefinitely, without effective judicial oversight. The law also introduced significant curbs on press freedom, backed by criminal penalties.

The reaction of the EU’s central institutions to Mr Orbán’s move has lurched between muted and bizarre: Brussels is seemingly straining every sinew to avoid confrontation with Budapest. A statement issued by Dr von der Leyen on 31 March warned that emergency measures adopted by EU states must be temporary and “limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate”. The document made no mention of Hungary by name.

Comments later made by the EU’s Justice Commissioner, Věra Jourová, strained credulity. On 2 April, she told Czech public television: “I am not worried yet. Hungary’s laws passed in connection with the novel coronavirus epidemic have not so far violated European Union regulations.”

Under powerful media pressure, the Commission later strengthened its rhetorical position contra Budapest. It is hard to disagree, however, with the verdict of the German Green MEP Daniel Freund: “It is bizarre . . . a watershed moment. Now you have to do something, or we really lose democracies.”

The cost of EU hesitation is already evident: the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government in Poland has been emboldened by its entrenchment of power. This month, a presidential election will proceed by post, bypassing the state electoral commission. Objections from opposition parties, and even PiS’s own junior coalition partners, have been ignored.

 

THE EU faces existential challenges. Despite the grave problems that exist, however, it may be premature to draft its obituary.

One of Schuman’s collaborators in the establishment of the EU, the French political economist Jean Monnet, famously said: “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.”

The eurozone crisis of 2009 gave rise to the current economic mainstays of the European Stability Mechanism and the European Fiscal Compact. A possible outcome of the present systemic shock might be a new balance of responsibilities between member states and the Commission, together with new powers to uphold the rule of law.

EU countries could now make health care an explicit competence of the Commission rather than reserve it to themselves. Receipt of generous EU subsidy payments could be made conditional on upholding democratic order.

Before attempting anything practical, though, Europeans first have to learn truly to think of one another as neighbours.

 

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a priest studying law. He lives in Budapest.

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