International 09/05/2021

Coronavirus, the umpteenth crisis that has also failed to wipe out Europe

Managing the pandemic reignites debates on the single presidency and the Commission's powers

5 min
Image of empty Camps Elisis of Paris, at the peak of the covid-19 pandemic, last year.

Brussels"Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity”. These words were spoken 71 years ago today, which is why we are celebrating Europe Day. The French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, thus proposed the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, the embryo of today's European Union. We may doubt whether Schuman ever imagined it, but the coronavirus pandemic is already one of those milestones through which Europe is being built and, more than ever, solidarity is the key.

If then the first stone of an economic community was being laid, now the voices that have dared to speak of the need for a Health Union are relevant. We were still emerging from the last crisis and another one was already arriving in the form of a pandemic, without recent precedents. And the answer has again necessarily gone through Brussels. Just like the financial crash, the refugee crisis or Brexit, European citizens have looked to the Belgian capital for answers and, whether they like it or not, they have found them.

A European Union without health competences has delivered thousands of vaccines to the richest village in Bavaria as well as to the poorest village in Transylvania. A European Union with a budget of only 1% of its GDP has decided to go into debt and open the tap of public spending so that this time it does not happen like last time. But the responses in many cases have come at the wrong time, stuttering and overshadowed by episodes of chaos and lack of coordination. And, above all, constrained by the very nature of the Union.

"The EU came together much more quickly than in the previous crisis. Within four months the fiscal rules had been suspended, we agreed that a lot of economic resources had to be activated and that vaccines had to be bought jointly. This is what I call a small miracle", says Maria Demertzis, deputy director of the Bruegel think tank, who confesses that two years ago she would have never thought that in her lifetime she would see EU countries going into debt together. Now they are on the verge of doing so. The European Commission has the tools at the ready to raise up to 800 billion euros on the markets this July as soon as it has the green light from all states. Now, if the money arrives before the end of the summer, it will be another minor miracle.

Jacques Delors Institute researcher Eulàlia Rubio also claims the economic response and recalls that the first reaction in the previous recession was to raise interest rates and quickly ask for cuts. Rubio believes that "the EU's philosophy of action has completely changed" and identifies the main mistakes in the vaccination strategy, basically because it has neither the tools nor the experience to avoid making them. The EU does not have health competences and, even so, it has acted because, as the director of Cidob, Pol Morillas, points out, "if it had done nothing, we would not understand why, we would be questioning the absolute sense of the Union". However, Morillas believes that the management of vaccines has been improvable.

One of the problems is the expectations created. "It is very important that we understand what the EU is and what it does. Brussels is often the scapegoat for everything that goes wrong, and sometimes it is unfair because it is not an abstract entity with induced powers, it is the sum of all its parts, including governments, who do not want to give up powers", says the deputy director of Bruegel, who stresses that media, institutions and governments have to educate in the "European narrative".

"Especially in a crisis situation, the executive has to be able to act: the Commission is the key executive body of the EU, but without powers it is a toothless tiger", says Sophia Russack, a researcher at the Center for European Policy Studies (CEPOS). Morillas notes the mantra of this debate: "It's the classic EU situation, which, based on big crises, makes small advances. It identifies new areas of action to which it will have to devote itself because we don't act preventively".

A single voice

There are also those who believe that it is time to put the "more Europe" debate on the back burner and replace it with the need for "one Europe", says Demertzis, who came to this conclusion after the Sofagate episode, when Council President Charles Michel failed to react to Erdogan's macho gesture towards Von der Leyen. The separation between the two institutions and the lack of a single European voice became evident, which has had many other implications during the pandemic.

Susi Dennison, director of the European Power programme of the European Council of Foreign Relations, believes that the Union got off to a questionable start in managing the pandemic, when governments withdrew, closed borders unilaterally and even blocked exports of health material to the rest of the EU. She believes that it was able to recover from this start, but that now it is once again at a low point in terms of reputation. There has been constant criticism of a delayed and stumbling vaccination campaign, marked by the comparison with the United Kingdom and the conflict with AstraZeneca.

Europe has exported as many doses as it has administered, when the other powers have opted to turn off the tap and prioritise their citizens. "The role that the EU has played globally could have been presented as a strategy and avoided remaining an accident. There are obvious communication problems", says Dennison. This has been seen again with Biden's announcement to release patents.

Russack believes that Europe should have looked first inwards and then outwards, as the United States has done. For Morillas, on the other hand, the mistake is one of strategy: "The Union has a history that it must learn to capitalise on, the basis of its soft power is the promotion of public goods. We will have arrived a few months later at the same port as the British or the Americans, but we will have been more faithful to our way of understanding a global crisis, exporting vaccines. But this would have to be sold much better". As has happened with the European economic response, overshadowed by Biden's big announcements, an unfair comparison in the eyes of Bruegel and Delors' researchers, because it does not also take into account the twenty-seven individual responses and the social and welfare state structures that already act as stabilisers that the US does not have. This is not to say that the debate on whether to broaden the joint response is irrelevant, but this is another controversy.

Seizing the Moment

With this list of rights and wrongs, for some the most desirable thing is for Europe to seize the moment, turn the recovery fund into a permanent fiscal tool, eliminate deficit rules, change the treaties to give itself more health powers and, why not, unify its voice under a single presidency. But none of the sources consulted see such profound transformations as feasible.

"It's going to be a turbulent period, with important state elections in which governments will want to capitalise on European successes", says Dennison. The stars would have to align: elections in France and Germany would have to produce leadership willing to go further, the Netherlands would have to shed the guise of the United Kingdom, and the Conference for the Future of Europe would have to be binding. The stars rarely align, but what is certain is that the coronavirus is already the umpteenth crisis that has also failed to wipe out Europe.