In recent weeks, EU member states have closed their borders, banned exports of critical supplies and withheld humanitarian aid. Pictured: Trucks are backed up on the road leading to the Austrian-Hungarian border crossing near Nickelsdorf, Austria on March 18, 2020. (Photo by Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images)
As the coronavirus pandemic rages through Europe — where more than 250,000 people have now been diagnosed with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and 15,000 have died — the foundational pillars of the European Union are crumbling one by one.
Faced with an existential threat, EU member states, far from joining together to confront the pandemic as a unified bloc, instinctively are returning to pursuing the national interest. After years of criticizing U.S. President Donald J. Trump for pushing an «America First» policy, European leaders are reverting to the very nationalism they have publicly claimed to despise.
Ever since the threat posed by coronavirus came into focus, Europeans have displayed precious little of the high-minded multilateral solidarity that for decades has been sold to the rest of the world as a bedrock of European unity. The EU’s unique brand of soft power, said to be a model for a post-national world order, has been shown to be an empty fiction.
In recent weeks, EU member states have closed their borders, banned exports of critical supplies and withheld humanitarian aid. The European Central Bank, the guarantor of the European single currency, has treated with unparalleled disdain the eurozone’s third-largest economy, Italy, in its singular hour of need. The member states worst affected by the pandemic — Italy and Spain — have been left by the other member states to fend for themselves.
The seeds of the European Union were planted in the ashes of the Second World War. In May 1949, Robert Schuman, one of the EU’s founding fathers, boldly announced the creation of new world system:
«We are carrying out a great experiment, the fulfillment of the same recurrent dream that for ten centuries has revisited the peoples of Europe: creating between them an organization putting an end to war and guaranteeing an eternal peace.»
The European Union, seven decades in the making, is now unravelling in real time — in weeks. After the dust of the coronavirus pandemic settles, the EU’s institutions will almost certainly continue to operate as before. Too much political and economic capital has been invested in the European project for European elites to do otherwise. However, the EU’s attraction as a post-national model for its own citizens, much less for the rest of the world, will have passed.
Recent examples of the unilateral pursuit of the national interest by European leaders, many of whom publicly espouse globalism but in times of desperation embrace nationalism, include:
Meanwhile, in Italy, a nationwide survey published on March 18 found that 88% of Italians believe that the EU is not helping their country. Only 4% thought the opposite while 8% did not have an opinion. More than two-thirds (67%) of Italians said that they believe that being part of the European Union is a disadvantage for their country.
In an article titled, «Coronavirus Threatens European Unity,» Bill Wirtz, a political commentator based in Luxembourg, observed:
«As the coronavirus unfolds, Schengen countries are shutting their own borders. Whether or not they do so because they believe that a coordinated European response would be inefficient, or whether they believe that their own voters wouldn’t buy it — at this stage it’s irrelevant. The mere fact that borders have resurfaced in Europe is a failure for the integrity of the Schengen open borders agreement….
«A coordinated EU response to this crisis does not exist, and as the recommendations fall on deaf ears, Brussels is dealing with a crisis of confidence. There is no union-wide crisis response, coordinated testing or research. Worse than that, the EU institutions are bystanders to a war between countries, which are trying to limit exports of medical supplies in order to keep them for themselves. In times of crisis, the true influence and capacity of the EU has shown, and it is very little.
«As it stands, countries are dealing with a crisis of missing hospital beds, medical equipment, and overall resources. If the virus ever happens to lay lower than it does now, and the conclusion is drawn that the European Union was a powerless bystander in the eye of the storm (which it is), then the Schengen Agreement and open borders in Europe could be dealing with a difficult recovery.»
Darren McCaffrey, the political editor of the France-based news channel Euronews, wrote:
«In the past couple of weeks, solidarity has collapsed in the bloc. Countries have started imposing border controls on neighboring EU countries, and even Germany has taken steps to manage the flow of people entering and leaving its territory.
«On Tuesday, a 35-kilometer-long queue formed at the Polish-German border, where hundreds of Europeans — Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians — were stuck in trucks, cars and buses.
«As the EU must take measures to prevent the spread of the disease, many are worrying about the essence of the European Union and its four freedoms [the free movement of goods, services, capital and people].
«What is the EU if its own citizens can’t move freely? What is the single market if goods can’t cross Europe’s borders without hindrance?»
In an article titled, «Nations First: The EU Struggles for Relevance in the Fight against Coronavirus,» the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel noted:
«As the pandemic takes hold in Europe, the decades-old union is showing its weaknesses. While the EU managed to survive Brexit and the euro crisis, the corona crisis may yet prove to be an insurmountable challenge.
«Instead of trying to come up with joint solutions, the Continent is becoming balkanized and is reverting to national solutions. Instead of helping each other out, EU countries are hoarding face masks like panicked Europeans are hoarding toilet paper. The early decisions made by some EU member states to refrain from exporting medical equipment to Italy — the EU country that has thus far been hit hardest by the pandemic — has even overshadowed the lack of European solidarity displayed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the refugee crisis.
«Europeans are even divided on the question as to how to combat the virus. Whereas Germany is eager to prevent as many people as possible from encountering the virus and becoming infected, the Netherlands wants to see as many healthy people as possible fight off COVID-19, thus becoming immune. The signal is clear: When things get serious, every member state still looks out for itself first — even 60 years after the founding of the community.»