With nearly 71,000 cases of the disease caused by the novel coronavirus as of March 18, Europe is the new epicenter of the global pandemic, according to the World Health Organization. Worst hit is Italy, but France, Germany, and Spain appear to be on troublingly similar trajectories.

Unfortunately, the EU has yet to mount a coordinated response equal to the scale of the crisis, though initial steps are now being taken. Unless Europe can act together, member states’ disjointed efforts could reopen old wounds of nationalism and undermine political and economic stability on the continent.

Divergent National Responses

As long as member states resort to unilateral measures, a common European response will remain elusive. European governments have haphazardly and inconsistently rushed to shut their borders and restrict travel, after little or no consultation with their neighbors.

Some countries, including France, Italy, and Spain, have enacted nationwide lockdowns. In a televised address on March 15, French President Emmanuel Macron went so far as to declare a nationwide war on the virus. Many leaders have also declared states of emergency.

Erik Brattberg
Erik Brattberg is director of the Europe Program and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He is an expert on European politics and security and transatlantic relations.
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Meanwhile, some other countries—notably, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK—have kept shops and schools open, preferring a strategy of seeking to achieve herd immunity and thereby protecting against future waves of the virus (though the UK now appears to be moving toward a more stringent approach).

The apparent lack of solidarity among member states makes EU unity impossible. After bearing the brunt of the European debt and migration crises for years, Italy is now essentially being left to fend for itself during what is considered its greatest trial since World War II. When the virus eventually subsides, Italians will remember who did and who did not come to their rescue at this time of need.

The Emerging EU Plan

Though public health is mainly a national responsibility, the EU response has been remarkably lackluster. The coronavirus barely featured in European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s March 9 press conference that took stock of her first one hundred days in office.

However, the EU has since pledged to boost funding for health research and development and provide 80 million euros ($88 million) to a German vaccine manufacturer. On March 16, the European Commission announced it would temporarily restrict travel to the entire Schengen Area in an apparent effort to deliver much-needed coherence to the EU internal market. The EU will also provide financial assistance to struggling small and medium-sized companies.

More ambitious EU responses depend on the governments of member states. For example, eurozone finance ministers are still dragging their feet on whether to expand fiscal bailout funds to help its hardest-hit members. Moreover, recent signals from German Chancellor Angela Merkel in favor of a joint European debt issuance scheme are positive but have yet to pan out.

The Post-Crisis Outlook

It is hard to predict the political fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. The European economy was in a slowdown before the outbreak and is now likely to enter a full-scale recession. The European debt crisis has already been a major contributor to the rise of populism over the past decade—an ill omen for future political moderation and stability. Nationalist governments in Hungary and elsewhere have even blamed foreigners and migration for the virus.

The best hope is for European leaders to seize the moment and scale up their efforts to meet one of the most serious challenges the continent has faced in many decades. Their success will have a major bearing on the long-term trajectory of the so-called European project. Given these high stakes, they must put aside national differences and petty grievances in favor of determination and solidarity.