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Can the EU regain its credibility post-pandemic?

Alan MacKenzie
May 7, 2020

Political infighting is nothing new in Brussels, but facing the COVID-19 crisis EU leaders have been far from united. Yet without unity, what is the European Union good for? Our guest is EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson.

Ylva Johansson | EU-Kommissarin für Inneres
Image: imago images/ZUMA Wire/F. Sierakowski

Ylva Johansson on Conflict Zone

"[EU] member states realize that they really need each other," the European Commissioner for Home Affairs has said on DW's Conflict Zone.

"What we are seeing is not a failure of the European Union. We have a lot of difficulties, of course, but these are not new difficulties and we can manage them," Ylva Johansson said. And people "should have high expectations" of cooperation between EU member states.

As the threat of the coronavirus intensified and spread throughout Europe, national leaders scrambled into action, but their uncoordinated and often self-interested responses have caused major problems for beleaguered pro-Europeans.

"You have to consider my party is one of the most pro-European parties in Italy," a former Italian minister and representative to the EU told the Financial Times recently, "and I now have members writing to me saying: 'Why do we want to stay in the EU? It is useless.'"

"The loss of reputation is huge," said Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council, while Spain's Prime Minister warned that "without cohesion there will be disaffection and the credibility of the European project will be severely damaged."

EU Ursula von der Leyen
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was "right that Europe as a whole offers a heartfelt apology" to Italy over the bloc's failure to give sufficient help at the start of the outbreakImage: Reuters/F. Lenoir

Weeks after these messages Brussels is still finalising the details of a huge financial aid package to support Europe's shattered economies, which pitted economically troubled southern EU countries against the richer north.

In a timely interview, Conflict Zone's Tim Sebastian challenged Ylva Johansson on the disunity on show in Brussels, but the commissioner was keen to deliver a message of optimism for the European project in the face of the warnings from Tusk and others.

European discord

Sebastian began by asking the commissioner if the EU's disunity in responding to the crisis had been a major blow to its credibility. Johansson disagreed.

"We are seeing desperate actions from member states and that's quite understandable because we are in a situation where never been before and the crisis is really, really a big one. But we have also seen our member states asking for the EU Commission to take a stronger role, to do more, to coordinate more, also in areas where we do not really have the mandate as a commission."

In April, as EU finance ministers met via video link to thrash out its economic rescue deal, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire reportedly told his squabbling European counterparts, "Shame on you, shame on Europe. Stop this clownish show."

"It is difficult to come along with new economic proposals but at the same time, we have also seen … member states are coming closer to each other and they are asking for the commission to play a more stronger role and we do that," Johansson said.

But Johansson's boss, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, herself said in a critical statement ahead of earlier talks in March, "When Europe really needed an 'all for one' spirit, too many initially gave an 'only for me' response."

Read more: Coronavirus nationalism and the EU

"If you can't find common solutions to common problems, what's the point of the EU?" Sebastian asked the commissioner.

Johansson admitted that the beginning of the crisis had been difficult, with individuals, companies and nations acting for themselves, but argued this soon changed.

European states "went in another direction, asking for more coordination, more cooperation, and asking for the commission to play a stronger role," the commissioner said.

"I would rather guess that we will come out of this with a stronger cooperation in the European Union than before."

EU-Finanzministertreffen per Videoschalte
EU finance ministers have been meeting by videoconference to agree an economic rescue planImage: picture-alliance/ANP/B. Maat

Old problems, new failures?

But after four summits that have failed to produce a firm plan – and with the true scale and length of the crisis still unknown – this could be an optimistic view.

Host Tim Sebastian asked if the rosy picture of EU unity that Brussels paints was really a hypocritical one, particularly while it warns against disinformation.

"We are a union of democracies. And this is the most important thing - that we stick to our values … What sometimes worries me is if there are member states that will take this opportunity of the crisis to take step away from democracy and away from the rule of law, this is what worries me the most," said Johansson.


Within her brief as home affairs commissioner since December 2019, Johansson's responsibilities include "developing a new pact on migration and asylum," and "reforming asylum, readmission and return rules."

Read more: EU must do everything to avoid an outbreak in refugee camps

The European Union has tried to act as peacemaker during the civil conflict in Libya, as well as to increase the safety of migrants passing through the country as they try to get to Europe. It has just launched a naval operation to support the UN embargo on arms deliveries to the warring factions.

But, before Johansson's appointment as commissioner, there was strong criticism too by human rights groups that EU policy had contributed to the plight of migrants by sending them back to detention centres where they can face appalling treatment. Sebastian asked if Johansson was ashamed of the situation in Libya.

"I'm not ashamed of what we are doing from the European Union. I do not see how the very, very dangerous and bad situation in Libya would be better if the European Union was not there helping refugees to be relocated out of these camps in Libya," she said.

"What would be better if the European Union was not there? I can't see it."