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The EU prides itself on being a union not just of economic interests or political convenience, but of values as well. The Covid-19 pandemic has, however, demonstrated that those values do not include offering assistance to a fellow member state in need. When Italy appealed for medical supplies as infection rates began to soar in the country, not a single EU member state responded. Things are better now – supplies are reaching Italy. Still, when the Covid-19 crisis subsides, there is no doubt that the clamour will grow to transfer to the European Commission powers over health coordination, which only national governments now have. Without this, there will be a repeat of member states’ shameful lack of solidarity.
Lamentable Response to Italy’s Plight
When Italy logged its appeal with the Commission’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre at the beginning of the year, no other EU member states were seriously affected by the virus. Even so, none responded. Not then, not for some time thereafter, and not even after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen scolded the member states. Meanwhile, a Chinese aircraft beat the Europeans by delivering nine Chinese medical experts and 31 tonnes of equipment to Italy.
To make matters worse, in early March, Germany imposed export restrictions on German-made goods vital in the fight against Covid-19, such as protective clothing, face masks, surgical gloves and protective eyewear. From a German perspective, the restrictions made perfect sense: why should German or German-based companies sell their highly sought-after goods to the highest bidder when they were needed at home? Yet the result was, of course, more suffering in Italy. On 13 March, Italian media reported that Germany had ‘the intention’ of sending one million facemasks to Italy. This is the only Covid-19 assistance Italy has received from its fellow EU member states. In response to my previous coverage of these antics, a diplomat from an EU member state tweeted that ‘if only one place is burning, it's easy to send help. If everybody's house is on fire, it's not. We can be sad about this, but this is logical’. In other words, all this behaviour was supposedly perfectly understandable.
But EU Institutions Are Trying
With Covid-19 now spreading further in other EU member states as well, no amount of telling EU member states that their behaviour is shameful will cause them to change course. Had they responded swiftly to the Italian appeal, they might have helped Italy contain the outbreak – and thus helped limit their own countries’ exposure to the virus too.
Yet EU institutions have been valiantly fighting the virus on behalf of the Union. Not only did President von der Leyen proclaim that ‘we are all Italians’ and (albeit unsuccessfully) prod member states to send the country the needed supplies; in mid-March the Commission also invoked Article 107(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which allows the Commission to help the Italian government salvage economic damage caused by Covid-19, and will consider doing so for other member states severely affected by the coronavirus. The Commission has also allocated €1 billion in funding for coronavirus-affected SMEs and proposed ‘green lanes’ for efficient cargo transportation across the Union.
‘Italy welcomes the set of proposals presented by the European Commission’, Maurizio Massari, Italy’s permanent representative to the EU, told me earlier this week. ‘We think these are very important measures providing strong support to our citizens in this difficult phase, but they’re only a first set of measures and much more will be needed to counter the economic impact of the crisis that will be huge. We hope that all member states could now act in a coordinated way to contain the epidemic and provide support to families, jobs and business’.
The European Parliament’s Transport Committee, meanwhile, has addressed one of Covid-19’s other damaging and unexpected outcomes: the practice of airlines flying so-called 'ghost aircraft'. The Transport Committee has proposed suspending, until the end of the coronavirus crisis, the ‘use it or lose it’ regulation that is essentially forcing airlines to fly empty aircraft as they would otherwise lose their landing slots.
What EU citizens notice, however, is not the actions of Brussels bureaucrats on matters like fiscal support, but the much more tangible matter of whether other member states send their country assistance when it desperately needs it. And even though governments should clearly put their own citizens first, it is worth noting that some of the EU’s largest net beneficiaries – countries such as Poland and Hungary – also have low numbers of Covid-19 infections. Italy, in turn, is the EU’s third largest net contributor (the fourth largest if one counts the UK). Like many other Europeans, Italians were already losing trust in an institution which they used to enthusiastically support. A 2019 Eurobarometer survey showed that 19% of Italians have confidence in the EU, compared to an EU average of 27%.
Many a Brexiteer lament the allegedly massive power of euro-bureaucrats. When it comes to crises, however, ‘Brussels’ is rather less powerful. That reality, and member states’ (like most humans’) instinct to look after themselves at the expense of others, will cause the EU significant harm. The answer must be to remove the selfish element in crises: that is, to give the Commission more power to determine who can, and should, do what in a contingency situation.
Will EU member states like it? Certainly not. They will, however, appreciate it when crises occur in their own countries.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Dipartimento Protezione Civile/Wikimedia Commons.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.