The Fabric, and the Notion, of EU Solidarity is Being Ripped Apart

Italians are suffering – but they are also angry and defiant. EU flags are being burned. On social media, Italy’s citizens are telling each other, and the world, that “we will save ourselves”.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is pleading for EU solidarity as Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Northern League, denounces the organisation. In Spain, emotions are also running high; on the periphery, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has condemned European solidarity as nothing more than “a fairy tale”.

Covid-19 is testing the mettle of the EU – and the lasting impacts are likely to outlive the health crisis.

The absence of a co-ordinated EU response to the pandemic has been conspicuous. Even the refugee crisis of 2015 saw greater solidarity. Despite meetings between national leaders and various ministers of finance and health, there has been little sign of consensus, or action, from Brussels.

Part of the problem is that there is no central EU healthcare policy. It’s a contentious subject. Member states have largely retained individual control, making it difficult to put together a unified response. The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention was created in 2005, and an civil crisis response institution, RescEU, came into being last year. Neither organisation has the power or resources to make meaningful inroads into the effects of the pandemic.

The common threat has so far led to dysfunction rather than solidarity, with the unilateral travel restrictions imposed by member states standing out as an example. On March 16, the EC put restrictions on non-essential third-country (non-citizen) travel into the Schengen zone – but nothing was said about travel between member states. An extension to those third-country restrictions was announced in early April, and while internal EU restrictions were mentioned, co-ordination remains a goal rather than an achievement.

Some states have also imposed bans on the export of medical goods. The European Commission has fought for an EU-wide response to such actions, but several members have again acted unilaterally.

Unsurprisingly, financial support is the major point of contention. Italy, France, Spain, along with the European Central Bank and other bodies, are pushing for an EU-guaranteed “corona-bond”. Funds are needed to tackle the pandemic, they say, and to help businesses survive. Bonds could deliver – and low interest rates.

Germany, Holland, Austria, and Finland are resisting the idea. They argue that the European Stability Mechanism (with an available €410bn) is the appropriate instrument – and, unlike any “corona-bond”, it is ready to be used right now. But after the Greek debt crisis, the ESM is synonymous with austerity. Italy and Spain see that as punishment, not a solution. Debate continues, and delay is costly.

Measures such as the €37.8bn Coronavirus Response Investment Intiative are positive, but likely to be dwarfed by the magnitude of the problem.

Co-ordination is also needed in the area of scientific research. The president of the European Research Council, Mauro Ferrari, has resigned over the EU’s inaction. He had been pushing for a concerted scientific programme to combat the pandemic, but was blocked by the governing board. His approach was seen as too “top-down”. In a letter to The Financial Times, Ferrari said: “I arrived at the ERC a fervent supporter of the EU, but the Covid-19 crisis completely changed my views.”

The EU has faced existential crises before, but this one is potentially the most damaging to the its foundational ideals. If a union can’t unite, then what is its purpose? Italy and Serbia are receiving aid from China and Russia, feeling betrayed at home.

Even if the controversy is different to the those thrown up by the Greek debt crisis and unlawful migration, each day of separation further splits the fabric, and the notion, of EU solidarity.

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