The COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a public health crisis with multiple ramifications for the whole world.
The European Union has faced criticism for its slow response to the pandemic, reinforcing debates about whether the partnership has a future. But attention would be better focused on the practicalities of how the EU can deal with a public health disaster of this magnitude, at multiple levels, in coordination with each other and international efforts. And that has been happening.
In previous or ongoing crises, such as the global financial crash of 2008, the sovereign debt crisis, the migration crisis in the Mediterranean, Brexit or the rise of nationalism, there has been a sense that the European integration project no longer works. European integration is a long process of developing a shared identity, started after the second world war and now uniting 27 member states in the EU as well as associated and neighbouring states.
At the same time, when dealing with the migration crisis or even Brexit, there is a sense that nations are constantly pulling in different directions, reflecting national interests. The financial crash and its consequences caused bitter divisions among European states.
Throughout its 60-year history, the project of European unification has gone through multiple phases and crises. That is why there may be a general sense of fatigue among Europeans, despite the many advances in their lives. But this crisis is still a moment for the EU to prove its commitment to shared action.
The politics of the pandemic don’t overlap quite so problematically with arguments about the EU’s legitimacy, compared to other crises. That makes it an opportunity to show how integration makes for a strong response. As the world moves out of lockdown, a clear plan for the future is needed. This pandemic may change the process of EU integration for good.
Ad-hoc solutions to a rapidly changing crisis
The EU brought in reforms at the beginning of the last decade that have been key to the way it deals with crises. Member states agreed to a greater convergence of powers at the economic, political and institutional levels.
In times of crisis, however, reforms happen in a rather disorderly and ad-hoc way. The European Stability Mechanism for financial assistance, recent migration policies and the Brexit deal have all been agreed on the fly rather than through established channels.
After years of enhancing mobility into and within the EU, the migration crisis, Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic all brought back physical borders in their own way. The financial crash, migration crisis or and COVID-19 pandemic have tested the limits of solidarity and effective coordination among member states.
These crises therefore have the potential to modify, disrupt or even derail the course of European integration. Changes in direction have a real impact on the daily lives of Europeans, affecting their rights and the shape of their societies.
Each crisis is, nevertheless, an opportunity to reinforce rights. The COVID-19 pandemic goes to the core of human rights: the right to life and the right to health.
Although these rights are enshrined in many legal instruments worldwide, they are currently in extreme danger. Lives throughout the EU are lost on a daily basis and access to health is threatened by the high number of cases to be treated. Coordinated action at the EU level, enhancing access to medical equipment and support, where most needed, is therefore crucial.
Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said in his virtual State of the Union speech on May 8 that “a caring society is the blueprint for ensuring our Union emerges from the current crisis stronger, more united and with greater solidarity than ever”.
And after initial problems, the EU has agreed major funding packages, shared procurement of healthcare supplies and is looking ahead to financial recovery. At this stage of the pandemic, it is leading on discussions about how to safely reopen national borders so that travel can resume.
If anyone needed one more reason why EU member states, associated or neighbouring states should coordinate actions at the EU level more durably and deeply to face crises, just think of the consequences of isolated actions in a pandemic. If not in the name of European integration, there should at least be a sense that nations would not be able to handle this crisis any better on their own.