The surge in confirmed cases of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Italy has thrown up a classic dilemma for the European Union: How to protect unity between 27 member states when domestic political pressures call for national, beggar-thy-neighbor responses. In the face of a possible pandemic, the deceptively simple cry for tough national border controls is growing louder. But it’s not a decision that should be taken rashly.

Over the past few weeks, the EU has managed to put a fairly confident spin on its handling of the virus. The case-load was initially relatively low: A week ago, only about 40 cases were confirmed in all of Europe. The idea of imposing emergency national border controls in the Schengen Area — a “border-free” travel zone across 22 EU countries and four others — seemed a distant prospect. Those days are gone. Italy now has more confirmed Covid-19 cases than either Hong Kong, Singapore or Japan, according to a dashboard run by Johns Hopkins University. That has pushed anti-EU politician Matteo Salvini to intensify his attacks on the Italian government and blame the Schengen set-up at the same time, arguing that Rome needs to impose “armor-plated” borders. It’s not just Salvini: Next-door, far-right leader Marine Le Pen said on Sunday she was in favor of suspending Schengen and instating checks at the Italian border. There’s no specific indication of what kind of controls they want — past examples include spot ID checks, for instance. But Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has forcefully argued against turning Italy into ”a leper colony.”There’s a reason why this debate is emotive for the EU, more so than in other countries or regions that have jacked up border security to reassure voters. The idea of a European passport-free travel zone began during the Cold War and blossomed after the collapse of the Soviet Union into a critical EU institution seen as good for the economy and for the public at large. But while more information-sharing between countries was supposed to offset the loss of security at the border, crisis moments like immigration or terrorism have exposed an all-too-frequent lack of trust between EU members. Nine countries including Germany and France have used emergency provisions to reinstate some controls at different times. Covid-19 could unpick an already frayed unity on Schengen.EU officials are pushing back, rightly questioning the effectiveness of such a measure. It was already hard to imagine passport checks successfully stopping terrorist attacks or illegal immigration; it’s even harder to imagine them defeating an invisible infection. This disease has already outpaced dramatic efforts to keep it from going global, and has spread far beyond its original location of Wuhan, China. Italy’s ban on direct flights to China doesn’t seem to have changed much: The country’s first tested case of the recent outbreak — a 38-year-old from southern Lombardy — had not even been to China, as my colleague Ferdinando Giugliano points out.If the idea is to isolate Italy for the benefit of other European countries, it’s hard to see how in today’s world of globally-connected travel hubs it would make much difference. Worse, it would corrode the kind of trust that’s needed to actually fight diseases like Covid-19: Member states would have an incentive to under-report cases, less knowledge would be shared, and less research would be funded. The World Health Organization has warned against unilateral trade and travel restrictions. Any upside from psychologically comforting a nervous public would be accompanied by economic downsides. Reimposing controls that introduce friction for workers, supply chains and tourists could cost 0.8% of GDP for Schengen countries, according to French think tank France Strategie.The problem for the EU is that, even if it keeps hold of its border-free ideals, the virus’s spread and the measures that are being taken are going to cost people’s lives and hurt its economy regardless. The bloc’s soft-power-driven, open economy is clearly vulnerable to decisions already being taken by countries and companies such as shutting public landmarks, canceling trade shows and placing restrictions on tourism. It could get worse: Back in 2006, a European Commission research paper tried to model the macroeconomic effects of a pandemic with a mortality rate of 2.5% (higher than estimates for Covid-19) and an average of three weeks off work for those infected and their care-givers. This scenario— a worst-case one, it must be said — predicted a drop of 1.6 percentage points of GDP.It’s vital, therefore, that European leaders overcome the kind of spats seen during recent budget talks and focus on a coordinated response to protect public safety and economic growth (where possible). De-globalizing the European economy to make it less reliant on China makes sense; retrenching further behind national borders does not. To be sure, a lot depends on how deadly the new coronavirus turns out to be — more travel restrictions may become the norm across more countries as more cases are confirmed and research conducted. But whatever ills an “armor-plated” Italian border is supposed to cure, Covid-19 isn’t among them. 

To contact the author of this story: Lionel Laurent at llaurent2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Melissa Pozsgay at mpozsgay@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

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