Nations First The EU Struggles for Relevance in the Fight against Coronavirus

With the wave of coronavirus infections washing over Europe, countries have turned inward to protect themselves. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has struggled to define the EU's role in the crisis as border checks have been reintroduced across the Continent.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: "An unprecedented crisis."

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen: "An unprecedented crisis."

Foto: Francisco Seco/ AP

Every morning at 9 a.m., a small group gathers on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont Building in the European Quarter of Brussels to discuss the latest in the fight against the novel coronavirus. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen takes a seat at the head of the table. Her cabinet head sits, at a significant distance, to her left, while on her right are her press people. Von der Leyen stares into a large screen where she can see the commissioners who are dealing with various aspects of the crisis. Even though their offices are just one or two floors beneath that of von der Leyen, they nevertheless only meet up by video link - a precautionary measure because of the virus.

For about an hour one morning last week, the group discussed the situation on Europe's internal borders, how to bring back European citizens who are currently overseas and the situation in the industrial sector.

Europe is taking action, that was the message that the images of the morning meeting were intended to convey – images that were sent out on social media channels a short time later. Another truth, though, was not disseminated: Brussels doesn't have a lot of say when it comes to the corona crisis. And in those areas where EU institutions do actually have authority, they are struggling to gain traction.

In short, as the pandemic takes hold in Europe, the decades-old union is showing its weaknesses. While the EU managed to survive Brexit and the euro crisis, the corona crisis may yet prove to be an insurmountable challenge.

Instead of trying to come up with joint solutions, the Continent is becoming balkanized and is reverting to national solutions. Instead of helping each other out, EU countries are hoarding face masks like panicked Europeans are hoarding toilet paper. The early decisions made by some EU member states to refrain from exporting medical equipment to Italy – the EU country that has thus far been hit hardest by the pandemic – has even overshadowed the lack of European solidarity displayed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the refugee crisis.

"Europe Is Stronger Together"

Europeans are even divided on the question as to how to combat the virus. Whereas Germany is eager to prevent as many people as possible from encountering the virus and becoming infected, the Netherlands wants to see as many healthy people as possible fight off COVID-19, thus becoming immune. The signal is clear: When things get serious, every member state still looks out for itself first – even 60 years after the founding of the community. The question now is whether the European commissioner can do anything about it.

Ursula von der Leyen studied medicine herself, which is why, as she has said, she listens closely to the advice of experts. Every two to three days, she joins a video conference with virologists and other medical experts from several EU countries, with German participants including the virologist Christian Drosten from the Charité hospital in Berlin and Lothar Wieler from the Robert Koch Institute.

It would be inaccurate to say that the commission president recognized the seriousness of this crisis later than other politicians. On the contrary, when von der Leyen visited her crisis center – a room filled with monitors and television screens – in early March for the first time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had not yet said anything about the growing pandemic. It was only a week later that she delivered her first address to the nation about COVID-19.

Von der Leyen is eager to show how well prepared the European Union is, yet her own commissioner for crisis management, Janez Lenarčič, has put a damper on the sanguinity. Ultimately, he said during an appearance in the crisis center with the Commission president, little can be done on health policy without the member states. Von der Leyen later said: "In the financial crisis, too, the first reflex of the member states was a desire to do things on their own. But soon, it became clear that Europe is stronger together."

As a politician, von der Leyen was never particularly shy about transgressing areas of responsibility. As family minister, she pushed through an expansion of daycare offerings despite it being an area under the control of Germany's federal states. Later, as labor minister, she fought to impose a quota on women in boardrooms, though the issue really fell into the Family Ministry's portfolio.

Catching Brussels Off Guard

Back then, of course, she was encroaching on the competencies of senior politicians in Germany's governing parties. Now, though, she is negotiating with people like French President Emmanuel Macron and Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz. And they and their counterparts around Europe are currently under intense pressure to demonstrate to their citizens that all is being done to protect their health.

That was clear last Tuesday in the first video conference held among EU heads of state and government on the threat posed by coronavirus. They agreed to coordinate their actions as much as possible and there was consensus that supply chains should not be disrupted and the common market not endangered. But the very next day, Austria closed its borders. The Czech Republic and Poland followed a short time later, before Germany took the step as well. Berlin's decision, in particular, caught leaders in Brussels off guard. That Sunday morning, it had been said that the borders would remain open, but just a few hours later, Berlin sent off a letter informing the EU of its decision to implement border controls.

Nobody wants to destroy the EU common market, but that is essentially what is now happening. "When it comes to border controls, actions were taken at the national level at the beginning of the crisis," says German Economy Minister Peter Altmeier.

Initially, von der Leyen didn't attempt to stop the cascade of border closures. She said she understood the member states' "protective reflex." But, she added, "it is now important to realize that the effects of the crisis are too broad to confront them alone. That is especially true of our national economies."

Now, she at least wants to ensure that the movement of goods is no longer impeded and that stranded travelers can get home. The first wave of nation-first measures is now to be followed by more coordinated action.

"Too Late, Too Slow, Too Little"

The EU, of course, has closed off its external borders. The Commission president is hoping that the move sends a signal of unity among the 27 EU member states and, perhaps more importantly, that it will reduce the urge of European countries to close off their own national borders. And von der Leyen is also trying to take more of a leading role when it comes to softening the growing economic crisis. She would like to make it possible for member states to hold on to unused cash from EU regional development funds instead of sending it back to Brussels, as is usually required. The total adds up to around 38 billion euros, which isn't much given the severity of the problems that are likely approaching.

"Too late, too slow, too little," says Bernd Lange, a member of European Parliament with Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD). "On the whole, the reaction of the Commission has been disappointing." The European spokesperson for the Green Party in German parliament, Franziska Brantner, agrees. "Everyone is focusing on themselves for now. There isn't anybody to say: Ok, we'll share the burden, we'll organize it." Markus Ferber, a financial expert from the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), says: "Nobody can accuse von der Leyen of not delivering the goods in areas where she has no responsibility. But in areas where the EU does have a say, it is too slow."

Von der Leyen is working on additional measures to address the bloc's economic problems. Countries will be able to ignore the debt rules as laid out in the Stability Pact, for example, and she also doesn't exclude the possibility of issuing joint EU bonds – dubbed Corona Bonds in Brussels – despite Berlin long having rejected the idea in the past. "The principle we follow has to be that of developing options that could help in the worst case," she says. "Excluding something from the beginning isn't a good idea in this unprecedented crisis."

It isn't yet clear, of course, how Europe will look at the end of the crisis. Von der Leyen's agenda calling for a package of climate protection measures, the so-called Green Deal, is now likely passé. Instead, we have a resurgence of old reflexes that many thought would never return: mistrust, border controls and nation-first approaches.

Out of Place

Europe has managed to survive a number of different crises in its history. But this time, optimism is in short supply among EU officials and diplomats. Indeed, it would be an important step if von der Leyen were able to increase supplies of one important European value that is currently running low: solidarity. She has already threatened penalties to member states that prevent medical supplies from being sold to other European Union countries. The fact that she had to resort to such a threat on the issue demonstrates the problem the EU is currently facing.

Von der Leyen is having trouble reaching the citizens on an emotional level. In a normal crisis, she could head out and give people courage, not unlike German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder did following the massive flooding in 2002, when he marched out in rubber boots and shook every hand he saw. Von der Leyen briefly considered flying to Rome to demonstrate the EU's solidarity with the plight in which Italy currently finds itself. But the Italian government had already banned its own citizens from traveling, which would have made a visit by the European Commission president look inappropriate. All that was left was for von der Leyen to record a brief video for the country, which was then translated into Italian. Some, though, found even that gesture out of place.

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