Coronavirus pandemic is a make or break moment for the EU

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“Europe will be forged in crises, and she will be the sum of the solutions brought forth to solve them”, said Jean Monnet, the EU’s founding father. On that view, the bloc will be shaped for many years to come by what is arguably the worst crisis since its creation.

EU institutions are in a bind. In the policy areas most relevant to address the coronavirus pandemic — healthcare, border control and fiscal policy — the member states have been unwilling to cede sovereignty. And yet it is all too easy for national politicians to blame the EU for not doing enough to help.

“The EU’s hands are pretty much tied in the area of public health”, says Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in Brussels.

The same could be said for the Schengen area, Europe’s free travel zone. While there are rules for how member states can reimpose border checks, the reality is that nations have border guards and the EU does not. As for fiscal policy, the continuing deliberations over whether to backstop some national borrowing highlights that the power of the purse still resides with national governments.

“We can all agree that the EU has not been bold to respond, and ineffective in leveraging even the few competencies that it does have” in these areas, says Kalypso Nikolaïdis, professor of international relations at Oxford university.

The one exception is the European Central Bank. After an early mis-step by its president Christine Lagarde, who dismissed concerns about diverging sovereign borrowing costs, “the ECB has stepped in, with its new version of ‘whatever it takes’ ” argues Ms Nikolaïdis, in a reference to the famous intervention by Mario Draghi, Ms Lagarde’s predecessor, to stop speculation on a euro break-up.

Even in the other areas, however, the EU institutions have certain soft powers to co-ordinate, convene and set the agenda.

These are important powers, as they can be used to encourage states to exercise their national authority in a joined-up manner. “It would have been worth trying an approach to pre-empt unilateralism by allowing co-ordinated exceptions to the rules”, Ms Nikolaïdis, says.

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Instead, with each state deciding to impose border controls in an uncoordinated way, “they created more problems than they solved”, says Ms Gostyńska-Jakubowska, citing long border queues increasing infection risk and making it harder for countries to repatriate their citizens. She adds that “an uncoordinated approach puts the whole single market in danger”.

Still, it is not a given that this will affect attitudes to the EU negatively in the future. For Ms Nikolaïdis, “it will really be a function of how co-operation will be seen to have played out . . . how the story is told in different places”. If the EU communicates what it can and cannot do well, says Ms Gostyńska-Jakubowska, “the public will soon realise that no member state can deal with a pandemic this size of its own”.

There are signs that the EU is upping its game. “The EU has made quite a few mistakes but it’s stepping up and learning pretty fast from the mistakes it has made,” Ms Gostyńska-Jakubowska believes. For example, “the EU cannot tell countries how to organise their health systems, but it can co-ordinate purchases of medical equipment and has started to do so”.

And there are more opportunities for improvement. Ms Nikolaïdis hopes the coronavirus crisis “could put the whole saga of the [EU’s negotiations of its 7-year budget] in a different light”, with a growing realisation that Europeans face common risks.

Ms Gostyńska-Jakubowska thinks discussions around a common “coronabond” could be a “make or break moment” for trust within the eurozone. She also argues that “a fundamental role will be played again by the president of the European Council . . . when member states at some point decide to relax border checks. We have to think about an exit strategy. Uncoordinated action again could bring us back to square one”.

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