Now, if Europe’s leaders cannot chart a more united course, the project lies in what one of its architects described this week as “mortal danger.”
In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, the response among European Union member states showed that national interests trump more-altruistic European ideals. Border restrictions were reimposed haphazardly, and Germany and France threw up export bans on medical equipment such as masks and ventilators, even as Italy clamored for assistance.
Quick to capitalize were the propaganda machines of Russia and China. Moscow and Beijing have swept in with much-trumpeted — if sometimes defective — medical aid, pushing a savior narrative and providing fodder for the region’s Euroskeptics.
E.U. countries have begun to coordinate their efforts to procure supplies, and they have sent more aid to hard-hit Italy than China has. But the past week has seen a reemergence of a north-south rift over how to handle the economic response. The union is also being pulled east and west, as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used emergency powers to effectively suspend democracy, riding roughshod over Europe’s basic principles of the rule of law.
Collectively, these tensions could overwhelm the alliance.
“This could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of the International Affairs Institute in Italy. “The reason why coronavirus is such an epochal challenge is not that it brought things out of the blue. It touches on all spheres and does so by accentuating dynamics that are already there. It’s as if it is bringing the extreme out of everything.”
Norbert Röttgen, a German politician jockeying to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel, likened the continent’s infighting to “a grueling trench war,” as he joined the chorus of voices warning that the E.U. is in grave peril.
The debate has indeed been bitter. After nine countries, including Italy and Spain, requested financial support in the form of “corona bonds,” Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra said Brussels should study why some governments lacked the financial wherewithal to fight the crisis on their own.
That comment, made during a private conference call of E.U. finance ministers, touched off a firestorm, since it sounded to critics as though the Dutch were trying to turn a health crisis, whose origins had little to do with the actions of any European government, into a fiscal morality play.
The remarks were “repugnant,” said Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa. “Either the E.U. does what needs to be done or it will end,” he added.
A separate videoconference call last week among E.U. leaders, which was intended to be a fairly brief check-in, spiraled into unusually angry discussion and extended for more than three hours, diplomats familiar with the meeting said.
“The climate that seems to reign among heads of state and government and the lack of European solidarity pose a mortal danger to the European Union,” Jacques Delors, a 94-year-old French politician who played a leading role in the creation of the bloc’s modern form, warned in a rare statement.
The debate has reopened wounds that had just barely scarred over from the 2008 financial crisis, when Germany led Europeans in imposing painful austerity measures on Greece and Italy in exchange for financial assistance.
Now, with needs even more acute, some are left wondering: If the richer E.U. countries are not willing to support their struggling neighbors, what’s the point of membership at all?
“Ten or 20 years from now, we will all remember what happened at this time, like all Germans remember where we were when the Berlin Wall came down,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist for Berenberg Bank.
“The political impression we create now is decisive,” Schmieding said. “This is a crisis where people who believe in sides can easily gain.”
The European Commission has gone to pains to point out acts of European “solidarity,” including how Germany and Luxembourg have taken in coronavirus patients from France and Italy. France has donated a million masks to Italy, while Germany has sent seven tons of medical gear, it pointed out in a recent fact sheet. The commission also has set up a joint stockpile of medical equipment.
But with the early reluctance to share supplies, and the resounding “no” from northern European countries on corona bonds, it’s been hard to compete with the television images of China flying in boxes of aid and Russian soldiers convoying into northern Italy.
“Europe really is going to have to come together and overcome its initial stumbles if it wants to win this battle of narratives,” said Noah Barkin, a senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund. “It really can’t afford to be seen as bickering at a time like this.”
While that applied during the financial crisis a decade ago, Barkin said, it’s even more crucial now, given “a much more hostile United States and a rising China, which has shown it’s going to take full advantage of this crisis to promote its own interests.”
Another difference from 2008: nationalist, Euroskeptic and anti-democratic forces have gained ground.
In an interview this week with the Spanish newspaper El País, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said “nationalist instincts” would grow if “Europe is not up to the challenge.”
Conte no doubt had in mind Italy’s far-right League — the country’s most popular party, according to polls. League leader Matteo Salvini said that “once the virus is defeated, we will have to ask ourselves about the future of the E.U.”
“Something like a pandemic can only be addressed in a meaningful way through international cooperation,” said Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe, a Brussels think tank. “If the balance tips in favor of national positions, that could kill the E.U.”
Even before the coronavirus, the E.U. had struggled to hold some of it members in Central Europe to account amid concerns about rule of law, freedom of the press, the judiciary and the rights of minorities.
Europe’s response to Orban’s grab for unchecked power this week was characteristically toothless. Hungary’s “coronavirus bill” allows Orban to rule by decree and bypass the national assembly, declaring a state of emergency with no end date. Half of the E.U.’s member states released a statement condemning the abuse of emergency measures, though they did not single out Hungary by name.
Meanwhile, the return to national borders could be seen as a vindication for the continent’s national populists like Orban, said Tocci.
Although there are some signals that European countries might be able to come together on an economic rescue plan, the short-term divisions could have long-term consequences.
One emotive issue could be how European countries manage the lifting of restrictions on their populations. “It could create enormous resentment,” said François Heisbourg of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank. “You’re an Italian and you’re considered as a plague-bearer by the Germans. This is where the real danger for Europe lies.”
And broader questions of values and ideals will remain, analysts say, with the fundamental assumption that open borders and economies would bring peace and prosperity increasingly in question.
Tocci said that although the coronavirus fallout could bring about the demise of the E.U., Europe could also emerge stronger. That, though, would require more than Europe has been able to muster in previous crises. It will demand more than “the bare minimum to pull through.”
Birnbaum reported from Brussels. Chico Harlan in Rome contributed to this report.