Over a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Europe currently has more infections than any other region and one of the highest death rates. For one of the richest parts of the world, and one that takes great pride in its health systems, this record is shockingly bad. Criticism now focuses on the delays in the EU’s vaccine rollout. But even apart from vaccine procurement, European crisis management has been flawed both on the EU level and in most member states.

Three problems explain why most of Europe has found it so hard to deal with this crisis.

Stefan Lehne
Lehne is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.
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First, EU states are too integrated to manage the crisis separately and not integrated enough to do so collectively.

Several countries, such as New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan, have performed well in the pandemic because they have solid administrations and full control of their borders. In Europe, giving up control of national borders is part of the essence of integration. Many governments have tried to restrict travel during the pandemic, but in a haphazard fashion that has created disruptions yet hardly impeded the freedom of movement of the virus. The European Commission’s efforts at imposing some order have failed, as it has been impossible to reconcile the interests of governments trying to keep their populations at home and those of countries that depend on tourism.

Top-down crisis management from Brussels was never a real option, quite apart from the fact that the legal powers for health policy remain with the member states. Imagine the European Commission issuing a quarantine order in Lombardy or Saxony! Only national leaders have the political authority to persuade their populations to accept infringements of basic rights. This will not change soon.

But there is a need to rethink the division of roles. Europe’s disappointing vaccine rollout may have reduced the readiness to give more powers to Brussels. Yet, there is a strong case for building collective EU capacity to respond to major cross-border health challenges through early warning and joint research as well as procurement and strategic stockpiling of medical supplies.

The second problem is that in a pandemic, it is lack of speed that kills.

In normal times, governing a stable and prosperous Europe is largely a matter of administering the status quo. Legislation and administration work at a leisurely pace. Of course, there have been crises in recent years that required urgent responses. But the 2007–2008 financial crisis was a matter for political leaders and technocrats, and the 2015–2016 migration crisis had few immediate consequences for most people.

A dangerous virus spreading exponentially through the population presents an entirely different challenge. It requires a warlike mobilization with a speed of decisionmaking and administrative action far beyond normal state practice. Several Asian and African countries that had previous experience with MERS, SARS, and Ebola understood that and have coped well with the current pandemic. But despite the repeated warnings of experts, the crisis hit European states unprepared and revealed severe weaknesses in their health systems and public administrations.

Likewise, the EU institutions—specialists in careful and time-consuming consensus building—were overwhelmed by the urgency of this new challenge. By their usual standards, EU officials delivered both an economic response and collective vaccine procurement at great speed, but considering the severity of the situation, it was simply not good enough. Emergencies require risk-taking and radical innovation. Rather than rely on officials, Washington put a general in charge of vaccine procurement, and London a venture capitalist. Considering the results, this might have been the better approach.

Finally, for democracies, trust is key in managing crises, but it is so easy to lose.

China has come through the coronavirus crisis well with draconian lockdowns and intrusive surveillance. But some democracies have been equally successful by relying on trust and popular support. In the early stage of the pandemic, this also seemed to be the case in several EU countries. Governments enjoyed broad backing, and restrictions were widely respected. But over the past year, as the virus has kept coming back and the economic and social fallout has increased, relations between governments and the governed have entered a vicious circle.

As the European public began to lose faith in its leaders, the leaders likewise lost faith in the public’s readiness to cooperate. Caught between health experts advising tough restrictions and mounting societal pressure to return to normal life, governments often adopted half-hearted measures that were only partly followed, resulting in yet more infections and more public frustration.

It is paradoxical that the part of European crisis management that draws most criticism at the moment—the vaccine program—will probably turn out to be the only really successful one. Despite the regrettable delays, vaccination offers a way out of a situation that would otherwise become unmanageable. If the rollout is ramped up in the coming months, European citizens could return to something resembling normal life by the fall. Their leaders, however, should not relax but urgently draw the right conclusions from the unhappy experiences of the past months.

Governments should give top priority to preparations and capacity building for responding rapidly to new transnational health threats. These preparations should be based on a better division of work between the EU and the national level and on stronger solidarity among the member states. Determined action to address Europe’s vulnerabilities will be the best way to rebuild public trust in governments, which will be fundamental for Europe’s future success.