A crisis in development…
Since February 2020, the number of COVID-19 cases has risen exponentially throughout the majority of the European Union Member States. Currently, Italy and Spain are the two most affected countries with more than 120 000 confirmed cases, while the death toll has passed 11 000 for both States, as of April 5.
Nonetheless, besides the medical threat that has put millions into lockdowns, all over the continent, the European Union officials are facing an ongoing solidarity crisis. Notwithstanding the significant financial aid redirected from the EU budget to counter the economic fallout posed by the pandemic, in several countries, especially in Italy, the local media claim that the EU has failed to provide an adequate unified response. For example, while the Russian and Chinese dispatches of medical aid to Italy we’re saluted by the government, in an “Il Sole 24 Ore” interview, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte asked “the EU not to make tragic mistakes in its management of the coronavirus crisis, warning that if it does, the whole EU project will lose its raison d’être”.
Notwithstanding this remark, the image of the Union as an anemic actor amid the pandemic originated mostly from the lack of diffusion of EU action and from a significant representation over the external actors’ contributions rather than on the existent EU efforts. Before elaborating on the reasons of this assumption, the author of this article acknowledges that the Union’s subsidiarity principle has suffered in this crisis from the lack of rapid coordinated effort due to the prevalence of domestic interests, as seen during the teleconference of EU leaders or during the debate over a common debt instrument. Further, when elaborating an opinion over the existence of an ongoing solidarity crisis, several premises require consideration.
Communication. Communication. Communication.
First, there is a lack of proficient communication from the European Union institutions concerning their ongoing humanitarian operations. Due to the lack of communication channels that could inform the majority of the Member States’ populations (as there is no European media channel besides the governmental channels), the European Union lacks an equivalent to the state-run media. Moreover, the blunders performed by several EU officials, as in the case of the “corona bonds”, further aggravate the situation and serve as talking points for Eurosceptics. Therefore, significant attention must be offered to the officials’ provided statements, to avoid further alienation of in-trouble states, as in the case of the Netherlands authorities’ actions and comments that caused the indignation of high officials in Portugal, Spain, and Italy.
Yes, they do provide aid!
Second, stating the obvious, the European Union institutions have been providing diverse mechanisms and procedures to cope financially with the COVID-19 outbreak. Last week, the European Parliament approved an economic aid package worth €37 billion that includes additional funds to the redistribution of EU money under the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative. In addition to this development, the European Central Bank has also announced a giant €750 billion effort to restart the European economy, which has been paralyzed by lockdown measures. These regional efforts are supported further by the cases of bilateral solidarity between the EU Member States, as seen in the relocation of patients from over-crowded Italian hospitals to Germany and France, as well as in the millions of masks, protective gear and tests sent to in-need regions.
Moreover, the European Union has both received and provided help to its neighborhood. With regard to the Eastern Partnership initiative, the European Union has “reallocated €140 million for the most immediate needs in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova, and Ukraine”. Besides this, Serbia received a €93-million-aid package, consisting of medical equipment, fully funded by the EU. In its Southern vicinity, to support further the vulnerable Syrian refugees, the EU announced a €240 million-aid package to help vulnerable persons in Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. On the opposite end, a team of 30 Albanian doctors and nurses flew on March 28 to Italy, in order to assist their Italian counterparts in the containment of the crisis.
A “useless” (external) relief?
Finally yet importantly, recently, the European Union states have received medical aid from countries outside the Union’s borders. Nonetheless, although the aid provided by China and Russia has brought short-term relief on the Member States’ medical systems, several recent reports bring questions over the aid’s practicality. The Italian “La Stampa”, citing high-level political actors, has revealed that 80 % of the coronavirus supplies sent by Russia were “useless”. The authors of the article argued that the main goal behind the humanitarian aid was to ensure a positive image for President Putin, amid PM Conte’s desire to secure “a good personal relationship”. On their behalf, the Russian spokesman of the Ministry of Defence, Major General Igor Konashenkov, issued a furious dismissal of the claim, recommending the Russophobia media of La Stampa to learn the following “ancient wisdom – Qui fodit foveam, incidet in eam (He that diggeth a pit, shall fall into it).” The official added the following quote, “to make it clearer: Bad penny always comes back.”
Further to the Russian aid allegations, the Chinese “Shenzhen Bioeasy Biotechnology” testing kits, provided to the Czech Republic and Spain to ensure testing capacity, were discovered to be of faulty use in up to 80 % of the cases. This led to the situation in which the Spanish Society of Infectious Diseases and Clinical Microbiology advised the government against the use of these tests and for the return of the remaining kits. To these allegations, the Chinese Embassy in Madrid issued a statement in which they maintained that the Chinese company did not have an official license from the Chinese Government to sell their products. Moreover, the Netherlands decided to retract almost 600 000 faulty FFP2 respirators and 700 000 masks already distributed to local hospitals that originated from another Chinese manufacturer.
Instead of conclusions…
The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has brought to light the contradictions between the European Union leaders on the measures required to limit the consequences of the outbreak. These discrepancies further deteriorate the chance to provide a rapid response and bring concern over the Member States’ ability to respond to the crisis in a joint act of solidarity. However, this should not diminish the fact that the European Union and its’ Member States are providing significant financial and humanitarian efforts to address the damage caused by the emergency, both at home and in its close vicinity. Further, while addressing the cases of medical support from external counterparts, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell reminded the public that “a geo-political component including a struggle for influence through spinning and the politics of generosity” was present within the external relief.
To provide an adequate response to this struggle, the European Union must raise its efforts to this solidarity challenge and demonstrate its relevance as an international actor with concrete measures. In this generation’s “turning point”, let us remember the words of Jean Monnet: “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.”
The author of this article is Emil Burinschi, B.A. student in International Relations at the Corvinus University of Budapest. Born in the Republic of Moldova, Emil is a Middle Manager within the International Diplomatic Student Association (IDSA.) He is also part of the organizing team at Munapest 2020.