Most of the world’s governments were caught unprepared by the pandemic of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. European leaders and EU institutions have been widely criticized for acting slowly, selfishly, and without sufficient coordination. Yet decisionmakers are confronting an aggressive, totally unknown virus.

Beyond managing the acute emergency, a broader political issue will loom over the March 26 virtual meeting of the European Council: can an EU-level response to this massive crisis prove to citizens that the EU will protect them and show solidarity?

Short-term Scrambling

For the time being, governments across Europe are scrambling to cope with the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases despite shortages of trained personnel, equipment, and supplies. Leaders quickly realized that several critical steps in the short-term response belong to the EU rather than national governments, prompting EU institutions to act fast:

  • Under the existing “rescEU” mechanism, the first ever European strategic stockpile of medical equipment and supplies has been created, to be managed by the European Commission.
  • After initial decisions to confine the use of medical supplies to national markets or to close internal borders within the Schengen Area, the European Commission introduced guidelines to maintain the transport of essential goods, prioritize emergency supplies, ensure equitable and transparent restrictions, regulate health measures, and manage the EU’s internal and external borders.
  • State aid in the EU is now subject to a temporary framework that will help member governments cope with massive economic shock by providing financial support to their business sector “while limiting negative consequences to the level playing field in the Single Market.”
  • Other measures are drawing on EU budget resources to support the businesses sector through the European Investment Fund and the European Globalization Adjustment Fund. There are also measures to redirect €37 billion ($39.8 billion) under the “cohesion policy” to support EU governments.
  • The European Central Bank announced a massive €750 billion ($807 billion) Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program to increase purchases of public sector securities.
  • The European Commission relaxed fiscal discipline rules, announcing for the first time ever that it was triggering the “general escape clause,” which will remove for the duration of the coronavirus crisis the requirement that member states keep their budget deficits below 3 percent of their GDP.

Overall, these measures show a strong willingness to preserve the essential pillars of the EU edifice despite the colossal impact of the virus on citizens, businesses, and states.

A Historical Perspective

COVID-19 is barely comparable to any of the world’s major crises in recent memory, including the terrorism wave that started in September 2001, the financial crisis of 2007–2008, and the refugee crisis of 2015–2016. Evocations of the Spanish flu of 1918–1920 do not help much: today’s EU citizens are immensely better informed about developments and therefore expect a strong and immediate response from their leadership.

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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In Europe, the strenuous efforts since 1950 to build peace, security, and rule of law through multiple treaties and common policies have raised expectations with regard to a higher level of protection. The EU is seen as a last-resort mechanism when national governments are overwhelmed.

The timing of the highly disruptive COVID-19 crisis raises the political stakes. It arrives after a decade marked by the emergence of populist and nationalist parties whose leaders express open hostility to European integration and a preference for policies that exclusively serve a nation’s own citizens. COVID-19 may present an opportunity to promote these nationalist narratives, scale back the scope of EU policies and, in some cases, combat crisis-related measures on the basis of fake narratives.

Abroad, the perceived failings of the EU response and the reintroduction of internal border controls have been “read in Moscow as more proof that the EU is not coping with the challenges of the modern era.” China and Russia are now promoting themselves as the biggest helpers.

The Months Ahead

Although some have argued that the health sector falls outside the EU’s field of competence, a crisis as wide-ranging as COVID-19 inevitably implicates other EU domains—the Schengen Area, the single market, budgetary discipline, the eurozone, and the Civil Protection Mechanism—as demonstrated by the first actions taken at EU level.

But a lot more is expected in other domains by citizens who expect the EU to protect them. Beyond the announced European Council agenda, four medium-term topics deserve attention:

  1. A monitoring and planning mechanism to assess risks, agree on policies, and create efficient decisionmaking procedures. EU institutions and national governments should equip themselves with a better toolbox to carry on after COVID-19. Leaders must be better prepared.
  2. A preservation plan for strategic industries. For the pharmaceutical and medical industries, it is tolerable that basic ingredients (for example, reactive substances for testing kits) are largely in the hands of non-EU powers like China and the United States. Furthermore, EU industries may be under threat after a German laboratory was the subject of an alleged takeover attempt by the U.S. government at the most critical time in the COVID-19 pandemic.
  3. A program to coordinate national research on pandemics. Taxpayer money will be used at the national level to boost research on pandemics and vaccines, but these efforts need to be inserted into a comprehensive Europe-wide framework able to disseminate results.
  4. Revisions to EU consular cooperation procedures in third countries. Since consular protection is already the rule, existing procedures should ensure the safe repatriation of all EU citizens in an emergency.

Holding Together

It is high time for the EU to assert itself in the scientific and industrial domains that are critical to its future and to organize both its preparedness for crisis and its control of strategic production. EU citizens cannot tolerate the policy vacuum in these fields and be left at the mercy of market forces.

The crisis is an EU-wide issue. It is not only, as European Council of Foreign Relations member Ivan Krastev argues, that COVID-19 will “force the return of big government” and “help reassert the role of the nation-state.” There is an altogether different dimension: given the severity of the pandemic, European leaders can no longer argue in favor of taking their own measures within their country’s narrow borders. The necessary measures will not work in isolation, and their magnitude is out of proportion to the budget of any nation-state. It is clearly not time for “less Europe.” This pandemic is a massive challenge, but it is also an opportunity for Europe to better serve its citizens.

Following the immediate response, COVID-19 also becomes an EU foreign policy issue. Will this pandemic have shown Europeans to be mainly concerned with themselves and their own wealth and health? Or will they seek to project power and compassion to other parts of the world, especially in war-torn countries like Syria? While the EU will do whatever it takes to cope with the outbreak, its credibility as a global defender of democratic values and the rule of law will also depend on initiatives outside its borders.