COVID-19 — a make-it or break-it moment for the European Union

COVID-19 — a make-it or break-it moment for the European Union
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Shortly after World War II, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman came up with a plan: In order to prevent further wars on the European continent and achieve peaceful coexistence of the European nation states, he recommended to build a European community based on mutual solidarity. Fully aware of this being a long-term task, he proclaimed in 1951: “Europe will not be made all at once. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”

One might assume that 70 years and eight treaties later — including the Treaty of Rome establishing a European Economic Community and the Treaty of Maastricht founding a common European parliament — Schuman’s dream would be fulfilled. 

Europe presents itself as a strong, social community. But how much is this sense of community worth when it regresses into a collection of egoists as soon as it is challenged by global problems, like an economic recession or migrants asking for asylum in this community.

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The last month taught us that COVID-19 is a global problem — a crisis seeking global, post-national solutions. The European Union (EU), a community of 27 states, built on solidarity, is (supposed to be) the flagship of the post-national era. It seems to be predestined to cope well with major and global crises. After being challenged in 2010 by the economic breakdown of Greece and in 2014 by the high influx of refugees mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, one might think that the EU would be well-equipped for another global crisis; that it would have a blueprint ready containing a common strategy for how to fight a world-wide pandemic, together and in solidarity.

But the opposite seems to be true. The German chancellor Angela Merkel is preparing her people for an infection rate of 60 to 80 percent. She emphasized the situation is serious and asked her people to stay calm and remain in their homes. Her French counterpart Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronThe US is missing an opportunity in Lebanon Russia's aggression can and should cost Putin dearly Stationing US troops in Poland is a bad idea MORE employed all his pathos in a speech about “our new heroes, the doctors and nurses fighting for French lives.” He declared, “We are at war”. Victor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, flexed his populist, right-wing muscles, firmly trained during the refugee crisis. He closed his borders and is using the spread of the coronavirus to win the vote to rule by decree, muting critical journalists who dare challenge his health care system.

Missing in the cacophony of parental admonitions, pompous speeches and populist deemphasizing is a clear and loud pan-European voice asserting solidarity within the community — a voice like that of Robert Schuman. His “Schuman Declaration” is the foundation of the European Union, proclaiming the rule of three principles in Europe: reconciliation, peace and solidarity. These are the three pillars on which the EU is supposed to be built on; this is what it is supposed to stand for. It is also what the EU will be tested on — especially in days of crisis such as these. 

In 2020, this would mean offering 26 helping hands to Italy, to send doctors and to receive patients, to exchange research results and to deliver protective gear. It would mean to create and operate a common European health care system, together and without borders. It should mean to bundle all knowledge, to stand and fight together in solidarity beyond national borders.

Instead, we are experiencing a comeback of the nation state. Borders are closing. Not only Europeans, but European member states are quarantining themselves. Europeans are becoming foreigners in Europe. Suddenly China feels closer than Germany or France. Serbia and Italy both already reached out for Chinese help as their European neighbors left their plea for help unanswered. 

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At the end of the day we have to realize: COVID-19 is a product of its time, globalized, leaping between species and societies. The virus does not stop at borders, it needs neither passports or visas in order to travel. We are truly entering uncharted territory.

The COVID-19 pandemic can indeed be compared to World War II — not in terms of destruction but in terms of social and economic consequences. For Europe, this is the chance to rise and be the union it was meant to be. Europe needs to show real solidarity and to prove that the Union is a sustainable and necessary concept for the future. It needs brave and compassionate visionaries. It needs a Europe of the people and for the people. If the EU fails this stress test, it will make itself very dispensable indeed. 

Katharina Konarek is a political scientist working on European and German foreign policy, currently teaching and researching at the Haifa Center for German and European Studies (HCGES) at the University of Haifa.