The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The pandemic has made Europe stronger

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at a European Union summit in Brussels on July 18. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

FOR YEARS, many U.S. politicians and policymakers have derided the European Union as dysfunctional: a half-baked federation that adopted a common currency but not the measures needed to sustain it; a would-be United States of Europe unable to cohere around capable leaders. Early in the coronavirus pandemic, the old critique appeared apt. Italy, Spain and several other nations were riddled with the virus while their leaders angrily traded recriminations.

Five months later, the tables have turned. E.U. nations, having largely succeeded in suppressing covid-19 infections, are returning to something resembling normal life, with schools, shops and businesses reopening. Last week, their leaders agreed on a landmark, $2.1 trillion financial package, including $857 billion in loans and grants for recovery financed by common E.U. bonds — a breakthrough toward a more integrated union. Meanwhile, the Europeans have closed their borders to the United States, where the coronavirus spreads uncontrolled and Congress dithers over soon-to-expire unemployment benefits.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

One statistic captures the yawning transatlantic difference: At the end of last week, the 27 nations of the European Union were averaging 81 deaths a day from covid-19; the United States more than 900.

Several causes explain this disparity, including differences in U.S. and European demographics and health-care systems. But the most conspicuous might be quality of leadership. Europe’s coming together has been driven by two centrist politicians, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who adopted robust measures to control the epidemic in their own countries and then worked jointly to develop and push through the groundbreaking financial package.

Though they were caught off guard and badly mauled by the virus, Italy and Spain avoided the mistakes of many U.S. states. They imposed lockdowns that were thorough enough and lasted long enough to push infections down to a manageable level. They will now be the leading beneficiaries of the special recovery grants and loans the European commission will dole out over the next several years. Ms. Merkel, who reversed Germany’s long-standing resistance to issuing E.U. debt to cover the transfers, rightly recognized that failure to act could have led to a collapse of Italy’s finances — and perhaps a rupture of the European Union itself.

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Those who called the adoption of the plan by an E.U. summit last week the bloc’s “Hamiltonian moment,” in reference to the 1790 assumption of states’ debts by the U.S. government, were overstating it. This was a one-off deal that does not affect the debts already owed by individual countries. To overcome tough resistance from a few governments, E.U. leaders had to agree to some painful compromises, including watering down a linkage of loans to respect for the rule of law in countries such as Hungary and Poland. The deal must still be approved by national parliaments as well as the European Parliament, which could prove tricky.

Europe could still be hammered by another wave of infections; its recovery will be precarious until a vaccine or effective therapeutics emerge. The union nevertheless has been made stronger by the crisis, thanks to responsible leaders willing to make tough decisions and impose unpopular measures. That, sadly, cannot be said of the United States.

Read more:

Robert J. Samuelson: Is Europe finally coming together?

Brian Klaas: Trump’s performance on covid-19 looks especially bad compared with the rest of the world

Eugene Robinson: We’re No. 1! In a pandemic, that’s no cause for celebration.

Ishaan Tharoor: Did Europe have its ‘Hamiltonian’ moment? Not exactly.

Fareed Zakaria: Smart countries have the edge in fighting covid-19. The United States isn’t one of them.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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