COVID-19: EU undergoes hard times to test its unity

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SYED QAMAR AFZAL RIZVI
UNDENIABLY, today, the EU faces its biggest challenge since it was created in the wake of World War II, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters recently after returning from a 12-day quarantine. “Everyone has been hit equally by this and it must be in the interest of everyone and of Germany that Europe emerges stronger from this test,” she said. The crucial and emerging fissure between this crisis and the financial meltdown that started in Greece in late 2009 is that the effects of the pandemic, with people still dying in their thousands, are indiscriminate and unquantifiable. Brussels seems alarmed that the EU was falling back on old solutions — and prejudices — that are simply not relevant at this time. Jacques Delors, the former European Commission President who richly helped build the modern EU, has warned that lack of solidarity posed “a mortal danger to the European Union”. As France has bluntly warned that it is facing the deepest recession since World War II, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has also called for European nations to work together to rebuild from the deadly pandemic gripping the continent. Japan announced an imminent state of emergency and a trillion-dollar stimulus package, while the United States prepared to cross the 20,000 deaths’ mark and its top doctor compared the likely impact of the outbreak in the coming future very horrific. Being already hemmed in by the chaos and vows faced by the Brexit and internal discord, the EU, now faces the worst nature of the historical crisis via COVID-19 pandemic, as grand boulevards and great cathedrals stand empty and scarce hospital beds inexorably fill, those same leaders wonder whether the Coronavirus will move towards a sharp nationalist wedge between members of the 27-nation bloc. As the infection spreads, more than a dozen European countries, together with the bloc as a whole, have imposed travel restrictions and border checks, acting like medieval city-states. If there is one European body that has consistently demonstrated its lack of fitness for managing economic crises, it is none but the Eurogroup of Eurozone Finance Ministers. Though in the past European Union has weathered the storms of eurozone bailouts, the migration crisis and Brexit, yet some fear Coronavirus could be even more destructive. “There is no international benchmark on the matter,” said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. The small Alpine nation this week became the EU’s first to schedule a gradual loosening of confinement restrictions from next week. Denmark and Norway have followed suit, while Greece, Portugal and Slovenia have raised the possibility of easing restrictions even as the World Health Organization warned not to. “Now is not the time to relax measures,” WHO Regional Director for Europe, Hans Kluge, said Wednesday. A more probable scenario is that the COVID-19 shock will test the resilience of public-health systems, labour relations and formal and informal solidarity mechanisms across the EU. And if the pandemic is not confronted with an aggressive and timely policy response, its effects are likely to be long-lasting, especially if amplification mechanisms are activated. Despite some heroic announcements —heralding impressive numbers that disguise the irrelevance and short-sightedness, there appear clear fissures in the European unity. Currently, after crucial discussion in Brussels, the EU Finance Ministers have agreed on a €500bn (£430bn; $540bn) rescue package for European countries hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Yet seen from the macro-economic perspective, this amount could be shouldered well, but it seems unrealistic to finance these investments solely by redeploying funds in existing budgets. It is because of this reason, the debt rules in the Germen Constitution should be extended to include a golden rule allowing borrowing to the extent of net investment. Until such a rule is implemented, room for manoeuvre must be used, for example, through extra-budgetary entities. At the same time, it is also important to provide sustainable debt relief for municipalities. The Chairman of the Eurogroup, Mário Centeno, announced the deal. While viewing the ongoing tension between centralising power in “Brussels” vs keeping decision-making with national governments/parliaments. Ursula von der Leyen, President of European Commission said, ‘’We need an intelligent strategy that at the same time protects the health of our citizens and keeps our economy afloat and our goods and crossborder workers moving’’. Jacques Delors, the former European Commission President who helped build the modern EU, has come out with his prompt prognostication that presently a lack of solidarity posed “a mortal danger to the European Union”. “There are obvious links to the lack of solidarity with the Eurozone crisis era of austerity and the handling of the migration crisis,” said Janis Emmanouilidis, a senior analyst at the Brussels-based think tank European Policy Centre. “People now are also asking, ‘What do we have the European Union for?’” But fortunately, there are some growing signs of inter-governmental cooperation between the EU states as manifested and demonstrated in Europe, where France and Austria have been sending more than three million masks to Italy, and where Germany is also taking in and treating patients from France and Italy. After the first phase of diverging national decisions, the policymakers are now entering a phase of convergence in which the EU takes centre stage. “You cannot fight a fire blindfolded,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s Director-General. “And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected.” What today Europe needs is foolproof testing of the Coronavirus. For its part, the European Union is stepping up with decisions to facilitate joint procurement of vital medical equipment; a joint economic stimulus and coordinated consular efforts to repatriate stranded EU citizens. Consequent upon following a virtual meeting of the European Council, EU heads of state have had agreed to intensify their joint efforts, not least by developing a European crisis-management system and a shared strategy to manage the Coronavirus. Although the ongoing crisis in the EU vis-à-vis the COVID-19 is manifold, given the past record that the Bloc has survived through the crisis, the optimists anticipate that the EU may survive through the current crisis. —The writer, an independent ‘IR’ researcher-cum-analyst based in Pakistan, is member of European Consortium for Political Research Standing Group on IR, Critical Peace & Conflict Studies, also a member of Washington Foreign Law Society and European Society of International Law.

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