EU faces a huge challenge just as states cannot meet to co-ordinate a reaction

Covid-19 threatens to undermine the very foundations of the EU – freedom of movement and free movement of goods

The sudden imposition of identity checks on Poland’s border with Germany caused a traffic jam of 60km along one of Europe’s major trade arteries.  Photograph: Rolf Schulten/Bloomberg

The sudden imposition of identity checks on Poland’s border with Germany caused a traffic jam of 60km along one of Europe’s major trade arteries. Photograph: Rolf Schulten/Bloomberg

 

The coronavirus pandemic may be the greatest challenge the EU has ever faced.

For now the virus has suspended the bloc’s totemic achievement: freedom of movement. It took just a long weekend for a cascade of border closures to reverse decades of work to ease travel between member states. It started last Friday when Slovakia banned outsiders. By Monday evening France, Germany, and Spain had followed suit.

This immediately threatened another of the EU’s pillars: freed movement of goods.

The sudden imposition of identity checks on Poland’s border with Germany caused a traffic jam of cars, buses, and trucks to stretch 60km along one of the continent’s major trade arteries. The situation was echoed elsewhere.

Europe’s supply chains are built without slack for such impediments. Food, farming and trade bodies FoodDrinkEurope, Copa-Cogeca, and Celcaa warned the jams were holding up produce and the workers who deliver it.

“Given that the agri-food supply chain is highly integrated and operating across borders, any blocks of supply and workers will inevitably disrupt business. Our ability to provide food for all will depend on the preservation of the EU single market,” the groups said.

The situation ate into inter-European solidarity. Jams on people leaving Italy for Austria eased only after Rome established retaliatory checks that created traffic for Austrians too, according to the Italian government.

Hundreds of citizens of the Baltic states trying to make their way home were barred passage through Poland; more than 600 Estonians and Latvians had to be repatriated by ferry. Commuting from one state to another, once a given, was suddenly under threat.

Stranded passenger

On the Polish border stranded passengers were forced to sleep in their cars and in buses for days, causing a humanitarian situation that prompted the intervention of the Red Cross.

“The virus is narrowing horizons. People are focusing on what’s of most immediate importance. Our family, our neighbourhood. We’re all working from home after all,” said one official. “That goes for countries too. Everyone is out for themselves.”

These most fundamental of challenges to the European order have struck just as states are unable to meet to co-ordinate reaction.

This month’s European Council meeting of EU leaders has been postponed. Meetings between ministers and ambassadors continue over video call. Travel bans, social distancing, and the increasing number of officials who are in quarantine following exposure to the virus are forcing rethinks on the fly.

Ambassadors are exploring the adoption of written procedures as a workaround of a requirement for physical meetings in Brussels to formally adopt resolutions.

The pandemic has exposed some ironies of integration. The slow response of northern states even as Italy’s death numbers surged revealed that many Europeans were cosmopolitan enough to take school ski trips for granted, but not to think that a virus that could kill Italians was also a threat to them.

Another irony: while EU countries decided to pool their economies and areas of free movement, they were unable to respond collectively to a virus that crosses borders.

Health policy

Health policy and border checks are firmly under national control. When Italy appealed for supplies of protective equipment, China responded with aid before any other EU member; France and Germany blocked exports to keep their supplies at home.

The European Commission has responded within the strictures placed on it by member states. It has issued recommendations to states to set up “green lanes” prioritising the passage of food and medicine. One official worked through the night to draft an agreement to end export bans between member states as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. The flipside was that export bans to the rest of the world were okay.

In similar logic the commission pioneered a ban of all casual non-EU visitors into the bloc in the hopes this would persuade states to take down internal borders. The first part flew; the second did not.

Tacitly agreeing to export bans at all is a breach of principle by the EU, which has long been critical of other such bans elsewhere.

But it’s not the only sacred cow brought to the slaughter.

Austerity champion Germany announced a large stimulus package and its finance minister declared “a country like Italy must now spend billions to support its economy. This must not be allowed to fail due to a narrow interpretation of regulations.”

The commission gave states the nod to borrow and spend, and eased state aid rules (the same week the EU Court of Justice, with spectacularly ill-timing, fined Italy €7.5 million for aiding hotels in Sardinia).

But perhaps the most dramatic about-face came from the European Central Bank. After spooking markets last week by appearing to quash hopes of intervention, it announced a vast €750 billion stimulus package to ease the blow of the pandemic.

“Extraordinary times require extraordinary action. There are no limits to our commitment to the euro,” tweeted president Christine Lagarde.

Integration

If followed through on, such a commitment could prove to be a milestone in European integration.

If member states empower the commission to do so it could order medical supplies with the negotiating power of the whole EU.

It could have a central role in co-ordinating the return to normality if it can talk member states into dropping their borders. If.

“Everyone is firefighting at home. I think things done in the initial panic can be forgiven,” one official said. “What really matters is what comes next.”

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