The Union Versus the Nation: EU Cooperation in the Era of Pandemic

Written by | Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

Cooperation within the European Union and self-proclaimed unity of its member states looks different in an era of pandemic. Brussels is no longer sitting in the driver’s seat, as individualmember states are struggling to devise unilateral measures to stemthe spread of the coronavirus. While the EU is ‚in charge‘ of the internal market which allows for the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labor, it has now ceased to exist in its familiar form characterized by open borders. And if the borders were to be temporarily re-erected, this could only occur in strictly-defined emergency situation and such decision should always be made by a collective decision. However, with the rapid spread of the coronavirus and a lack of effective coordination at the EU level, some members have unilaterally reintroduced border controls.
Among them was also Austria, whose Chancellor Sebastian Kurz complained last week that when the situation gets serious, solidarity does not work in Europe. Although the respective Presidents of the European Council and European Commission recently urged the member states to work together to limit the spread of the virus and agree mutually on sealing of borders, this appeal came only after member states had already acted unilaterally and Brussels was merely trying to save the situation by playing catch-up. True, it is member states that are responsible for health policy while the Commission is ‚in charge‘ of the internal market, but the friction between these two policy areas became clear whenGermany and France earlier imposed restrictions on exports of protective masks to crisis-hit Italy so that they themselves would have enough.
In Italy, this attitude of the fellow EU member states was widely compared with the anti-coronavirus shipments and assistance from China that tries to rebrand itself internationally from source of the new coronavirus to a friendly helper. In a thinly weiled attempt to denounce the perceived lack of EU solidarity, Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s foreign minister, has recently noted that “we will remember those who were close to us in this difficult period.” To improve its profile, the European Commission has now decided to create a strategic “rescEU” stockpile of medical equipment such as ventilators and protective masks to help EU countries cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.Announcing the move, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed that ”with the first ever common European reserve of emergency medical equipment we put EU solidarity into action.”EU transport ministers together with the Commission have also agreed to work together to minimise traffic disruptions, especially for essential freight, due to a wide range of national measures aimed at containing the pandemic.

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