EU’s weaknesses in times of crisis exposed yet again

EU’s weaknesses in times of crisis exposed yet again

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Spain’s PM Pedro Sanchez and his wife Maria Begona Gomez Fernandez arrive ahead of the G20 leaders summit in Osaka June 27, 2019. (Reuters)

For the past decade, the EU has been buffeted by crises among its member states. Long before the word “Brexit” was thought of, “Grexit” was on the cards — at least in terms of Greece leaving the euro zone. The popularity of the EU in many member states crashed. In 2013, only 33 percent of Greeks, 41 percent of French and 46 percent of Spaniards had a favorable view of the EU, according to the Pew Research Centre.

These numbers rebounded in the aftermath of Brexit. The punishment dished out to the UK in the Brexit negotiations showed very clearly the union’s heft as an international institution — and the benefits of membership (or, at least, the penalties of leaving). Nevertheless, the volatility of support demonstrated the EU’s consistent weakness in a crisis. Whether it was the financial crisis, the euro zone crisis, the refugee crisis or the current coronavirus crisis, the supposed solidarity of the EU often disappears. The pandemic has not had a coherent EU response. Instead, nation states have simply protected themselves.

The EU makes great play of the concept of “European citizenship,” meaning people are not citizens of an individual European state, but of the EU itself. To anyone with a strong sense of their own national identity, this claim by a body less than 30 years old in its modern form is jarring. When things are going well, this dissonance can be put to one side. But, when things are going badly, it all falls apart. In times of hardship, it is human instinct to find security among those we know and trust: The family, the tribe or town, the region, or the nation. We do not find security in vague and unaccountable international bodies, led by EU commissioners with equally distant mandates.

This has been apparent in the last few weeks. Even the UK’s most Europhile newspaper, the New European, was forced to acknowledge the failures of the EU’s big beasts to act with solidarity. Member states closed their borders and imposed export controls on key medical goods. The European Central Bank effectively announced that it was not its job to help out the struggling economies of the worst-hit member states.

France, Spain, Italy and Belgium have all called for the bank to issues so-called “coronabonds” to cover the cost of the economic stimulus required to deal with the crisis. Other states, led by Germany, oppose the measure on the basis (familiar from the euro zone crisis early in the last decade) that the wealthy Northern European states should not have to bail out their poor southern cousins. The echoes of the 2008 financial crisis are hard to ignore. So much for solidarity.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez issued a pretty stark warning about the consequences of such behavior, noting that even the most pro-European citizens need proof of the EU’s grand promises of a joint endeavor. “Europe is on the line… Even the most pro-European countries… need proof of real commitment. It’s Europe’s move,” he said.

The leadership of the EU is aware of the scale of the political challenge it faces. Last week, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, gave an unprecedented rebuke to member states: “When Europe really needed an all-for-one spirit, too many initially gave an only-for-me response. And when Europe really needed to prove that this is not only a fair-weather union, too many initially refused to share their umbrella.”

According to the Guardian, the European Commission is particularly worried that it is losing the propaganda war against anti-EU feeling, and has stepped up its reporting of transfers of medical goods between states and of critically ill patients to better-equipped hospitals elsewhere in the EU. The paucity of this response was revealed, however, by a statement that Germany and France combined had donated more masks to Italy than China — hardly something to celebrate.

Meanwhile, the failure of the EU to deal with the member states that are most at odds with its stated ideals is becoming steadily more apparent. Hungary, which has been a thorn in the side of the EU for many years — openly baiting the European Commission and deriding it domestically — passed emergency measures to deal with the coronavirus that included the suspension of elections, the suspension of parliament, and the right of the prime minister to rule by decree. 

In response, the EU issued a statement calling on member states to ensure that their emergency measures are “proportionate,” but did not mention Hungary by name. And members of the ruling party in Hungary, Fidesz, remain part of the same group in the European Parliament as the governing party in Germany. 

We do not find security in vague and unaccountable international bodies, led by EU commissioners with equally distant mandates.

Peter Welby

Multiple governments around the world are going to face severe criticism over their response to the coronavirus pandemic. Many will hold inquiries to see whether things could have gone better. But the EU faces a different challenge: It is not a government, but rather an international institution. It has little residual loyalty from citizens that might enable them to move on from its failings.

Three times in 10 years — the euro zone crisis, the refugee crisis and now coronavirus — EU member states have turned their backs on one another and looked after their own. Three times in 10 years, the EU’s institutions have shown themselves to be either powerless to enforce solidarity or actively working with the EU’s most powerful states against the interests of the weaker members. With every crisis, the structural weaknesses of the EU, as a body with political and state-like pretentions but without state-like capacity or loyalty, become ever more apparent.

  • Peter Welby is a consultant on religion and global affairs, specializing in the Arab world. Previously he was the managing editor of a think tank on religious extremism, the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics, and worked in public affairs in the Arabian Gulf. He is based in London, and has lived in Egypt and Yemen. Twitter: @pdcwelby
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