London (CNN) – The pace at which Covid-19 spread around the globe left governments and international institutions paralyzed. But few experienced the scale of the whiplash currently being felt in Brussels.
The European Union began this year reinvigorated, having seen off the threat of Brexit with a unity of purpose that typically eludes it when faced with such existential challenges. Its new leadership team, under Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, was fired up with a vision for the EU as a global leader in climate sustainability and democratic standards.
What a difference a few months and a global pandemic make. The only issue world leaders have the capacity to deal with right now has dragged the EU back into the quicksand of its own dysfunction. From a sluggish political response to the crisis to bitter internal rows about how to mitigate the economic effects of coronavirus, member states have turned against one another, and in on themselves.
On Tuesday night, Mauro Ferrari — the EU’s chief scientist — resigned from his position at the head of the European Research Council. In a statement to the Financial Times, Ferrari described his frustration at the EU’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
“I have been extremely disappointed by the European response to Covid-19… I arrived at the ERC a fervent supporter of the EU [but] the Covid-19 crisis completely changed my views.” The European Research Council disputes Ferrari’s claim and believes his resignation was for reasons beyond the EU’s Covid-19 response.
But Ferrari is not alone in suggesting the EU’s immediate reaction to the crisis had been slow off the mark. “From day one, the EU was fighting an uphill struggle, as it rushed to piece together a pan-European response to a healthcare crisis with no real authority to do so,” says Andrea Renda, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies.
The chief problem Brussels repeatedly faces is that it must operate at two speeds. On the one hand, the EU’s machinery acts as a pan-European arbiter, coordinating the issues that place the union in peril, from a centralized seat of power.
On the other, decisions on many substantive issues are reached through agreements collectively struck between member states. And as we have seen in recent years, they have vastly differing priorities. Each time this canyon appears, it exposes the limitations of the EU.
This has been shown to be the case from the moment the coronavirus pandemic hit the continent — most notably in Italy, which now leads the world in deaths.
While EU officials are quick to point out the measures it took that allowed the bloc to work together on the procurement of medicines and equipment, when it comes to healthcare policy, the EU has little authority.
“This is one of the few areas over which the EU has very limited law-making power,” says Georgina Wright, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government think tank. “It can try to coordinate responses and offer advice; but it is really up to member states to determine what their healthcare system should look like and how to run it.”
In the early days of coronavirus, this left the EU’s central machinery fighting against the immediate national interests of its members. “It was trying to force nations that didn’t trust one another to work together on procuring and stockpiling medical supplies at the same time they were unilaterally closing their borders,” says Renda.
Eventually, the commission convinced states to agree that medical equipment and foods should pass through borders via priority lanes for essential items. However, the fact that some of those borders are still closed to citizens is a major issue for a union of nations that boasts total freedom of movement as one of its cornerstones.
This week, member states have been at at loggerheads over how to cope with the savage economic storm caused by coronavirus. As always with the EU, anything that involves money always leads to vicious arguments — not least because it counts among its member states Germany, the world’s fourth largest economy, and Malta, which sits in 119th place.
Wealthy countries contribute more to the bloc’s common pots of money than the poorer states, a dynamic that creates animosity on all sides at the best of times. In periods of crisis, such as the present one, richer member states resent subsidizing the less wealthy ones, while the poorer states resent the greater influence wielded by the richer ones. Hitherto, the most pointed example of this was the Greek bailout in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, which came on condition that Greece adopted crippling austerity measures.
That was the backdrop to this week’s discussions among European finance ministers, who struggled to agree a response to the economic impact of Covid-19 — a 14-hour meeting on Tuesday broke up without agreement.
On Thursday night, member states agreed that a €500 billion ($547 billion) package of funds from the European Stability Mechanism, the European Investment Bank and the European Commission, to help countries struggling pay for public services, keep business afloat and help people who have lost their jobs as a result of the crisis.
The deal was only struck after the Netherlands were persuaded to back down on their insistence that the funds should come with strict terms and conditions attached. The Dutch had been holding out, skeptical about whether recipients would use the money responsibly, and their ability to stick credibly to a repayment timetable. But the Netherlands were ultimately won over by an agreement limiting the scope of how the funds should be used.
There was no concrete agreement, however, on how an additional rescue fund would be generated. Italy has been arguing in favor of so-called coronabonds, which would raise money against shared European debt by creating an attractive asset for investors and would come without strings. It’s not hard to see why wealthier nations are not so keen on this idea.
Such tensions between EU member states existed long before coronavirus. Brexit provided a brief respite, offering the opportunity to unite against a common threat. That unity, it turned out, was fleeting. Now, the most severe international crisis in decades is bringing into question the very foundations of the postwar European project.
Even if the pandemic’s spread slows and life can gradually return to something resembling normality, the knock-on effects of the past few months will be felt for years. The EU will most likely spend those years reflecting on how it responded to this crisis and if, in its current form, it would better handle any similar crisis in the future.
As one diplomatic source told CNN: “After this is over, we can’t all go back to sitting round the table and pretending this didn’t happen.”