Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2020-04-15 11:05:36 Published on Apr 15, 2020
That ideal of the world’s only supranational organization stands severely eroded as member states retreat into the comfort of national zones
EU: Death of an idea

Europe continues to be the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, even though the World Health Organization is suggesting that there are signs of some stabilization in the outbreak. Michael Ryan, the head of health emergencies at the WHO, stated earlier that it was “our fervent hope” that Italy and Spain were approaching a ‘peak’, and that European lockdowns would start to bear fruit.

The coronavirus, which has ravaged Europe, should have been an opportunity for the continent and the European Union to showcase regional solidarity, thereby making an effective case for the benefits of integration. Instead, responses within national boundaries have been the norm and the EU has been found wanting with hardly any role in framing a coherent regional response. European nations have been the primary drivers of policy even as most regional leaders scrambled to respond. Health vulnerabilities of some of the richest countries in the world stand exposed. There has hardly been any coordinated response on display in Europe, with national governments deciding to seal their borders and increasing controls. What was once a fringe right-wing populist sentiment is now driving policy responses in most European nations. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, was one of the first leaders to blame ‘foreigners’ for the pandemic. His assertions might be symptomatic of a larger trend in Europe where broader questions are being raised about the future of the European enterprise itself.

On the economic side too, the European project is having to unlearn some of its fundamental assumptions. The European Commission had to trigger the so-called ‘general escape clause’, lifting stringent spending rules and allowing countries to run big deficits in response to a crisis. This is an emergency economic measure, which has been used for the first time in the history of the EU which prides itself on maintaining fiscal orthodoxy. According to the Eurogroup president, Mario Centeno, the eurozone will emerge from the crisis with much higher debt levels, something that can exacerbate the fragmentation of the EU. Even in this time of acute crisis, divisions within the EU persist with northern European countries reluctant to issue eurozone-wide bonds that could bail out southern European nations.

Then, there is wider geopolitics raising serious questions about the future of the EU. The Italian foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, had publicly praised China when a plane load of medical equipment and doctors arrived in Italy to help the country fight the coronavirus. Making his displeasure known for the attitude of European nations, who only offered words, Di Maio stated that “many foreign ministers offered their solidarity and want to give us a hand... and this evening I wanted to show you the first aid arrived from China.” The Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, also suggested that “European solidarity does not exist. It was a fairy tale on paper.” He added that he had sent a letter to his “brother and friend”, Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, asking for medical aid, because “the only country that can help us is China.”

This attitude of some European nations stands in stark contrast to countries like France that are assessing how far the EU’s dependence on China is working to the EU’s disadvantage. The French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, has talked of the need to reconfigure the supply chains so as to “gain... independence and sovereignty”. There is widespread disenchantment with the way China’s initial opacity about the crisis had led to its aggravation. Countries like Spain, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands have been forced to return faulty coronavirus test kits to China.

But with China being EU’s second-largest trading partner after the United States of America, there are limits to how much decoupling can happen between the two economic giants. Moreover, the EU would also be cognizant of the fact that China cannot be ignored once the dust settles down and economic recovery becomes the priority for Europe.

Since the end of the Second World War, the EU has been an exemplar of how nation states can overcome their parochial interests and work collectively for pan-regional aspirations. That ideal of the world’s only supranational organization stands severely eroded today as EU member states have retreated into the comfort of their national zones. The idea of a united Europe was dying even before the coronavirus pandemic had struck. The latest crisis might just make the task of reviving that ideal even more difficult.

This commentary originally appeared in The Telegraph.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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