The coronavirus epidemic has created a multidimensional crisis in the European Union. The health crisis is perhaps the most important part, especially in countries such as Italy and Spain, whose health systems nearly buckled under the weight of the pandemic. In Italy, there are nearly 217,000 COVID-19 cases and about 30,000 deaths, making it one of the worst countries in the world in terms of deaths.
Spain too has also been strongly affected by the pandemic. Of course, European countries have responded differently to the crisis. While the Germans have achieved relative success in combating the pandemic, other countries haven’t done so well.
How each country has responded to the virus should make us think about differences in each member state’s ability to deal with crises. Of course there is disparity, but more importantly, it puts many questions before us about the future of the European Union.
This article seeks to answer a few key questions: Does the current crisis deepen the prolonged political stagnation of the European Union, the last of which was in 2016 when the British voted to leave the European Union? What does the crisis mean for European unity, which seems more at risk in recent years than ever before? Is it possible to witness the exit of other countries from the union in the post-coronavirus world?
An Ongoing Political Crisis
The novel coronavirus pandemic is crisis which has three dimensions: economic, social, and political.
The European Union has suffered a political crisis for nearly a decade, and widespread antipathy is certainly present between different countries within the bloc. This situation contributed to the rise of right-wing populist forces in Hungary, Poland, Italy, and other European countries.
That dilemma stems from the European sovereign debt crisis of 2009 and 2010.
Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland all borrowed money from financial institutions in France and Germany. When Greece could not pay back the debt they were subjected to humiliation as Germany imposed strict austerity measures.
At the time, because there was no populist right movement in any of these countries except for Italy, secession from the bloc was never proposed. But the strike came from Britain – the second largest economy in the European Union – which in June 2016 voted to leave the union. The European Union is still recovering from the economic effects of Brexit.
Since the coronavirus pandemic was declared in March, political tensions in the bloc have only increased. The large numbers of deaths have prompted each state to focus on internal affairs rather than European solidarity.
In mid-March, Germany began sending medical aid to the country hit hardest by the pandemic. More than once has Italy requested the assistance of the Crisis Response Coordination Center – a European body designed to provide support to crisis-affected European union countries. The agency’s response, however, has been limited.
Italy isn’t alone in their discontent. The Prime Minister of Spain slammed the absence of European solidarity during the COVID-19 crisis in an editorial piece. This feeling of disappointment in the absence of European solidarity cuts across the entire political spectrum.
The absence of the solidarity within the European Union presented right-wing forces an opportunity to criticize two things: European institutions which failed to provide an adequate amount of aid to countries in need as well as open border policies which allowed the virus to spread more rapidly than it would have with closed borders.
The bloc’s incompetent response also highlighted China’s growing influence on Europe, especially in Italy, a country that’s central to China’s plan to expand globally through its Belt & Road initiate.
Solidarity or Economy?
European solidarity was never the primary motivation for the European Union being formed. European countries mainly moved to create the bloc to advance their common interests. The European Union was formed mainly as an economic union and a European common market.
The northern and southern European countries have both benefited from the European Union, but there is a fundamental problem. Southern European countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal have become dependent on borrowing from major European banks in the north. This borrowing soon stopped, or rather, great obstacles were put in place after the Greek debt crisis. Germany has lead the union towards the era of austerity, which has put southern countries under sustained economic pressure. That pressure has only worsened since the pandemic.
To deal with the economic repercussions of the pandemic, the European Central Bank announced that it would be spending 750 billion euros on purchasing government debt and private securities before the end of 20202. Days ago, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that a new Marshall Plan was needed to ensure Europe’s recovery.
Southern European countries to have called on the European Union to provide them with low-interest funds and loans, which Germany has often opposed, as Merkel and her allies like France have defended a more reasonable strategy of borrowing, especially for countries where public debt exceeds a large proportion of GDP. The Germans are moving in light of the fact that these policies could deepen the debt crisis in countries such as Spain and Italy.
How can Europe change after the crisis?
The European Union suffers from an accumulation of crises, and there are major political tensions which have arisen not only because of the rise of the populist Right, but because of the role that Germany plays and its imposition of its economic vision, especially with regard to debt in the countries of the southern Europe.
Also, the rise of the populist right-wing places great pressure on the European institution. However, the most significant factor in the union’s survival so far is the great advantages that countries who are apart of the union enjoy. The easy access to markets, the low cost of trade, and the linkage of European production chains today are more pronounced than ever.
Consequently, the economy ultimately controls the survival of the European Union in its present form. However, in light of the severe economic crisis the world is suffering due to the Coronavirus outbreak, it is difficult at this time to expect any future for the European Union. That future is tied to the bloc’s ability to demonstrate strength and economic solidarity in assisting heavily affected countries. So far, the bloc has failed in both of these categories.
The current crisis reveals a severe weakness in the European version of globalization – a version that was based on economic integration between countries and the exchange of benefits. However, in the time of deep crises that we are living in, we find these Germany and France act against the principles that the European Union was founded upon.
So far, supranational structures have failed miserably to overtake the national state as the most complete framework for managing human life, especially at the time of the crisis, which has been revealed by the current crisis of Europe. The unelected bureaucratic institutions in Brussels have not been able to recreate the institutional structures of the nation states to provide medical assistance to the countries most affected. Neoliberalism has globalized the economy but failed to globalize politics. The failure to globalize politics has clearly been revealed by the coronavirus crisis.