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Coronavirus and the EU: The nation versus the union?

March 19, 2020

EU member states are pressing ahead with unilateral measures to stop the spread of coronavirus — and the bloc is no longer sitting in the driver's seat. Cooperation looks different in an era of pandemic.

Belgien Europäische Kommission in Brüssel
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Kalker

It's the European Union's internal market which allows for the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labor. Or rather, it was — at this point it no longer exists in its familiar form. Though the EU does allow for borders to be re-erected between member states in strictly-defined emergency situations, the idea was always that such decisions be made as a unit. 

However, with the rapid spread of the coronavirus and each member state worried that it will be next to succumb to the epidemic, some members have unilaterally reintroduced border controls. Some, such as Poland, have closed the borders completely. Others have introduced travel bans and placed restrictions on the export of medical goods.  

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz complained on Wednesday that when the situation got serious, solidarity did not work in Europe — though by the same token, his government also introduced unilateral measures.

Read moreCoronavirus forces EU leaders to weigh nationalization options

Commission can't keep up

To limit the spread of the virus, we need to work together and act swiftly, the president of the European Council Charles Michel recently said, while the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, insisted that the sealing of borders should be agreed upon mutually — after member states had already acted unilaterally. The EU is stuck playing catch-up — which is not the way the bloc was meant to function.

Defending Germany's decision to close its borders, the country's interior minister, Horst Seehofer, said that those who did not act at all were "guilty.” He and most of his colleagues thought that the EU was taking too long to draw up a common policy and right now no politician wants to be accused of not acting in time.

Not only has passenger traffic come to a near-complete halt in the EU, but goods traffic has also slowed down considerably. Trucks are backed up at border crossings. As factories shut down, just-in-time supply chains are at risk of cracking if they are not already broken. The fact that workers who commute across borders are stuck in the wrong country is not helping.

Read more: What's in the ECB's coronavirus emergency pandemic plan?

Ursula von der Leyen addresses EU leaders by teleconference earlier this week.
Ursula von der Leyen addresses EU leaders by teleconference earlier this week. Image: picture-alliance/dpa/European Commission/E. Ansotte

Member states have to cooperate

Von der Leyen has argued for a closure of the external borders of the Union in order to loosen those between member states. The same logic can be used to control illegal migration — only if the external borders are strictly policed can individual member states avoid policing their internal borders.

Earlier this week, von der Leyen put forward a proposal that the EU's external borders be closed for 30 days, which was approved by all Schengen area member states. The European Commission has become humble in the face of the coronavirus. On Wednesday, a spokesperson said that "solidarity, mutual trust, and sincere cooperation should guide our actions to fight against this pandemic.” However, these guidelines "did not necessarily call for the abolition of internal border controls."

While the internal market is the Commission's quintessential mandate, it is member states that are responsible for health policy. This was clear when the crisis hit Italy and Germany and France at first imposed restrictions on exports of protective masks so that they themselves would have enough. Germany has now started sending masks to Italy again.

The Commission, for its part, has the task of ensuring that all member states have access to essential equipment such as protection masks, ventilators and testing kits.

A question of money

As a recession looms — with the shutdown of factories and the plunging of the markets — member states are looking to the European Union to provide financial support. Nobody has forgotten the financial crisis of 2008 when European Central Bank (ECB) President Mario Draghi said that "whatever it takes” would be done to preserve the euro. The determination must be the same now. On Wednesday night, the ECB announced a €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) and said that the purchase of public sector securities would continue at least until the end of the year. French President Emmanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez welcomed the move.

However, just as it did at the height of the euro crisis, the ECB has its critics, including Markus Ferber, a senior member of the European Parliament from the European People's Party, who pointed out that not even the biggest purchase program could repair broken supply chains. He added that the ECB should not cross the limit on monetary financing and insisted that the program should end as soon as the economy had recovered.

European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde addresses a news conference on the outcome of the meeting of the Governing Council.
European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde addresses a news conference on the outcome of the meeting of the Governing Council.Image: Reuters/K. Pfaffenbach

Read moreMerkel: Coronavirus is Germany's greatest challenge since World War Two 

German Die Linke politician Fabio De Masi disagreed, saying that the ECB's proposed program was not ambitious enough. He called for a new "coronavirus loan” to prevent another euro crisis.

Both are thinking about the post-coronavirus era, but De Masi's conclusion is very different. He thinks that millionaires and billionaires have to be taxed more in order to help reduce public debt after the crisis.

The looming recession could turn into a major financial crisis. Clemens Fuest, the president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Munich, fears a return of the European debt crisis and exacerbated quarrels between member states on how to combat it.

Considering the current lack of solidarity among member states, it seems that little good could come from such a scenario for Europe.

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