Too little too late: The high cost of European indolence

Photo: Nemanja Jovanović / Kamerades

It was not until mid-March that EU member states reached a halfway decent agreement on action against COVID-19. The rich states of the north express a lack of interest in solidarity policies, but that’s precisely what could blow up in their faces.

Just over thirty years ago, to be exact in 1988 – when faith in future as such had not yet vanished from the spirit of the times – the president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, predicted that “in ten years, 80% of the legislation related to economics, maybe also to taxes and social affairs will be of Community origin”. In late March, the same Delors, otherwise reluctant towards public intervention, stated that the lack of European solidarity against the coronavirus pandemic posed “mortal danger to the European Union“.

Thus, in a move that reveals a bit about the trajectory of the past three decades, he himself joined those who warn that – in addition to human lives – political projects, too, could fall victim to coronavirus. By the way, the group in question is a diverse set of persons including the former Prime Minister of Italy, Enrico Leto, omnipresent President Vučić, the absent Vuk Jeremić and economist Branko Milanović – not to mention the traditional right-wing Eurosceptics.

However, contrary to Delors’ prediction, the involvement of European legislation has never reached the desired levels: according to a 2012 study, nowhere has it exceeded 40% of the total amount of legislation passed by a national parliament. Perhaps this can explain, or at least help more soberly grasp, the primarily national reflex of the EU member states in facing the current pandemic, no matter how shocking it might have been to those who had expected a unified, coordinated, substantially supranational response.

The ban on export of medical equipment, first introduced by France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland; the arbitrary border closures that left citizens of different countries stuck at airports and traffic hubs, which helped spread the virus; the tensions, conflicts and failed negotiations over possible economic assistance programs for the member states most affected by the outbreak; the mild reactions of European authorities to the recently approved rule by decree and the possibility of an endless extension of the state of emergency in Hungary beg the question – was a different course of events possible?

Well, both yes and no.

United issues

Two sets of factors caused the inadequate European response: on one hand, the political and economic problems that emerged during the Eurozone crisis, as evidenced by the “corona bond” conflicts, and on the other, the existing European health framework and policies for the prevention and control of epidemics and pandemics.

Disputes over “corona bonds” – a joint European debt all members would guarantee for equally, since bonds wouldn’t be issued by nation states – once again revived the stereotypes of a wasteful, irresponsible “south” and a diligent, thrifty “north”.

More specifically, the fiscal conservatives of Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Finland dismissed the very idea of diffusion and sharing of the risk that Italy, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, France and other countries would be exposed to due to their debt levels and poor economic performance. Anyone currently regretting the absence of European solidarity should be reminded that its grave has already been dug during the Eurozone crisis, when Juncker’s Commission and contemporary Prussian Junkers won both the political and ideological victory.

In other words, the European Union’s poorly articulated and incomplete (economic) reactions to the pandemic so far have been a direct consequence of bending Greece’s back in 2015 and the hard-line attitude taken by major European authorities regarding European finances. The grave just needs to be filled up, and the deceased shouldn’t be mourned, because “European solidarity” is just another name for “Fortress Europe”, whose ramparts are red with the blood of thousands damned of the Earth.

However, the fundamentally national configuration of the European Union in terms of health policy is older than the debt crisis, problems with the monetary union and the dominance of the European northwest. At the strategic level, responsibility for health policy and health protection definitely lies on the member states, while the EU, in accordance with its founding and other documents, can only act supplementary and assist the members with problems beyond their competence.

This applies, inter alia, to “cross-border health threats”. To combat such threats, a European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) was established in 2004. It’s interesting that this may be the fastest-formed European agency, and that the SARS 2002/03 epidemic also contributed to the urgency.

However, although a European Commission Decision adopted in 2013 provides for (1) increasing preparedness and readiness to combat pandemics, (2) improving risk assessment and management of health threats (3) increased work on joint procurement of medical equipment and (4) strengthening the Commission’s mandate for health security, for some reason neither ECDC nor the Commission have kept or maintained a record of medical supplies, and the Health Security Committee hasn’t met until January 31, the day after the WHO declared global health emergency.

Judging by the conclusions of that meeting, none of the member states requested additional support or reported problems with stocks of protective equipment, and only four states estimated that they might encounter problems if the situation escalated. Admittedly, on January 22 ECDC estimated that the risk of spreading contagion within the EU was “low” and that the likelihood of detecting such cases was “moderate”.

Business as usual lasted until February 28, when Italy activated the EU Civil Protection Mechanism to procure additional masks and other protective equipment – which the other members ignored, as it turned out that they themselves struggle with equipment stocks. On top of that, at that moment the acute crisis was that of the refugees on the Greek-Turkish border, which now seems like a problem belonging to the migrant crisis of 2015, and not something from a month ago. Almost the entire first half of March was lost to clashes between European officials, and it was not until March 17 that some sort of consensus had been reached on the fight against coronavirus.

The lack of European solidarity or the hypocrisy of the northern member states is not, therefore, surprising (the Italian and Spanish “scripts”, as they like to refer to them in Serbia, have served to develop a model for epidemiological measures in other European countries, which bought them valuable time). What calls for serious disbelief is the short-sightedness of the northern countries’ political elites, who seem to fail to realize that their stinginess regarding the budget and the European debt, but also the delay of European integration in the field of health, may eventually cost them significantly more. Namely, a necessary condition of their famous “fiscal responsibility” and a more favourable economic position is the division of the European market and the existence of a bloc of countries which, among other things, exports labour and imports goods and capital, and represents the most suitable market for companies in the European north.

Where is the not-so-united Europe headed?

The best telltale of the long-term political consequences of the central European bodies’ passivity together with their adamant stance regarding common debt is a flood of news that the Italians are taking down EU flags “en masse” and hoisting Chinese and Russian. Of course, this turned out not to be a mass phenomenon, but nevertheless served as an excellent barometer of China’s political potential to fill the vacuum in public opinion – if not immediately, than soon – and prove to act as a better partner than “cold” Germany, Austria or the Netherlands.

If we were at the beginning of the millennium, the core of the EU could afford to lead the countries of the “south” on, as the latter would have no alternative – they could either turn to Brussels’ “counter”, or face economic collapse, autarky and isolation. With China’s economic success over the last twenty years, and especially after the Chinese authorities’ propaganda victory in the battle against coronavirus, it’s not hard to imagine a world where centripetal forces at work in the EU not only tear the Union apart and push it towards a kind of an anomie or internal stratification (multi-tier Europe), but push a whole ring of countries into the arms of non-European powers. Hence the continuing concern of the European Commission and other EU bodies regarding partnerships with China related to investments in infrastructure and other public works and investments.

The reality of this threat to Europe’s status quo is evident in the European Commission’s weak attempt to use a social media campaign (!) to point out that France and Germany sent more masks to Italy than China. Regardless of the factual status of this claim, such arm wrestling provoked ridicule and scorn, and exposed a fundamentally reactive and belated EU policy.

The problem doesn’t lie in the number of masks, but in the question whether adequate cognizance is taken of the needs of EU member states– and in time. On the other hand, the ambivalent and insufficiently defined position of the European Health Agencies leaves enough room for the shift of responsibility between national and European actors, whose only tangible product is fateful and expensive passivity.

Source: European Comission / Facebook

A counterpart for the short-sightedness of a Junker Europe, which sees no further than its balance sheet, is Trump’s criticism of the World Health Organization and his announcement of suspending US funding for the WHO due to its alleged “bias towards China”. Such a process would not result in a “more favourable treatment” of the United States by the WHO (whatever that meant), but would further push the WHO towards countries willing to act more generously and thus gain proportional strategic influence.

The gradual weakening of the hegemonic capacities of the Western countries is evident in every step, from happenings in the international arena to the inability of the world’s richest countries, with their market economy whose “indisputable” advantages have been forced on us since 1989, to produce sufficient quantities of disposable masks and gloves – quite trivial items from the standpoint of technological and manufacturing capacities.

Although events such as pandemics allow room for change, in part because we perceive them as significantly collective experiences against our largely individualized, private existence, there is an equal chance that nothing will fundamentally alter. If the pandemic in Europe is curbed in the foreseeable future, we can easily conceive a scenario in which the governments of nation-states attribute themselves the merits for it, pointing to emergency measures, expansion of executive power and social distancing.

In that case, no demands would be raised for improved protection from diseases and infections across national borders – and in a direction different from the current rigid, almost dogmatic approach of the EU’s ruling bloc – but the paradigm of public health care would undoubtedly change. Under China’s long shadow, given the strengthening of conservative and authoritarian options in our part of the world and the possibility of COVID-19 becoming a seasonal disease, a broadening autonomy of executive power and increased measures of social control and restraint could become a new ordinary reality.

Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić

This article was originally published in Serbian on Apr 14, 2020.

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