The EU stared failure in the face – but survived

2020 in review: In March, some of the EU’s most treasured achievements began to unravel

This was the year that the European Union stared down the prospect of disaster.

Leaders were slow to react to the Covid-19 pandemic across the Western world, and the EU was no different. In the initial weeks when the first deaths began to be registered in Italy, it was nakedly clear that the situation was worsening at a faster rate than the institutional ability to react.

The powers of the European Commission are tightly circumscribed, and exclusively national areas of rule are jealously guarded by member states. Health and borders are strictly national concerns. This trapped the EU institutions awkwardly between expectations that they should act, and structural limits on what they could do.

Friday, March 13th, was the day it all began to fall apart. Slovakia, Malta and the Czech Republic abruptly closed their borders to outsiders. It was the start of a cascade of border closures between member states across Europe that, over the course of a weekend, unpicked some of the EU's most treasured achievements.

It was uncoordinated. The capitals weren’t speaking to each other. EU citizens found themselves stranded, barred from entry into member states they needed to pass through to get home. Truck routes snarled up. The Baltic states had to send ships to rescue their people stranded on the border of Germany and Poland.

Ugly scramble

There was an ugly scramble for medical supplies. When Italy appealed for help, China responded before its fellow EU member states, a propaganda coup for Beijing that stoked profound bitterness in Italy – a core but sometimes fragile member state that Brussels feared could even turn against EU membership itself.

This was the EU looking failure in the face: the crumbling of its treasured freedom of movement, the breakdown of solidarity, and the potential for spiralling economic damage if supply chains were blocked.

Yet the experience forged a steely determination to pull together and confront the crisis.

The commission quickly did what it had the power to do, easing strictures on member state borrowing and spending limits and releasing whatever funds it had on hand into addressing the crisis.

The EU institutions worked to facilitate video conferencing and insisted that national governments make time to co-operate. EU ambassadors remained in Brussels, continuing to meet in person throughout the worst of the pandemic, even as the city became one of the world’s hardest hit.

It wasn’t easy. When trying to co-ordinate pandemic policy, not only did national governments disagree, but different ministries within member states quarrelled too, pitting finance against health against justice. “The technical term is a s**tshow,” one official remarked, memorably.

A focus on boosting tourism for economic reasons during the summer looked foolish once an autumn surge took hold, and despite all efforts the member states never managed to harmonise their testing and quarantine rules, making for a patchwork across the bloc.

But the effort produced some landmark victories. The commission’s strategy to shovel money to pharmaceutical companies to speed up the development of vaccines while pre-booking early doses was a gamble that now appears farsighted.

Five days of all-nighter negotiations between national leaders in July produced a milestone recovery package based on something previously unthinkable: joint borrowing. It was a statement of unity that was in itself an economic stabiliser, and was made possible only by the emergency circumstances of the pandemic – and, it was whispered, the fact that Britain had left the bloc six months earlier.

The issue of talks with Britain was sidelined from the EU’s main agenda for much of the year due to fatigue and more pressing priorities. A deal would be a relief, particularly to the countries closest to Britain. But it would be unlikely to be celebrated as a triumph.

Distant relationship

The entire saga has from the start been viewed around the continent as an unnecessary, unwelcome, and destructive timesuck inflicted by poor choices in Westminster. The ascendance of hardline Eurosceptics in the British government has steadily eroded good relations and ensured a far more distant relationship between the two than much of the EU initially hoped.

What may perhaps prove most significant of all in the long term is that the pandemic did not push the EU’s ambitions to curb disastrous levels of climate change off the agenda, as initially feared.

On the contrary, the so-called “Green Deal” was cannily wrapped by the Von der Leyen Commission into the proposals for the recovery package. The grants and funds that will become available to member states next year and are hoped to fuel economic recovery will be tied to requirements to spend them on greening and digitalising national economies. This was topped by a joint agreement to tighten targets to cut emissions 55 per cent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, another previously unthinkable development.

There is one significant sour note. A last-minute blockade of the EU budget and recovery fund by Hungary and Poland was resolved with a fudge that avoided a definitive showdown between the bloc’s burgeoning autocrats in the east, and member states who insist anti-democratic practices have no place in Europe.

Each side claimed victory: how it will play out is unclear. As with the plans to tackle climate change, everything depends on implementation.

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