The EU in Times of Coronavirus: A View from Israel

Commentary / Israel and Europe

The Coronavirus crisis and its impact on Europe has re-ignited the argument over the EU’s future prospects. While the Coronavirus crisis is global, each state has adopted its own coping strategy. For the EU, which has aspired for the past seven decades to promote the integration of its member states, this return to isolation within the nation-state unit could have destructive repercussions.

The EU is based on a common market which removes economic and national borders, enabling the free passage of goods, services, capital and people. The Coronavirus crisis has resulted in uncoordinated, unsynchronized closures of national borders, hampering the passage of goods and people and undermining the EU’s integrative vision. Following the debt crisis (2009), immigration crisis (2015) and Brexit (2016), will the Coronavirus pandemic result in spillback or even the dismantling of the European integration project?

The EU was slow to react to the crisis and initially has been blamed for some failures in dealing with it. As usual, it provided a convenient punching bag, especially for those who fail to understand the limitations to its competence. Health policy is made and carried out by member states, not by Brussels. It was unrealistic to aspire or expect that in these times of chaos and pandemic fright the slow-moving, cumbersome organization would successfully coordinate emergency policy for its 27 member states, which can each respond far more quickly and effectively themselves. Brussels’ initial coordination attempts failed, and each member state adopted a different strategy at a different time. Coordination among the states was clearly lacking, as was the initial lack of solidarity, reflected for example in a halt to medical equipment exports to Italy.

When hospitals in Italy were collapsing, urgently needing life-saving protection equipment, Germany, France and additional member states where the epidemic had not yet spread suspended exports of these items. European solidarity was exposed as a hollow slogan, anchored in the Lisbon Treaty but not in European hearts. National instincts predominated. Even if Brussels thought in terms of Europe, EU member states thought of themselves and the competence was, as mentioned, in their hands. It was only several weeks later that manifestations of solidarity emerged, such as transferring Coronavirus patients on respirators from northern Italy to hospitals in Germany. The initial impression, however, was seared in the minds of Italians who desperately needed help and did not get it.

In addition to the absence of solidarity on health-related issues, economic solidarity was also lacking. Italy and other states asked the Eurozone’s finance ministers to approve “Coronavirus bonds”, meaning that the 19 members of the currency bloc would pool some of their debt. The Dutch and German refusal to share in the debt burden of southern European states generated anger, bitterness and disappointment in Italy, Spain and other countries. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen eventually apologized to the Italians on behalf of the other Europeans for failing to render assistance when their state’s health system collapsed. This was an unusual move, but perhaps too little, too late.

In April, the EU was able to cut back some of its losses and even record several achievements. The bloc was quick to regain its composure, quickly shifting to new and creative solutions. Lessons have clearly been learned from previous crises. The European Central Bank was quick to spend 750 billion euros in bond purchase, and the European Commission redirected 37 billion euros from the EU’s budget (which totals some 165 billion euro in 2020) to fighting the pandemic’s repercussions. Aid packages for the 27 member states and their 450 million residents total some 4 billion euros.

The Commission has also launched a joint procurement agreement of medical equipment for the member states and is working on EU-funded construction of joint medical equipment stockpiles. Moreover, the EU has allocated 140 million euros for Coronavirus research, to work on a vaccine and other interim solutions. In addition, the EU’s policy and legislation banning and limiting state-aid has been suspended, and a green light was given to EU member states (under the European Commission’s supervision) to increase their deficits in order to help business and citizens.

The Coronavirus crisis is not only a health crisis. It is a mega-crisis with harsh economic aspects. It is also a crisis of governance and a challenge to democracy. Changes to one’s lifestyle beget changes in perceptions, ideas and identity. The epidemic once again pits the skeptics and critics of the European integration project against its supporters, bolstering the populists and mainly the nationalists.

The Coronavirus crisis has exposed the EU’s weakness in dealing with member states not committed to the principles of democracy and the rule of law. Hungarian Prime Minister Orban pushed through emergency legislation made possible under the Coronavirus crisis that allows him and his government to take action and pass laws without parliamentary oversight. The legislation, with no stipulated deadline, is akin to suspending democracy in Hungary. Although the crisis entails intrusions of privacy in many countries, no democracy in Europe or elsewhere has adopted such harsh measures. The EU is based on values of democracy, the rule of law and human and civil rights, but Orban’s move generated only a feeble response on the part of the EU and its member states. This type of challenge has hovered over the EU for several years and demands a determined response. Weak actions undermine the EU and testify to its institutional inadequacy and its normative frailty.

The economic crisis will affect the effectiveness of the EU’s foreign policy, too. China, where the epidemic originated, responded forcefully and blocked it relatively fast and effectively. At the height of the crisis in Italy, when its neighbors refrained from providing it with medical equipment, China sent tens of tons of medical equipment as well as medical teams. This gave China points in Italian public opinion, as the EU was losing ground. China’s economic activity has almost reverted to its pre-Coronavirus level; in Europe, the epidemic hit harder and the economy will take longer to recover. From a broader perspective, Europe, which has been experiencing an economic decline, is losing points to China in the global competition.

And what about Israel? The EU’s voice on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has faded in any case in recent years. Since 2016, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been mobilizing his opportunistic European friends, who are interested to ram Brussels, in order to block EU resolutions critical of Israel. Instead, the EU has only been reiterating consensual decisions adopted in the past. When the number of Coronavirus fatalities in Europe soars, the foreign policy “guns” fall silent. The Coronavirus-induced crisis, weakening Europe and diverting global attention, may weaken the European response to Israeli annexation measures that will be presented as implementing the Trump plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Europe has been hit the hardest by the Coronavirus. Over 100,000 of the virus’ 180,000 known fatalities are EU citizens. For now, it does not appear the EU will be one of the epidemic’s victims, but public confidence in some of its systems has been substantially undermined and some of its “pre-existing conditions” have erupted and intensified. The EU has been weakened both internally and externally, but it is fighting back and the final word in the European integration project is far from being said.

An efficient, functioning international system is vital to confront surging nationalist sentiment. The cross-border Coronavirus does not distinguish between race and color and fighting it requires internal European cooperation. The EU has displayed resilience in bouncing back from its initial hesitant and uncoordinated response. However, the decisive question in the wake of the crisis is whether European leaders and citizens view the EU as a political or merely an economic functional project. In this context, it is too soon to chart the balance of EU losses and wins in the Coronavirus crisis.

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