This week, the fast-spreading coronavirus challenged the European Union for the biggest trial of its economic, political, and social fabric since the Syrian refugee crisis almost five years ago.
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The outcomes from the 2015’s European migrant crisis continue to appear until now, with its dual shock to the EU’s harmony and domestic politics. It led a wave of populism and nationalism, which include the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, and Germany’s political partition behind the weakening of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Most unexpectedly, the Turkish government this week backed off from its commitment made in 2016 to prevent Syrian refugees from entering Europe in return of nearly 6 billion euros in EU funds. Turkey announced withdrawal from this deal after receiving a Thursday airstrike by Russian backed Syrian armed forces in Idlib province, killing roughly 33 Turkish soldiers.
Even as Turkey directed orders to its police, coast guard and border security personnel to allow would-be migrants to pass into the EU, Bulgaria reacted by sending an additional 1,000 troops to the frontier with Turkey, and Greek police tossed smoke grenades at one crossing to dissuade refugees.
Having pathogens is a much different business than managing waves of refugees.
What unites the two subjects is how dramatically the European Union’s response will shape people’s attitudes about the institution’s significance, responsiveness, and, ultimately, the effectiveness at a critical historical moment.
The effect of coronavirus on Europe’s future has the potential to be even bigger than the migrant crisis, especially as it unfolds in nearly biblical fashion atop an outbreak of other European maladies.
They cover, but by no means are narrow to: economic slowdown and likely recession (possibly made by coronavirus), the surge of populism and nationalism (stoked by the virus), discrepancies about how to manage trade talks with a leaving United Kingdom (which start Monday), deadly flights over the European budget, and continuing German leadership crisis and French social disruption.
This past week the new coronavirus morphed into an ongoing global phenomenon that experts agree can no more be restricted. The damage to stock markets stayed at $6 trillion, which was the biggest weekly fall since the 2008 financial disorder.
By Friday, the WHO confirmed more than 78,000 cases and over 2,790 deaths in China. Around 70 deaths also reported in other countries across the world.
In Europe, what appeared as northern Italian phenomenon – where there have been about 800 infections – has now reached Spain, Croatia, Greece, the UK, France, Romania, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, North Macedonia, San Marino, and Estonia.
Italians have canceled their carinal proceedings in Venice and Milan Fashion Week. Hotels in France, Austria, and the Spanish Canary Islands have been locked down in quarantine.
While individual EU member states implement their own health policies, the European Union is liable for coordinating the response to the disease and giving advice regarding its still-open borders.
In a borderless union (EU), which prides itself on the free movement of public and travel, response to the crisis becomes a trial of the institution itself and the philosophies behind this rare grouping of 27 member states with roughly 445 million citizens and $16 trillion GDP.
Much attention this week was paid to whether and how individual European Union countries – or the EU itself – might cancel the 1985 Schengen Agreement that took 26 of its nations into a passport-free zone of travel.
This open movement and travel have been one of the prominent sources of EU pride and identity. And, at the same time, the agreement is designed to be far more flexible at moments of crisis than is usually known. The rules permit for the short-run reintroduction of border controls for causes that include immigrant surges, terror strikes, and – crucial now – health emergencies.
Benjamin Haddad, director of the Atlantic Councils’ Future Europe Initiative, said that “Paradoxically, one might argue that moments like these are made for the European Union.”
Haddad explained such moments demand the level of technical support and mutual decision-making among countries that remains the characteristic of the EU. The European Union acts as a regulatory force by means of its “normative” power of trade deals and other instruments that command standards, which oftentimes become global, in areas including health, environmental, digital, and all manner of industrial sectors.
Yet, if imposing regulatory standards is an EU strength, the rapid response at times of crisis remains a weakness.
Member states known to often take back control, as they did in 2015 when it comes to situations like the refugee crisis or coronavirus outbreak. The new epidemic will bring new ammunition to those who want to see national border controls tightened or restored.
The right-wing French nationalist, Marine Le Pen, has called for border closures with Italy.
In Switzerland, which is not an EU state but part of the border-free zone, right-wing political forerunner Lorenzo Quadri believed it was “alarming” that the free borders’ “dogma” would be taken as a priority at such a time.
As the number of coronavirus cases rises across Europe, it seems doubtful that EU and national officials will be able to handle the greater imposition of border controls. For example, Austria, on Sunday morning, deferred some train connections at the Brenner Pass with Italy after officials informed that two travelers had been stopped who were infected with the coronavirus.
The coming days could reinforce the shared value of the European Union, but only if the EU and its member states react smoothly and in a coordinated manner.
Should the European Union emerge ineffective as the virus continues to spread, that will color European attitudes for decades to come.
The French Writer Albert Camus writes in his classic 1945 novel The Plague, “I have no idea what is awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the time being, I know this: there are sick people, and they need curing.”
” The virus, alas, has so far been tackled by a divided continent, same as the plague isolates people in Camus’s plot,” a visiting professor at Princeton University, Gianni Riotta, told Judy Dempsey at Carnegie Europe, adding that “Austria scrapped trains from Italy, which broke with the European Union, too hurriedly grounding flights from China, only to see the disease spread faster with travelers reaching unchecked from other airports.”