As an Italian living in Spain, bridging two of the countries where the elderly are dying in their highest numbers, I am slowly transitioning to a new normalcy of strictly-enforced home confinement, punctuated by home-schooling and visits to supermarkets with empty shelves.
I can’t help noticing that as of today, the Germans walk freely across their cities, whereas Italians and Spaniards can’t leave their homes. British kids (until Friday) are still going to school, while most of their European peers do not. Shops are open in Sweden but closed elsewhere.
How to make sense of these conflicting realities when we – all European citizens – are all equally affected by the virus? How do we assimilate when each European country and its people is contributing differently to the attainment of a shared aim: the containment of the disease in a border-free Europe.
As EU authorities struggle for any coordination at all, while still needing to pass fiscal and state-aid measures in support of the European economy, Germany has shut its borders. As a record number of citizens, including the most Eurosceptic, turn to the EU in search of emergency solutions, Brussels looks helpless.
But who’s really to blame for the current situation?
After all, this is the closest experience to war ever experienced by the vast majority of European citizens. If the temptation is to blame the European project itself, that would be a mistake. Despite mounting expectations, the truth is that the EU itself cannot do much about a health emergency.
The EU cannot close schools, suspend football matches or lock down European cities. It cannot even close borders to curb the spreading of the virus. Only its member countries can do that. That’s just what they did by introducing a ban on entry to the 26-state Schengen zone.
What the EU can do, however, is mitigate the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, which it has done by offering its countries flexibility over EU deficit rules and a €25 billion investment fund to counter COVID-19 across the continent.
And so, if you think that the EU is not doing enough, point the finger of blame at the European capitals and national political leaders who pretend not to know that our social, economic and political interconnectedness require EU-wide coordinated responses.
Despite the inherent limits of the Union, the EU 27 health ministers could – on a voluntary basis – decide to pool their sovereign emergency powers. They could start coordinating their health response, by taking a common line on testing, containment, quarantine and social distancing. While not compelled by the European Union, national leaders are increasingly expected to do so by a European public up in arms.
Instead, in the absence of a pan-EU approach to COVID-19, each country is enacting its own response, not only in terms of timing but also of the choice of the instruments and, ultimately, their overall containment strategy. These country-by-country restrictions already affect more than 200 million EU citizens. As time passes, many more will soon find themselves affected by this unprecedented compression of personal freedom in our liberal democracies.
While in normal times, it might be a positive development to have different responses tested by EU governments under the logic of experimental federalism, in a situation of emergency, this fragmented approach might quickly reveal itself to be self-defeating.
Indeed, the coexistence of these starkly divergent and often contradictory approaches to COVID-19 on the same continent is already producing some major, unintended and costly consequences.
The most tangible one is the reintroduction of border control measures among the 26 EU Schengen countries. This is perceived as required insofar as different restrictive measures are motivating citizens to move across borders, and potentially countering the sought health effects. Millions are fretting to do so as more restrictions are announced. Although border restrictions do not entail any major health gain but rather slow the free movement of workers and goods needed in an emergency, they are a response to the inability of Union’s member states to devise a coordinated action plan preventing those cross-border movements from happening.
By bringing the border-free Schengen area to a standstill, they put the lives of millions of mobile Europeans citizens under additional, severe constraints. What about a Hungarian citizen living in Germany who intends to visit her elderly family back home? She will not only be automatically quarantined while entering her country of origin, but also prevented from going back to Germany.
One of the most extraordinary achievements of the Union is suddenly questioned due to the reluctance of its member states to coordinate in an emergency situation. After two decades of virtually unconditional border-free movement, millions of us are currently feeling estrangement and loss.
There’s reason to believe that should a EU-wide coordinated response be organised, not only would border restrictions be avoided (as they would no longer be justified) but the choice of the containment interventions would benefit from a greater variety of advice, perspectives and a wider public debate.
As a point of reference, let’s take the regions of EU member states, not exclusively their unitary territories. Let’s consider these regions as they stretch across European state borders. Measures designed at such a scale would also be more tailored, proportionate to their declared goals, and potentially more freedom-preserving. As such, the health effectiveness, as well as legitimacy of the current (often draconian) national risk interventions would be enhanced.
Ultimately, the European handling of COVID-19 has unveiled an uncomfortable truth. Given the unprecedented level of socio-economic interconnectedness existing on our continent, nation-state solutions could do more harm than good by offering a mere illusion of security and safety for its people.
As each national approach against COVID-19 entails different trade-offs, and those spill over to other countries, there is a moral — albeit not yet legal — argument for our national leaders to coordinate their public health interventions as a matter of urgency.
As more and more European citizens move to imposed or self-imposed home confinement, the imperative for national leaders to think, act and protect Europeans, regardless of whether they count among their voters or not, is set to grow more urgent than ever.
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