Stuck in the Middle

The EU is struggling to maintain its much-acclaimed ‘solidarity’ in the face of the covid-19 pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic posed a dilemma for the EU: should it step up to the challenge and assume more powers or back off to let the member nations deal with it according to their own judgements and circumstances?

EU Superglue







Solidarity is the glue that keeps our Union together”, claimed Jean-Claude Juncker and “There is strong demand for Europe throughout the world….Our solidarity must be all-embracing.” [7] but when times are hard that glue proves weak and solidarity dissolves.

The Covid-19 pandemic is pouring a solvent on the solidarity of its members at all levels, the fragility of the EU’s foundations is harshly revealed [1]. The EU has always worried about the progress (or lack of it) towards its citizens feeling ‘European’, or for that matter its national governments. Europhiles may declare that they feel European [2], implying that this matters more to them than their national identities, but we suspect that this is an intellectual rather than an emotional commitment. Of course they feel European, they know they are European from their first days at school or sooner.

In 2016 Junker had one of his brilliant brainwaves, it is the youth that need to absorb the new culture to make those foundations secure. And so he created for them a volunteer group, the European Solidarity Corps, in which “participants strive to enhance solidarity between people, while respecting their cultures and their traditions, and aim to build a community of shared responsibilities and mutual support” [3] Of course it’s not a new idea; from the Boy Scouts to Lenin’s Young Pioneers and from the Hitler Youth to the American Peace Corps it is a well tried path that has never proved to be transformational. The Corps is a side-show designed to disguise how much the EU really cares about European citizens, to cover up how little it does care—the mission always comes first.

All governments are struggling with how best to control the spread of the virus but the EU is indeed “stuck in the middle”.

On 16th March the EU published its Guidelines for border management measures to protect health and ensure the availability of goods and essential services [4]. It says, rather feebly in the light of what the members states have already done, that the “coronavirus crisis has highlighted the challenge of protecting the health of the population whilst avoiding disruptions to the free movement of persons, and the delivery of goods and essential services across Europe. The implementation of the Union’s policies on checks of persons and goods should be governed by the principle of solidarity between the Member States.”

Don't run 1Although these are guidelines they are phrased in their familiar teacher-knows-best voice, it reminds us of our old (as we then saw them) school teachers who told us not to run in the corridor. The guidelines exhibit the usual dishonesty, when they claim to be “protecting the health of the population” while their emphasis is on the free movement of goods and services. And they sink to absurdity when they claim that, in order to stop things getting worse, “maintaining the functioning of the Single Market is key.” Given the aggressive actions member states are taking to lock down their citizens, it is both late and silly to demand that transport workers “should be able to circulate across borders as needed and their safety should in no way be compromised”, except perhaps by the virus.

However, the guidelines do suggest that “people who are identified as posing a risk to public health from Covid-19…should have access to appropriate health care”.

We doubt that anyone will take their final plea seriously: “Member States…should closely cooperate and coordinate at EU level to ensure effectiveness and proportionality of the measures taken.”

Even usually ardent supporters such as The Economist (TE) are becoming increasingly critical of the EU’s performance in the current corona-crisis [5]. It questions whether there should be more Europe (meaning more EU) or less. The article opens with the claim, echoing Juncker (above), that “more Europe is the invariable mantra for the European Union’s most devout believers.” [6] In support they offer this, from Ursula von der Leyen during her pitch for the presidency of the European Commission: “The world is calling for more Europe…The world needs more Europe.” Who called and what did they want: more tariffs, more rules, more room for migrants, or please fix your financial system before it crashes ours?

We have long challenged this; we have argued consistently that even Europe does not need more of this EU (Europe is a geographical region, the EU is a political one). In this article the author tests the argument that, at least in this time of crisis, less EU may be better than more: “Faced with the covid-19 pandemic, however, the commission has so far opted for a different tactic: less Europe. It has focused on getting the EU out of the way of national governments.” For example, see the border Guidelines.

Other perspectiveOf course being The Economist their focus is on financial and economic concerns: “Fiscal rules are being quietly abandoned, allowing national governments to spend heroic amounts to allay the crisis.” This can be interpreted as effective (in)activity on the part of the EU (TE’s interpretation) or as an implicit acknowledgement that EU rules don’t cut it. The author almost acknowledges this too: “Pandemics are a pre-modern problem, best solved by the tool that brought order to a brutish world: the modern state.” So “Health is the purview of national governments, according to the EU’s treaties….Often, Brussels is left with responsibility for a topic but not the power to do anything. In this case, responsibility is clear. The actions of national governments will determine how many live or die.” So, as the previous President of the Commission frequently implied, if anything goes wrong it’s the fault of the member states. For just one example: “Member States have not yet found the right balance between the responsibility each must assume on its own territory; and the solidarity all must show….” [7]. This time the blame was explicit but perhaps the states couldn’t wait on the EU; did they even consider the rules or did they just act in their own interests, as they saw these? And what does that imply?

To cover itself, TE proposes that the EU should keep calm and carry on: “When not pursuing “less Europe”, the EU can be most efficient by maintaining the same amount of Europe….Keeping national governments from actively working against one another would be triumph enough for Brussels.” We love “triumph enough”, which implies that this is as much as we can hope for from the EU. We would argue that there are other, less oppressive, ways to preserve the peace and seek effective community collaboration [8].

But TE quickly gets back to the economic arguments in support: “So-called coronabonds would allow struggling euro-zone states to fund themselves with debt guaranteed by the bloc as a whole.” The Italian economy has been nearing a cliff edge for a decade but with the pandemic also focused there the European Central Bank (ECB) announced a Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) through which it will buy government and company bonds. To prevent Italian debt collapsing the monetary union, and probably the entire EU project, the ECB had little choice but to ignore treaty law. Even TE acknowledges this: “Countries such as Italy, whose borrowing costs have shot up, love the idea; those who would probably end up paying, such as the Netherlands and Germany…” may be far less keen [9].

After bungling her initial response to the crisis, ECB chief Christine Lagarde issued a belated guarantee: “There are no limits to our commitment to the euro.” The statement was a homage to the mantra of her predecessor, Mario Draghi, who said he would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro.”

Christine LagardeTypically, her first concern is “to save the euro“. This is a distorted priority, which derives from the federal ambition at the heart of our objections to this Union. Whereas the ECB splurge consists of bonds only, the UK’s and others’ actions also direct cash at people, not just institutions. The EU project was supposed to be for the greater good of the people but saving the euro was the first priority when Greeks and Cypriots were suffering—they still are a decade later. At least the ECB has at last accepted the role of ‘lender of last resort’; that has always been implicit for any other central bank, and it may help many workers, if the money is properly directed.

This approach could be challenged in Germany’s constitutional court but whether by bailouts or defaults German citizens are on the hook. “Europe is forged in crises” (attributed to Monnet) but this is going to hurt (and not just the Italians and Germans of course).

TE’s balanced conclusion is that “Covid-19 will offer the most brutal test not of the EU but of Europe’s member-states.” For TE “more Europe” is too much but “less Europe” would be too little. Goldilocks anyone?

Lower orders

[1] The EU’s Bonds

[2] European Values




[6] Those in Favour…

[7] State of the European Union 2018 – 2 and 3

[8] An Alternative for Europe

[9] Italy Missing the Target


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