The dramatic outbreak of the novel coronavirus in northern Italy has forced European leaders to sharpen their thinking, as they attempt to contain a disease that has so far killed more than 2,800 people.
Europe is prepared for handling outbreaks like this. The European Union has no formal role in setting health policy among its member states, however it does issue advice and coordinate efforts to prevent the spread of disease. That coordination is especially important when you consider that while many European nations share open borders, their governments do not trust and are not inclined to work with one another. The EU has been able to provide a forum and fill gaps in information where this has been the case. And for now, it appears to be working.
No matter how well Europe is handling this current crisis, the outbreak is unintentionally fanning the flames of several live debates.
A virus that originated in China and spread to two of Italy’s most active economic areas, home to Milan and Venice, creates a perfect storm. It tangentially touches on many of the EU’s current priorities and has the potential to affect them negatively both in the short and long term.
First, there is the perennial question of how effective the bureaucratic body in charge of the bloc is at dealing with continent-wide challenges. In terms of health, the EU can only really act as an advisory body, as healthcare ultimately falls to national governments.
“While the EU does a good job of spreading knowledge and calming down public opinion, it has no real powers and member states can go off in their own direction,” says Andrea Renda, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies. He goes on to explain that what the EU needs is “coordination and trust.”
The coronavirus outbreak has also exposed the ever-shaky levels of trust between EU member states. “There’s a meaningful lack of trust,” says Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group. “There is a feeling in Italy that the numbers are high because the government has been aggressive in its policy response. There is also a feeling that other member states have lower numbers because they haven’t been aggressive.” Italy has tested more potential coronavirus patients than some other EU countries.
In EU politics, trust matters. Smaller, poorer member states often argue that wealthier counterparts have greater influence in setting Europe’s agenda. They say that has previously meant Greece having austerity measures imposed on it in exchange for financial bailouts or Malta being forced to take refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East.
In areas like these, smaller states often feel as though they are negotiating with a gun against their head. This creates a problem for the EU when it needs these states to agree on larger, longer-term policy objectives that require agreement across the union.
Which brings us to the next issue of what role the EU should be playing in an increasingly complicated, multi-polar world. The bloc is smarting from the near-total collapse of the Iran nuclear deal, which it previously hailed as a prime example of how it could exert its soft power to create a forum for real global change.
The European Commission, under its new President Ursula von der Leyen, is attempting to increase the EU’s geopolitical footprint.
This outbreak has given the EU an opportunity to lay down a marker as a global leader. On Monday, the Commission announced $252 million in funding to prevent the spread.
While this is no small sum, it does raise questions as to how much of a global leader anyone can be on this issue. “On the leadership side I think it’s more about having bodies that can enable coordination rather than one nation or body being a leader,” says Adam Kucharski, associate professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Collaboration like in the UK and France is essential.”
This might explain why, of that $252M, over $130M will be spent outside the EU – which could cause some to ask why the EU is trying to place itself at the center of this crisis. “As ever, the EU has two faces. On one side, it is the global leader that goes to Africa and China and drops money on the problem. On the other, it’s an incomplete project that has little control over member states,” says Renda.
EU observers have noted that the money being sent to China comes in the same year that outgoing German leader Angela Merkel will host an EU-China summit in September. That event in Leipzig is Merkel’s attempt to have the EU arrive at a common agreement on how best to engage with China.
In a nutshell, the EU is desperately trying to find a way of balancing its relationship between China and the US, so as to not rely too heavily on either and avoid being squashed between them. It’s a particularly difficult strategy to pull off at a time when the EU is being forced to treat China as both an attractive economic prospect and a security risk. The Trump administration is leveraging this security concern, implying that allowing China to build large parts of Europe’s 5G network could affect Europe’s relationship with the most powerful country on earth.
“The handling of the outbreak might seriously affect European levels of trust in China and might make the EU think it safer to stick with Western countries. This trust issue might affect how willing EU nations are to work with China on 5G,” explains Renda.
And it’s here that we come back to the levels of trust and agreement among member states and how it might affect longer-term EU thinking. “It was already going to be hard to find a common EU consensus on China,” says Rahman. “One of the reasons Merkel wants to stay on as leader through the summit is that she wants to build a consensus across Europe on China and sees this as a pre-requisite for a successful summit. But this will make that a tad harder.”
Trust, division and a lack of consensus are not new issues among EU member states. But, right now, they could provide the perfect fuel for many of the pending explosions waiting to erupt over the continent.
Take, for example, the fact that this outbreak took place in Italy. The coalition government in Rome recently collapsed and the country is expecting an election in the near future. There is a very real chance that this will result in the election of the Euroskeptic populist, Matteo Salvini.
The outbreak has provided nationalists with more loose threads to pull on than you’d immediately realize. Why continue to have open borders? Why is the EU sending money to Africa and China? However, the one that Salvini could cause the most trouble with is asking why Italy is being heavily encouraged to reduce its deficit by 0.6% this year?
Italy’s economy (the third-largest in the EU) is an ongoing concern for Brussels, as the consequences of an Italian recession could be worse for the bloc than even the Greek financial crisis. However, Salvini might argue that these targets, already arbitrary, are impossible to achieve when two of its tourist hotspots are not operating properly and the government is having to spend to contain the crisis. This, Rahman says, “is again reigniting the debate over the suitability of the EU’s fiscal rules and the flexibility it allows members like Italy.”
While this may all sound technical, an Italian financial crisis would have real consequences for people not just in the EU’s economic bloc, but would ring alarm bells around the globe.
And in times of financial uncertainty, populists are often free to run amok. “Most people accept that there’s a good chance Salvini will at some point be PM,” says Rahman. “Whether he is able to use the outbreak to bash Brussels, Berlin and exacerbate north-south tensions, is a question being asked in Brussels and the EU’s institutions.”
So, while Europe might be handling the coronavirus outbreak reasonably well, everything that happens on the continent these days happens against the backdrop of an increasingly bizarre political situation. Months from now we might have put this epidemic to the back of our minds, but in European politics, memories are long and battles are fought over years, not months.