24 March 2020

The European Union's organism is infected with COVID-19

Niculae Iancu

A central topic of the current security and defence debates is the retaliation capacity to crises in the European and Euro-Atlantic communities. The coronavirus pandemic activated one of the most serious emergency situations in the post-war era, as defined by the German chancellor Angela Merkel. Two months after the pandemic outbreak in China, Europe became wrath’s focus, as more than one third of the global total cases were recorded inside the European Union. Furthermore, the number of infections is increasing in the US, where there are 10.000 cases, Great Britain has more than 2.500 cases and Canada has almost 1.000 cases, numbers that will surely be bigger when publishing this article.

Image source: HEPTA

Therefore, a first conclusion would be that the most developed and only geopolitical community in the world was surprised by the “attack” of the invisible enemy, COVID-19.  The West found itself in the middle of the “sanitary war”, as France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, called it. The reaction of national authorities in the Euro-Atlantic spaces was relatively normal, and the medical systems responded progressively to this emergency, coming up with measures that are proportional to epidemic’s enlargement wave. The professional information circulated quickly between authorities and, generally, the journalistic and social environments have matched the limitation and elimination efforts of the threat.

If nationally things go well, we can hardly say the same about the European operational cooperation and solidarity. The governments’ coercive decisions for epidemic’s fight and the slow responses to calls coming from states that were seriously affected have revealed the limits and ineffectiveness of the united Europe’s construction. Borders were closed, planes stayed on the ground, governments entered in a competition to get medical materials and equipment from a market that was already suffocated by the disaster in China.

The outrageousness happened when the crisis started in Italy, when not even one member state responded to Rome’s emergency call. “A shameful abdication of responsibility”, says the American edition of the famous magazine Foreign Policy, which places Bruxelless in front of a heavy dilemma: “how would the EU member states react if one of them would be exposed to a bigger crisis?”.

When the infections’ number began to increase worryingly, the Italian government requested the activation of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, through the Emergency Response Coordination Centre. The European Commission has asked the capitals the request to provide Italy with personal protective equipment, but this got no answer, as stated by Maurizio Massari, Italy's ambassador to the EU. Quite unexpectedly, Italy - the founding state of the European Union - was left alone in the face of danger inside a "protecting Europe", at least on paper, if we were to refer to the Brussels documents.

Through this lack of reaction, the unique moment when the community had to prove cohesion in the face of disaster was missed. The masks and protective suits that would have provided the simple, but absolutely necessary, confirmation that in Europe no one is left alone in the face of evil were missing. It would have been an altruistic gesture of solidarity, which would have helped everyone. Not only politically, but also by bringing hope, trust and responsibility, when the pressure on the community bloc is greater than ever in the last decades.

Rome was probably less surprised by the absence of European solidarity than we might expect, at least at first sight. Italy had already learned its lessons from the bitter lessons of the 2015 refugee crisis, when over one and a half million migrants invaded the southern border of the Union in order to reach the north of the continent. Even after so many years since the crisis began, some member states have not accepted the solidarity scheme proposed by Brussels to distribute the migration wave pressure.

"Member states have different perceptions of threats. Italy considers the coronavirus pandemic to be a global and European threat that calls for a European response, but other countries do not have the same perspective”. "States that are not directly or significantly affected are less inclined to jump for help", Massari said, in a rather resigned than indignant tone. And as if to reinforce such theories, a week ago, China sent aid, medical personnel, medicines and tens of tons of medical supplies and equipment arrived to Rome.

In Italy’s "Darkest Hour", Europe has proved to be powerless. Panic, selfishness and isolationism outweighed the solidarity and cohesion that was needed now more than ever. That is why the coronavirus crisis is already a difficult test, which the European Union will have to pass successfully. It is not only about the capacity to respond to health crises, but also about how Europe is prepared to act following the principles of common defence to ensure the security of people across the Union to face increasingly complex and versatile threats.

This time failure is no longer an option, as it has already happened too many times in the past. Any insufficient or inequitable crisis management will have long-term effects. The settlement will not only be political, but also economic and social. The effects will not be suffered only by the European institutions, with no credibility policies and authority coverage, but also by the whole European project, risking losing its essence in front of European citizens.

Therefore, it is the moment of courageous and responsible decisions, not expectation and isolation. Although absolutely necessary, the economic decisions are not enough. The lessons learned from the coronavirus crisis must have political effects and provide the long-awaited solutions for European bureaucracy reform, including in the security field, whether internal or external. Sharing security resources will become increasingly important, and the reaction time in making tough decisions will make the difference between life and death. Although it may seem paradoxical, this is the moment when the European Union's security and defence work entered an irreversible path. Failure to do so will render the damages irrecoverable.

Translated by Andreea Soare