The emergence of Europe as the new epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic has as much to do with the European Union’s inept handling of the crisis as it does with the resilience of the virus itself.
When the world first learned about the existence of coronavirus in China at the start of the year, the EU’s response, like much of the rest of the world’s, was to adopt a wait and see approach as to how it developed.
The problem for the EU, though, is that it has maintained this lackadaisical approach long after it became clear that the virus was going to develop into a global, rather than a specifically Chinese, issue. More pertinently, the EU’s failure to raise its game, after the rapid spread of the virus resulted in much of Europe coming to a standstill, means that the EU is now trying to play catch-up in terms of asserting a leadership role.
After weeks of prevarication, the EU finally imposed measures to ban travellers from outside the bloc for 30 days. The measure is expected to apply to 26 EU states as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. The ban will not apply to citizens from the UK and Ireland.
“This is good,” commented European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as she announced the new measures earlier on March 18.
“We have a unanimous and united approach [where] the external borders are concerned.”
That it has taken until now for the EU to act, when so many major European countries such as France, Italy and Spain are already in lockdown, illustrates the inadequacy of the EU’s response to the crisis. It also helps to explain why Europe has replaced Asia as the main epicentre of the pandemic.
By the time Mrs von der Leyen finally got around to announcing at the start of this week that the EU was planning to impose its travel ban, most member states had already taken matters into their own hands and made their own arrangements to restrict border access.
Moreover, by undertaking their own unilateral actions, the decision by some EU member states, such as Austria and the Czech Republic, to specifically ban citizens from other EU states, such as neighbouring Italy, represents a flagrant breach of one of the EU’s key founding principles, namely the free movement of its citizens across the borders of other member states.
Consequently, the EU’s failure to address the coronavirus issue earlier has resulted in the Schengen Agreement, which stipulates that the citizens of any EU state can travel freely throughout the union, becoming null and void.
The EU’s commitment to Schengen was one of the key factors that persuaded U.S. President Donald Trump to impose his initial travel ban on continental Europe, claiming — correctly — that the EU was being far too complacent in its response to tackling the virus.
Now, thanks to the EU’s ineptitude, the union has entered a new era in which the precedent has been established whereby it is the governments of the various constituent member states, and not Brussels, that decide who can, and who cannot, cross their borders.
The sudden imposition of new border controls in Europe is already having a serious impact on the trading arrangements between different EU member states. This week, for example, trucks trying to enter Poland from Germany have been subjected to a tailback dozens of kilometres long, as Polish border guards insisted on checking the temperatures, health and documentation of drivers seeking to enter the country.
Moreover, the EU’s inability to provide effective leadership in terms of responding to the coronavirus challenge has led to an increase in tensions between key member states, tensions that could ultimately threaten the survival of the EU in its current manifestation.
Perhaps the most shameful episode concerning inter-EU relations since the start of the coronavirus outbreak was Germany’s refusal to allow the export of much-needed face masks and ventilators to Italy after the Italian government made a direct appeal to the rest of the EU for help. Instead of demonstrating the so-called solidarity that is supposed to underpin the EU’s founding ethos, the German government issued a ban on the export of the equipment to Italy.
It was left to the Chinese government to provide the Italians with 31 tons of urgent medical supplies.
The EU’s handling of the coronavirus has not just been incompetent. It raises serious questions as to whether it is about to become yet another victim of the deadly pandemic.