European (un)solidarity in the time of coronavirus

We asked prof. dr. sc. Goran Bandov, Lawyer and Political Scientist, Associate Professor and Head of International Relations and Sustainable Development University Centre at University of Zagreb, to comment for on the Covid-19 pandemic and how it affects interstate relations within the European Union.

This expert in international political relations and international public law, with a focus on diplomacy, human and minority rights, peace studies and sustainable development has given us his expert opinion, and we are giving his full coverage.

Author: prof. dr. sc. Goran Bandov

Coronavirus knocked on Europe’s door too. It surprised us, even though we heard its footsteps long ago. We felt it coming. It surprised us, just like snow in the middle of winter and cake in a patisserie. Corona is here and plans to stay. As an uninvited guest, it has made itself at home.

In the last few weeks, we have been living in rough times of (self)isolation. Europe was slowly closing its borders, country after country. Today, they all have some restrictions applied. Most European countries have adjusted their strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some, such as the United Kingdom, doing a complete 180, going from a completely relaxed model to a series of tight restrictions. Even those with the most relaxed measures at the moment, such as Sweden, apply some of the restrictions, such as suspending regular university work to banning gatherings for more than a certain number of people. On the other hand, some European countries are more inclined to take repressive measures to keep people in their homes, for example by introducing a curfew, such as Serbia.

Pandemic strategies are not unanimous at the EU level, but are adopted individually by each country. However, we can see that some methods are implemented almost as a domino effect – when one country applies, then others are more inclined to apply that method. For example, closing down the borders, mandatory 14-day self-isolation for all people entering the country, transition to online education, regulation of shop working hours, closing down of a range of services. Some of the methods, such as wearing protective masks in public spaces, are pending in a number of countries, since there are simply not enough masks in some countries to apply this regulation. Authorities in some countries have said it publicly, some have said it quietly, but almost no one is denying the importance of masks to stop the spread of the virus.

Which of these strategies are actually best for society can probably be ascertained only when we see the aftermath of a pandemic, probably a year after its end, when all social – especially health and socio-economic aspects – can be more successfully and accurately viewed, and all the aspects of sustainable development that are currently on hold but should not be forgotten, not even for a moment.

The representatives of the authorities of those countries which fail in the application of the model will seek an excuse, justification and a culprit, so that citizens do not recognize them as key culprits and demand they step down from their positions of power. And power is dear and sweet, however rough the times may be, so a certain part of the mighty is willing to sacrifice the long-term interests of its society in order to obtain its short-term benefit and remain in power. Otherwise a normal situation, but in the rough times of a pandemic it becomes especially dangerous.

EU as the ideal culprit?

The European Union seems to be the ideal culprit – it rarely strikes back and when it does, it is usually very slow, so there is time for quiet diplomacy to smoothe relations if they become very intense, and it has not yet proved to be resentful. There will certainly be a number of other culprits, some more realistic, some less realistic, but about them in another article. Here we will briefly look at the potential blame of the EU and whether EU solidarity and solidarity between the EU Members works in general, and to what extent.

Politicians, who in the public domain are otherwise advocating a reduction of EU competence on a range of issues, their country’s exit from the EU and / or the complete abolition of the European Union, are getting louder. They see these times of crisis as an excellent training ground for strengthening their muscles. Some media outlets give them a voice. Citizens symbolically take down EU flags and feel abandoned by European friends. This is particularly noticeable in Italy, but Euroscepticism is also present in a number of other EU member states, and the possible missteps by the EU, as well as the lack of intereuropean solidarity, can only contribute to strengthening the eurosceptic nature of citizens.

The question of jurisdiction in the field of health

There are several questions that help us clarify the role of the EU in the current COVID-19 crisis. One of the key questions seems to be jurisdiction – who is in charge of citizens’ healthcare? In addition, in order to check the EU’s accountability, it is absolutely necessary to check its jurisdiction and activities related to health, whether it has any jurisdiction and, if so, what kind. Finally, we will take a more detailed look at the (non)functionality of European solidarity.

The responsibility for the issue of healthcare lies primarily with the EU member states. In some countries, such as Italy, Spain and Germany, authorities have been mainly transferred to lower provincial levels. For example, the leaders of the German provinces (states) are deciding which epidemiological measures to take, with Bavaria more inclined to introduce more rigorous measures, and a number of federal provinces more inclined to apply more lenient measures. Saxony went a step further a week ago, opening the possibility for violators of mandatory self-isolation to be examined and placed in psychiatric wards under police supervision.

The EU’s jurisdiction in healthcare is very narrowly defined, concentrating primarily on the issue of public health, established by the Treaty of Lisbon. Health protection, in particular healthcare, remains primarily the responsibility of the Member States, as noted earlier. However, the EU has a role to play in improving public health, preventing and treating disease, mitigating sources of human health hazards and aligning health strategies between Member States. These competences are established solely by the will of the Member States who determine which competences will transfer to the EU level and to what extent. Consequently, the EU can respond to health issues to the extent previously allowed by the Member States themselves – primarily to recommend, advise, adjust and coordinate. And it can only be successful if Member States cooperate.

Ignoring the clear signals that COVID-19 is a global problem

Although the signals, which came from China and then from the rest of Asia (primarily Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea), were an increasingly clear sign that the pandemic was approaching Europe as well, it remained quiet, as if it was something that was happening to others, as if it could be an island of happiness in a sea of misfortune. The virus knows no boundaries, and it was only a matter of time when it would take hold in Europe as well.

At a number of high-level public forums (for example the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 21-24, 2020), there were clear voices that COVID-19 could happen to everyone, that it was a global problem. But most world and European politicians did not react with fear but with disinterest, and some with a smile of untouchability. This belief in Europe was primarily based on the successful suppression of SARS, MERS and Ebola in regions with key focal points, but also the presumption that European health systems are strong, and all this will pass without significant tension for European citizens.

The first clear reaction of EU representatives at the end of January 2020

Not even with the appearance of the first victims in Europe did it become clear that the crisis was a local, European one. The World Health Organization also contributed to this with confusing messages. Transmitting information from Chinese authorities while ignoring information from other sources, they posted a tweet on January 14th 2020 stating that there was no clear evidence that the virus is transmitted from person to person. In addition, leading European epidemiologists, for example from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control and the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, publicly announced at the end of January that the crisis would be limited and of low intensity.

Yet, despite all these mixed signals, the European Union (EU Crisis Management Commissioner Lenarčić and EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Kyriakides) announces at the end of January (29th January 2020) that it is launching a mechanism for fighting the COVID-19 crisis. Unfortunately at the time, the topic was still not very interesting to the media. This continued to be a Chinese (Asian) problem, although the first cases were already reported in Europe. At the time of the pandemic alert, EU officials had to compete with much more interesting media topics – the end (of the first part) of the Brexit drama and the potential new migrant crisis on the Greek-Turkish border.

During February, it became clearer that a number of EU Members were uncertain about how much medical equipment (number and availability of intensive care beds, respirators, protective masks, manpower) was actually available. This was especially a challenge for the larger decentralized states, where provinces manage citizens’ healthcare.

As the situation of deficient equipment in a number of countries becomes clearer and in some EU Members the situation begins to escalate, the EU establishes coordination of common medical equipment supplies, primarily respirators and protective masks, for emergencies in EU Member States, which is only realized in mid-March (19th March 2020). This newly established system of common stock is an excellent instrument for achieving EU solidarity and rapid assistance to Members in need. But in this segment, the EU, as a community of member states, had to do more. At one point, EU solidarity remained only words on paper, which should not have happened.

Lack of EU solidarity is a cause for concern

EU solidarity is one of the most powerful instruments of interconnection among the EU Members, providing assistance to a country that is unable to respond successfully to a crisis such as a flood, epidemic, earthquake or pandemic. But if EU solidarity is not activated, it causes concern and its absence is unexpected, because you help a friend and an ally in need, no matter how difficult it is for you at that moment in time.

Italy was the first country in Europe to experience a strong escalation of COVID-19 spread. First it closed 11 municipalities, then several regions, and then the whole country went into lockdown and self-isolation, with closed borders, suspension of a series of flights, applying a series of measures (e.g. closing schools, banning sports events, concerts, public gatherings, weddings, funerals) to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which had already taken over in February.

On February 28, 2020, Italy, as Europe’s most endangered country, requested the activation of the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism for medical equipment for individual protection. Unfortunately, none of the EU Members had responded to the call from the European Commission, and the EU itself had not yet established an EU supply for medical care and had been unable to react independently. Silent diplomacy channels probably worked, but they were obviously not effective enough in the early days.

Where Europe had to be first, there were others – China, Russia, Cuba, Vietnam. In the Western world, many people state that these are merely diplomatic and propaganda moves, but even so, they provided the assistance as soon as it was requested, which unfortunately the European countries did not. Their help came later, much later. They were perceived as (un)supportive in rough times.

Every European country took care of itself. The borders were closing. Everyone zealously started to count available medical equipment, medical staff, how many intensive care beds they had, how many respirators, masks and what quality the equipment was in. Each state had devised a strategy for itself to prevent the spread of COVID-19, in particular to reduce the number of severe cases and deaths. Some states have also been discussing whether they should go with the old proven quarantine method or go for the “herd immunity”.

Although it can be understood that each country must primarily care for its fellow citizens, according to the principle of pressure drop in an airplane when one must first put on an oxygen mask and then help people in need around them, solidarity had to be activated. Italy had to get the requested help because it was undoubtedly in the most vulnerable position, and other Member States were not so threatened and were able to give up some of their supplies. This would be visible in the forthcoming weeks when aid began to arrive. For example, France donated 1 million protective masks to Italy in the coming weeks; Germany 7 tons; and Austria 1.5 tons of medical equipment, including protective masks and respirators.

But whoever helps fast, helps in a much more significant way. A bitter taste was left in Italy’s mouth. That is why the only correct step taken by the President of the European Commission von der Leyen is the unconditional deep sincere apology to Italy and its citizens for the absence of full solidarity in the moments of their great suffering (16/4/2020). This is something that must not ever happen again if we want to build the European Union as a community of peace, prosperity and well-being for every individual citizen. Every hour is important when one is waiting for help.

On the other hand, EU solidarity has come to the fore in a number of other aspects, from the organized return of European citizens, the transmission of protective masks and respirators, medical staff, admitting patients for treatment in intensive care units, and ultimately the announced assistance to the economies of EU Members.

The return of European citizens from all over the world had taken place in a spirit of full European solidarity. From Asia, North and South America, to Australia and Africa, EU citizens flew back to Europe together. In the end, within Europe itself, a series of flights were organized to allow citizens of individual countries to return to their homes. Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, France, Ireland, Spain, Latvia, Luxembourg, Austria and Portugal via the European Civil Protection Mechanism had transported their citizens, along with the citizens of all other EU Members, by airplane. Denmark, Hungary, Croatia, Poland, Slovakia, the Netherlands and Lithuania organized flights for their own citizens as well as citizens of other EU Members without using the European Civil Protection Mechanism. On average, every third person on a single flight was a citizen from a different country than the one who organized the flight.

In addition, patients from Italy and France are being treated in Germany and Austria, transported by German helicopters and aircraft equipped for intensive care. Romania, Norway and Poland have sent doctors and nurses to hospitals in northern Italy, which is a key focal point of infection in Italy. Estonia has donated 60,000 protective masks to Italy and Spain, which, along with Italy, is Europe’s most vulnerable country in terms of the number of infected, severe cases and the death toll of COVID-19. In addition, Luxembourg has taken patients from France. The Czech Republic has also offered its intensive care facilities if needed. European solidarity has proven to be a vibrant and effective instrument after all.

European solidarity with closest EU partners

Additionally, European solidarity is not only solidarity within the European Union, but also solidarity with its closest partners. The EU announced immediate support of €38 million to the Western Balkan countries for crisis management and another €374 million through the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance to help the socio-economic recovery of the region. The Western Balkan countries will receive assistance to cover current medical equipment needs, in particular protective masks, respirators, laboratory kits and special protective clothing for medical personnel.

The European Commission also announced a redistribution of €140 million for the most immediate needs in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine, as part of a global response to the coronavirus epidemic. In addition, the Commission will also redirect the use of existing instruments worth up to €700 million to help support the Eastern Partnership countries during the COVID-19 epidemic. These funds will support the supply of medical devices and protective equipment and support the economies of those countries.

European solidarity in the aftermath

Although in the early days of the pandemic, the first thought of the majority was how to save the health and life of citizens. Soon, a new question arose: when we save it, what will we eat and how will we survive? This is precisely why the economic field is being imposed as the next step in which the implementation of European solidarity must appear. Only the community where the least prosperous moves forward makes sense to the whole community.

At the moment, the highest quality solutions which will be implemented through the European Stabilization Mechanism under more relaxed conditions and a number of other mechanisms of the EU institutions are being sought (eg SURE – European Joint Employment Fund and European Investment Bank), but also through the new Multiannual Financial Framework of the European Union. The EU is announcing the launch of a European Economic Recovery Plan in the coming days, and European Council President Michel noted at a virtual press conference (15/4/2020) that the Member States and the EU together have about €3,000 billion ready to save jobs and boost the economy, which surely will be a very significant injection to the European economy.

Of course, along with the economy issues, one must also think about the issues of sustainable development and climate change, because despite the pandemic they have not disappeared and there is still a need to implement the measures pointed out in the European Green Deal. Moreover, to ensure biodiversity restoration and pollution reduction, as well as to improve resource efficiency by moving to a clean circular economy, European Green Deal measures need to be implemented in new financial injections to the European economy.

In order to achieve the European Green Deal, it will be necessary to direct economy injections into the European economy, primarily by investing in environmentally friendly technologies, fostering industry innovation, introducing cleaner, more affordable and healthier modes of transport, increasing the energy efficiency of buildings and working with international partners to improve global environmental standards.

Instead of a conclusion – the EU is not ideal, and that’s a good thing.

The EU is a complex mechanism, decisions are made at a number of levels and almost always seeks a compromise as a solution. Jurisdictions are primarily in the hands of the Member States. Thus, Member States also retain responsibility for the healthcare of their citizens. In this area, EU jurisdiction is modest, it takes care of public health. It can recommend, advise, adjust and coordinate and be successful only if the Member States agree with the EU. It is what the Member States actually want, nothing more and nothing less than that.

When the pandemic knocked on the door, Europe sounded frantic, like an untuned piano. When such a piano is played, it is bad for the ears. However, the solution is not to break the piano into small pieces, throw it into the fire and forget that it ever existed. On the contrary, it should be slowly adjusted, key by key, so again it can produce a pleasant sound and play the most beautiful melodies. It is like that with the EU: it is not ideal, it sometimes plays the wrong notes, but it just means that it needs to improve in that segment and be even more persistent in order to be better, more preferable and more playful.

The EU is not ideal, and that’s a good thing. When something becomes ideal, it is at its peak, and when something is at its peak, it can only decline. And it’s good to question its meaning, because that’s the way it can move forward. And it’s great that we have that freedom in Europe. We freely ask questions, think, speak, write and live. This is our European way of life.

The EU is a living being, in constant motion, in search of new, better, more preferable and more sustainable solutions for its citizens. The EU is exactly what its Members really want – a firmly networked European society, which ensures peace, prosperity and welfare in the European space, based on the solidarity and cooperation of European citizens.