“The outbreak of COVID-19 in Europe has brought numerous political lessons. The first and most important of these is clearly that the European Union’s institutions were visibly at a loss as how to handle this unprecedented challenge. The situation bears many similarities to the migration crisis of 2015. The EU has shown its weakness; only nation states are capable of tackling such unexpected predicaments. The measures implemented by member states were well-received, and indeed explicitly supported by their citizens.”
The outbreak of COVID-19 in Europe has brought numerous political lessons. The first and most important of these is clearly that the European Union’s institutions were visibly at a loss as how to handle this unprecedented challenge. The situation bears many similarities to the migration crisis of 2015. The EU has shown its weakness; only nation states are capable of tackling such unexpected predicaments. The measures implemented by member states were well-received, and indeed explicitly supported by their citizens. The political learnings of the coronavirus pandemic represent another important argument in favour of a Europe of nation states as opposed to the federalists’ concept of centralisation. Once the pandemic is over, it will be well worth reopening the debate on the future of the EU.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that in moments of crisis it is the member states that are capable of acting the most effectively. This was also the case when the migration crisis broke. The EU’s institutional system regrettably fell at the first post. Perhaps the most telling, and also the saddest example of this was the statement issued before the outbreak in Europe by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), to the effect that the viral epidemic in China did not pose a serious threat to the members of the European Union.1 Following the rapid emergence and spread of the disease, the EU institutions were unable to respond effectively and provide the member states with assistance in managing the crisis. The institutions were to all intents and purposes paralysed; even the most senior European officials did nothing more than draw attention to the importance of hygiene.2 The next steps, although important, were only of an economic nature, relating to the reallocation and broadening of the scope for the utilisation of funds that were already available.3
And what could better illustrate this failure than the resignation of the president of the European Research Council, Mauro Ferrari, in response to the passivity displayed by the EU institutions during the pandemic. He gave the following explanation for his resignation: “I have been extremely disappointed by the European response to COVID-19. […] I have lost my faith in the system. I have seen enough of both the governance of science, and the political operations at the European Union.”4 The failings related to the handling of the epidemic were also acknowledged by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.5
It soon became clear, therefore, that it was member states that were able to tackle the outbreak. The fact that member states are actively managing the epidemic naturally does not mean that in this situation there is no need for the EU or that there is no point to its existence. Claims that European unity has totally disintegrated, and that everyone has turned against everyone else, do not hold water either. This is a very extreme interpretation of events.
By the same token, it is also extreme to assert that the present situation has shown that only action at European, rather than member-state level works and thus integration will need to be deepened following the pandemic and crisis. The limitations of this thinking are highlighted by the slow and inadequate actions of the European Union’s institutions, as described above. One proposition that is raised almost automatically, on the other hand, is that the existing institutions are not enough, so larger institutions are needed, as Scott L. Greer wrote in The New York Times, for example.6 However, this begs the question of why more powers, more money and more staff should be given to a system that was clearly unable to meet the challenges in its present state. After all, the function of the institutions in the present situation is to forecast and coordinate.7 They have failed miserably at the former and not exactly excelled at the latter, either.
Here, a critical reader might argue that healthcare systems come under the authority of member states, so the EU has no real contribution to make in this situation. While it is true that healthcare is the responsibility of member states, the EU institutions could still have contributed to the better management of the situation; for example, by trying to coordinate the vaccine research under way in each country, by building an up-to-date and widely usable information database (at the moment the WHO is best placed to provide this) and by mobilising all the tools and structures at its disposal to serve the member states. However, this supporting role clearly no longer sits well – the communication of the past 5–10 years has emboldened the institutions to adopt a “mindset” of standing above the member states, and this has also led to their alienation from member states.
After the migration crisis, the coronavirus outbreak poses yet another challenge for a Europe without internal borders. Because, looking around, we can now see a growing number of closed borders:8 in some places to curb illegal and irregular migration, and in others to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. This is unsatisfactory of course, but these are extraordinary circumstances. We can be sure that not a single member state was keen to make these closures, and their economic impact is also unequivocally negative. However, security and the protection of human life have taken precedence over economic interests. Nobody is happy that countries have had to resort to such steps, but local and European public-opinion surveys show that the population understands precisely why and how much they are needed, and that they wholeheartedly support the measures. In this situation, therefore, there is a good chance that the crisis will strengthen European cooperation — but not through a shift towards centralisation that so many people see as a good thing; because it has now been proven that this type of structure is incapable of managing a crisis of this nature. Instead it may strengthen endeavours to build a Europe of nation states, not the unification efforts.
MEMBER STATES PLAY THE LEADING ROLE AGAIN
One of the main political lessons of the crisis, therefore, is that European voters have far more trust in the actions of member states. This is clearly illustrated by a survey of German voters, who otherwise have a positive attitude towards the EU. In reply to the question of which tier of politics plays the most important role in the defence against the coronavirus, more than two thirds of Germans (71 per cent) named federal or provincial state actors, and only 12 per cent of respondents the European Union.9 Another public-opinion survey revealed what Italians think of the situation that has emerged: 88 per cent of respondents took the view that the EU has not done enough to help Italy in its time of dire need.10
Another important political lesson worth highlighting is that voters tend to trust their elected leaders if they visibly have a clear crisis management strategy. This is reflected both in the level of support for the government, and in the degree of acceptance of the implemented measures. The opinion polls conducted in late March and early April lead us to conclude that the more assertively a government acts, the greater support it enjoys. An example of this is Austria. At the same time, crisis management measures that do not break with convention can also garner considerable approval if carried out consistently — this is what we witnessed in Germany. Interestingly, citizens are even capable of supporting a somewhat lopsided approach — take Sweden, for example.
Austria introduced measures that departed from the norm in several respects. The enactment of emergency laws is far from typical in the Austrian legal system, but the Bundesrat nevertheless approved such rules in light of the exceptional circumstances.11 However, the Covid-19 Act itself, which provided the most important framework for protection, was caught in the crossfire of a legal dispute as Christian Schoffthaler, a Tyrolean lawyer, filed an appeal against the law with the Constitutional Court. The lawyer believes that the law breaches the principle of power sharing, among others. “The fact that the minister, as the executive agency in the Covid-19 Act, can suspend the validity of a law by decree, breaches the division of power between the legislature and the executive”, argued Schoffthaler.12 The government was also criticised for other aspects of its decision-making: the opposition parties objected to the fact that in the course of making its decisions the government cited the opinions of experts, but there was insufficient information and transparency about just who these specialists were. Besides this, a major controversy blew up over the means of debating the package of laws made in connection with the protective measures, as political parties protested at only being informed of its content half an hour or so before the start of the parliamentary debate.13 There were further extraordinary measures in Tyrol: the province was effectively placed under quarantine for three weeks, with people only permitted to leave their town or village of residence under exceptional circumstances.14 These strict regulations were by no means coincidental, as it seems that the virus was imported to many European countries from Tyrol.15 All of these measures were clearly far from conventional. According to an opinion poll taken in mid-March, the vast majority of the population, some 73 per cent, supported the government measures brought due to the pandemic.16 Although many of the steps taken were unusual in comparison to other countries, the Austrians did not see these as a threat. Interestingly, 78 per cent of Austrians agreed or agreed unreservedly with the statement that certain individual freedoms can be suspended if this helps prevent the spread of the disease.17
We see similar trends in neighbouring Germany, which is a good example of how the positive effects of assertive government action and successful crisis management are not only reaped by parties that already had good trends in their approval ratings. The country has been through a series of internal political crises in recent times, and support for the governing parties has been constantly eroded for many long years.18 This was the shape of German society when the pandemic hit, severely damaging future expectations.19 It is important to mention here that, in Germany’s case, we are not talking about unconventional solutions. Despite the political antecedents, the population stood behind the government: according to surveys, 95 per cent of them agreed with the anti-pandemic measures.20 It is worth noting, however, that compared to Austria public approval of the government’s crisis management was palpably lower in Germany: only 56 per cent were satisfied with the German government’s performance in this respect.21
Sweden took an entirely different approach to managing the pandemic. Initially the government was very permissive. Shopping centres and cafes were allowed to stay open,22 and — unlike in Austria — the largest ski resort in Sweden was only closed at a very late juncture.23 However, not everyone agreed with the government. More than 2,000 academics signed an open letter urging that the situation be taken more seriously.24 The dissatisfaction grew steadily over time.25 It was not until late March and early April that the Swedish leadership started to implement the measures that had been in place for weeks in other countries of Europe. Opinion polls previously published by Novus nevertheless showed that confidence in the government had grown significantly in March: 44 per cent of respondents said that they had a lot or a great deal of trust in Prime Minister Stefan Lofven. In February, only 26 per cent of respondents had given this reply.26
So, what are we seeing here? In the present crisis, Europeans have far more trust in their own governments than in the EU’s institutions. If we just look at what action has been taken, we also see that the EU’s response was late and inappropriate. When it comes to the member states, we have seen exceptionally varied activity and action; but, in the crisis, citizens have nevertheless expressed confidence in the governments and their measures. The restart that follows the pandemic may nuance this picture, but it is still important to recognise that when quick and effective action is needed, only member-state models can be relied on. The political lesson of the coronavirus pandemic, therefore, is another important argument for a Europe of nation states as opposed to the federalists’ concept of centralisation.
1 Two examples from the ECDC’s reports: The ECDC’s report of 9 January contained the following conclusions regarding a possible spread of the epidemic to Europe: “The upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations at the end of January will cause an increased volume of travel to/from China and within China, thus increasing the likelihood of possible cases arriving [in Europe]. However, given that there is no indication of human-to-human transmission, the risk to travellers is considered to be low.” Since new infections had not been detected outside the city of Wuhan in China, “the likelihood of introduction to the EU is considered to be low, but cannot be excluded. Consequently, the risk of further spread within the EU should a case be identified is considered low to very low.” https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/publications-data/pneumonia-cases-possibly-associated-novel-coronavirus-wuhan-china. In another report issued on 31 January, the ECDC stated that “the likelihood of infection for EU/ EEA citizens in other Chinese provinces [outside Hubei] is moderate”, while in the territory of the European Union and the EEA “the likelihood of observing further limited human-to-human transmission within the EU/EEA is estimated as very low to low” if cases are detected in the early stage of infection. https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/publications-data/risk-assessment-outbreak-acute-respiratory-syndrome-associated-novel-1.
2 Twitter: Ursula von der Leyen. https://twitter.com/vonderleyen/status/1241723235844141058.
3 European Commission: Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative. https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/about_the_european_commission/eu_budget/13032020_-_coronavirus_response_investment_initiative_final_v2_0.pdf.
4 Laura Greenhalgh: “EU science chief resigns, slamming bloc’s coronavirus response”. https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-science-chief-resigns-slamming-blocs-coronavirus-response/.
5 European Commission: “How our Europe will regain its strength”: op-ed by Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/AC_20_602.
6 Scott L. Greer: “How Did the E.U. Get the Coronavirus So Wrong?” (Opinion). https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/opinion/europe-coronavirus.html.
7 European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC): Overview. https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/agencies/ecdc_en.
8 European Commission: Temporary Reintroduction of Border Control. https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/borders-and-visas/schengen/reintroduction.
9 Spiegel.de: “Deutsche setzen zuerst auf den Bund – außer die Bayern”. https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/umfrage-deutsche-setzen-in-coronakrise-vor-allem-auf-den-bund-ausser-die-bayern-a-29d6a59e-b9d4-4dd6-8858-8cb49a587077.
10 Michel Rose, Gabriela Baczynska: “Macron seeks more EU powers as Europe faces coronavirus meltdown”. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-eu-macron/macron-seeks-more-eu-powers-as-europe-faces-coronavirus-meltdown-idUSKBN2172E5.
11 Richard Grasl: “Mehr als 80 Beschlusse: Corona-Hochsaison im Parlament mit ‘Sonnenuntergang’”. https://kurier.at/politik/inland/mehr-als-80-beschluesse-corona-hochsaison-im-parlament-mit-sonnenuntergang/400801409.
12 Kurier.at: “Covid-19-Gesetz landet vor dem Verfassungsgerichtshof”. https://kurier.at/politik/inland/coronavirus-covid-19-gesetz-landet-vor-dem-verfassungsgerichtshof/400798520.
13 Richard Grasl: “Mehr als 80 Beschlusse: Corona-Hochsaison im Parlament mit ‘Sonnenuntergang”. https://kurier.at/politik/inland/mehr-als-80-beschluesse-corona-hochsaison-im-parlament-mit sonnenuntergang/400801409-.
14 Christian Willim: “Coronavirus: Tiroler bekommen wieder mehr Bewegungsfreiheit”. https://kurier.at/chronik/oesterreich/coronavirus-tiroler-bekommen-wieder-mehr-bewegungsfreiheit/400804811.
15 Evelyn Peternel: “Englischer ‘Patient 0’ konnte sich in Ischgl infiziert haben – im Janner”. https://kurier.at/politik/ausland/coronavirus-englischer-patient-0-koennte-sich-in-ischgl-infiziert-haben-im-jaenner/400794533.
16 Conrad Seidl: “73 Prozent halten MaBnahmen gegen Coronavirus fur gerechtfertigt”. https://www.derstandard.at/story/2000115709451/73-prozent-halten-massnahmen-gegen-coronavirus-fuer-gerechtfertigt.
17 Conrad Seidl: “73 Prozent halten MaBnahmen gegen Coronavirus fur gerechtfertigt”. https://www.derstandard.at/story/2000115709451/73-prozent-halten-massnahmen-gegen-coronavirus-fuer-gerechtfertigt.
18 Frankfurter Allgemeine: “Umfragen zur Bundestagswahl – Deutschland”. https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/f-a-z-wahlbarometer-14406977.html?GEPC=s3/.
19 RegioJournal. “Umfrage: Deutsche wegen Corona-Krise so pessimistisch wie noch nie seit 1950”. https://www.regio-journal.info/umfrage-deutsche-wegen-corona-krise-so-pessimistisch-wie-noch-nie-seit-1950/.
20 Ellen Ehni: “Deutsche finden Versammlungsverbot richtig”. https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/deutschlandtrend-extra-blitzumfrage-103.html.
21 Focus.de: “Wie zufrieden, welche Angste? Das ergab die groBe Deutschland-Umfrage zu Corona”. https://www.focus.de/politik/deutschland/civey-umfrage-wie-lange-welche-aengste-das-ergab-die-grosse-deutschland-umfrage-zu-corona_id_11814462.html.
22 David Keyton: “With cafes and bars still open, Sweden’s virus restrictions make it an outlier”. https://www.timesofisrael.com/with-cafes-and-bars-still-open-swedens-virus-restrictions-make-it-an-outlier/.
23 The Local: “Coronavirus LATEST: Restaurants that flout social distancing rules could be closed, warn Swedish health authorities”. https://www.thelocal.se/20200310/timeline-how-the-coronavirus-has-developed-in-sweden.
24 David Keyton: “With cafes and bars still open, Sweden’s virus restrictions make it an outlier”. https://www.timesofisrael.com/with-cafes-and-bars-still-open-swedens-virus-restrictions-make-it-an-outlier/.
25 Derek Robertson: “‘They are leading us to catastrophe’: Sweden’s coronavirus stoicism begins to jar”. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/30/catastrophe-sweden-coronavirus-stoicism-lockdown-europe.
26 The Local: “Sweden disputes accusations of lack of coronavirus action”. https://www.thelocal.se/20200404/sweden-rejects-accusations-of-lack-of-coronavirus-action.