There are two viruses circulating in Europe right now, and both are deadly in their own way. The first is an actual disease, the novel coronavirus. It is killing Europe in that it is killing its citizens – over 65,000 deaths from COVID have been counted on the continent, overwhelming its healthcare systems, destroying jobs and livelihoods, shutting down social life. The second virus is a complication that has arisen from the first, and it is killing the idea of Europe: it is the lack of solidarity which continues to characterize the continent’s response to this pandemic. Of course, calling it a second virus is rhetoric – but the situation is serious. Angela Merkel has called the current crisis the worst challenge we have faced since World War 2 – and this on a continent that has, in the last decade alone faced economic recession, austerity, a migration crisis and political polarization and radicalization.
There is no more Schengen zone these days. A political project must survive with one of its vital organs disabled: open borders and the free circulation of goods, services, capital, and people represented the heart of Europe. This is not to say temporary border closures and restrictions on who can enter the EU are unwarranted or disproportionate: as measures taken to contain a deadly pandemic, they may be well-justified as such. But they also symbolize something: the manner in which many member-states of the EU pulled up the drawbridge first is the most visible manifestation of an instinct to return to national thinking at precisely the moment cooperation was most needed.
Of course, a government’s first and foremost duty is to protect its own citizens, the electorate from which it derives its democratic legitimacy and political authority. And of course, healthcare policy is determined by national governments, not the EU. But when it comes to the economic fallout – the companies likely to go bankrupt over the next few months, the people who will lose their jobs and livelihoods – solidarity is needed. For selfish reasons, too: the German economy will not recover if none of its neighbours do. Yet the last few weeks have seen the re-emergence of a north-south divide within the EU, rather than a recognition that in such hard times, all must be on the same page. Some southern nations, including Spain and Italy, pulled out an old proposal which had been rotting in the drawers for years: Eurobonds. The Netherlands, Germany and other northern European nations strongly opposed the idea of such an instrument which would see the EU countries share or pool their sovereign debts. Instead, they proposed reactivating some of the mechanisms created in the time of the Eurozone crisis – evoking bad memories in Europe’s south of bailouts paid for with painful austerity measures.
While there are real arguments for and against the pooling of debt within the Eurozone, impressions matter, too. And the impression created by this protracted back-and-forth, as well as the EU Commission’s delay in putting together a response to the dramatic situation in Spain and Italy, was that this Union was missing in action, and, worse, that some countries were unwilling to come to the help of their struggling neighbours. Last week saw an initial breakthrough, with the EU finance ministers agreeing to an aid package worth 500bn Euros, including funds from the crisis-era bailout fund ESM and the European Investment Bank. A majority supported Spain and Italy in keeping any conditions attached to loans to a minimum. The debate over Eurobonds was simply postponed. It is a very small step forward – more must follow, much more. And the EU institutions must be more present, more visible, in a crisis thus far dominated by the reactions of national governments.
The European idea has also suffered shipwreck in another respect these days: in its treatment of refugees (though perhaps this is a moot point – what can you expect of a Union that cannot even help its own?) On the Greek islands closest to Turkey, which for many migrants represent their first station in EU, 40,000 people are stuck in camps built to shelter less than 7,000. The conditions they live in are unsanitary, undignified – and unworthy of a union of nations supposedly bound together by their common commitment to human rights. After the chaotic and unmanaged influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants in 2015, the Union had half a decade to get its house in order, and accept that this issue requires a united response, a clear policy, and the sharing of burdens between member states. Instead, after signing a questionable deal that saw Turkey’s autocratic government become Europe’s gatekeeper, the EU leaders happily moved on rather than confronting this divisive but inevitable issue.
The Greek camps have been overcrowded for years – and yet attention was only drawn to this situation by Turkish President Erdogan’s recent stunt, sending thousands of refugees to the Greek border to pressure the EU to listen to his demands. Thousands of people, including families and children, have been languishing in horrific conditions for years, yet only now, with a global pandemic going on, do we talk about the health consequences of living in a camp where 1,300 people share a water point, 200 people a shower and 167 people a toilet.
Last month, eight member states and Switzerland promised to take in 1,600 unaccompanied minors from the islands. This was never enough – there are an estimated 5,200 unaccompanied minors on the islands, and many others will need to be moved as well if living conditions there are to be actually improved. But, amidst the coronavirus pandemic (very conveniently, cynics might note), even the repatriation of this small number of children has come to a grinding halt. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, that global superpower, has now managed to get things moving again with a promise to resettle eleven children in the next week. Germany committed to flying in up to five hundred children, 50 of them “as a matter of urgency”. Yes, Germany, as all its neighbours, is dealing with a public health emergency which understandably takes priority. But the federal government has managed to repatriate over 187,000 German citizens stuck abroad in the past few weeks, on over 170 specially chartered flights. Some 80,000 Eastern Europeans will be allowed to come to Germany in the next few weeks to work on Germany’s farms. So what, exactly, stands in the way of getting an additional few hundred unaccompanied minors out of a living hell?
Meanwhile, the number of rescue ships operating in the Mediterranean has been drastically reduced as some NGOs transferred their staff to help with the coronavirus outbreak on land. The ship “Alan Kurdi” had to wait at sea for days with 150 rescued migrants while the Italian, Maltese and German governments argued over who should take responsibility for them (they have now been transferred to an Italian ‘quarantine ship’, rather than being allowed to disembark, as the Mediterranean country declared its own ports ‘unsafe’ over the virus outbreak.) With an expected uptick in departures from Libya with better weather, an increasing death toll in the Mediterranean is likely as not enough resources are available to respond to migrant boats in distress.
These are European failures, they cannot be blamed on coronavirus. The situation on the Greek islands has been catastrophic for years. The only reason so many charities had their ships patrolling the Mediterranean before this crisis hit is because they were filling the gaps left by the utterly insufficient EU sea missions. The supposed choice between helping the most vulnerable people – be they on unseaworthy fishing boats off the Libyan coasts or living in the mud of Lesvos – and addressing coronavirus is false. EU states will inject their economies with hundreds of billions of euros in the coming months and years to soften the impact of this crisis. Neither saving lives in the Mediterranean nor airlifting a few thousand families out of Greece would cost anything near that amount. It is not a question of money or resources – it is a question of political will.
If the European Union wants to survive, solidarity must mean action, not just talk. The richer members must help the poorer, and all together must help the most vulnerable. United Europe stands, lives, rebuilds, gets through the crisis and eventually flourishes again. Divided, it crumbles, its values a hollow joke, its citizens easy prey for the nationalists and isolationists.