Covid-19 Highlights EU Imperfections

By Nicholas Pellett

In many ways, the European Union has been a successful venture, as evidenced by the rebuilding of economies, improvement in standards of living, and the maintenance of peace on a continent historically prone to conflict. Despite these achievements, the EU has also been heavily criticized throughout history. Some feel that deeper levels of integration are overreaching and erode the national sovereignty of member states. There are also many critiques of the complex structure of its institutions, which are often slow to act and exhibit an unclear hierarchy of power between them.

Regardless of its perceived deficiencies, one advantage of the Union would seem to be the combined effort of its members and the pooling of resources in finding solutions to problems, especially during times of crisis. However, recent crises have each brought with them a renewed questioning of the project’s merit.

The most severe of these has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which arrived in early 2020 following a tumultuous decade marked by a deep recession, crippling sovereign debt problems, and a period of sudden, mass migration. As have governments across the globe, the EU and the national governments of its members struggled to combat the effects of the virus. This response has provided glaring evidence which highlights several problems that have plagued the Union before.

While there have also been several positive developments in the EU since the onset of the crisis, namely the unity shown in agreeing upon the Next Generation EU recovery fund and the joint procurement of vaccines, even these achievements have been caught up in a prevailing narrative which seems to focus on the Union’s failures. Whether or not this is fair, these issues have once again illustrated the shortcomings that exist within this ambitious project, and the reputational damage incurred during this crisis could harm any ambitions for further integration in the future. 

A Lack of European Solidarity

Italy was the first European country to be hit by the virus and the damage was grave. The Italian health system was overwhelmed, seeing an exponential rise in its case count as nearly 1,000 people lost their lives each day. While suffering the effects of COVID-19’s first wave, Italy sent a request to the Commission to activate the EU Mechanism of Civil Protection for the supply of medical equipment. The call for help went unanswered by other member states, which Italian Ambassador to the EU, Maurizio Massari, lamented as “not a good sign of European solidarity.”

In addition to not responding to Italy’s call for help, some member states, including France and Germany, had limited exports of personal protective equipment both outside and within the bloc. The Union’s poor response compelled the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to pen an open apology to the Italian people, stating “it must be acknowledged that in the early days of the crisis, faced with the need for a common European response, too many people thought only of the problems of their own home. They did not realise that we can only defeat this pandemic together, as a Union.”

The initial display of self-interest aligns with a recent survey on citizens’ attitudes towards solidarity during COVID-19, which found that solidarity is “national first, to neighbors next, and only distantly European.” The data shows that exogenous shocks, such as pandemics or natural disasters, receive a higher level of support for solidarity than endogenous shocks, like a debt crisis, which are often characterized as self-inflicted.

A more influential factor in supporting solidarity is whether or not the provision of aid would constitute a net benefit to one’s home country. Respondents to the survey demonstrated a greater level of support for collective European action when they perceived their country to be a net-beneficiary. When asked about the reasoning behind supporting actions that help other member states, the top answer was reciprocity, with 40%. Acting because it is believed to be morally right (24%) or in the name of helping those with a shared identity (13%) were far less motivating.

Though two of the EU’s main institutions, the Parliament and the Commission, serve the interests of the Union as a whole, it is the Council which ultimately holds a lot of weight in finalizing decisions. As representatives of the national governments who are elected by their own citizens, public opinion on topics such as financial solidarity can influence the actions of member states when it comes to the Council’s discussions and approval of legislation.

Debates at the European Council in July 2020 over the Commission’s proposal for a large economic recovery package demonstrated this publicly supported reluctance to expanding fiscal integration, as the “frugal four” fought against the inclusion of grants and debt mutualization in the package. That resistance continued into this year, when a German economist disrupted the ratification process of the package by launching a legal challenge to the legislation’s constitutional validity. The challenge eventually failed, but comments by the Commission a month later on the possibility of making this funding mechanism permanent gave pause to Finnish leaders, risking the loss of the unanimous support needed to ensure the package’s official ratification.

Although these hurdles were overcome, financial solidarity within the Union will again be put to the test within the next decade when it comes time for these debts to be repaid and member states are likely asked to introduce measures of fiscal consolidation, sparking memories of the eurozone crisis a decade ago.

No Accountability on European Values

In 1993, the European Council laid out the conditions that must be met before a new member state can be admitted to the Union, commonly known as the “Copenhagen criteria.” Chief among them is the commitment to upholding European democratic values, including the protection of minorities and human rights, and defense of the rule of law. Though the newer members of the Eastern Bloc had to fulfill these conditions before acceding, differences remain in this region. Despite some improvements, these states still lag behind the rest of the bloc economically and on social issues such as gender equality and rights for minorities.

Two member states that have consistently challenged European values in recent years are Poland and Hungary. Media plurality and the independence of the judicial systems in both countries have been weakened under the leadership of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party and the Law & Justice party (PiS) in Poland, causing the world’s sharpest decline in the V-Dem Institute’s Liberal Democracy Index over the past decade. In addition to their decline in democratic quality, both have also introduced legislation that is hostile towards minorities such as immigrants and the LGBTQ population.

The pandemic only provided more opportunity for attempts to consolidate power. Orbán took advantage of the health emergency to use his parliamentary majority to expand his power, including the ability to limit what information the media was allowed to report, while Poland was denounced for introducing disciplinary measures against supreme court judges.

Previous action has been taken against these member states for their perceived violations of the rule of law. In December 2017, the Commission activated Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union against Poland, and later against Hungary in September 2018. This mechanism allows for sanctions, such as the loss of voting rights, to be placed on member states if a unanimous vote by the Council determines that a serious breach of Article 2 on the common values of the EU has occurred. The process has moved slowly, and a Council vote is still being awaited.

Even if a vote went ahead, the mutual support between the two countries would likely eliminate the possibility of a unanimous decision. The ineffectiveness of this process has renewed calls for the EU to hold its members accountable for violations of the rule of law and the Union’s other core values. This led to the Commission publishing its first annual Report on the Rule of Law in September 2020, a new tool to engage each member state in dialogue and evaluate their performance in this area. Soon after the report’s release, Parliament voted to adopt a new mechanism that would tie European funds, including Next Generation EU, to compliance with the rule of law. The mechanism was set to go into effect at the beginning of 2021, but it has yet to be fully implemented despite MEPs already calling for its activation.

Feeling they had been unfairly targeted and fearing the potential loss of crucial funding for their COVID-19 economic recovery, Poland and Hungary threatened to veto the approval of the new budget in December 2020. The threat was eventually withdrawn under the condition that the mechanism would be evaluated by the European Court of Justice and that the Commission would wait for a ruling before establishing guidelines for the mechanism’s use. As the judicial process plays out at its own pace, Parliament has threatened to sue the Commission for a failure to act. The inability to implement this new mechanism and the institutional infighting over its use illustrate the unclear hierarchy of power within the EU as well as an inability to hold member states accountable for their actions.

(Mis)management of Critical Resources

The most reliable way to overcome the spread of a deadly disease such as COVID-19 is through vaccination. Like many governments, the EU recognized the importance of this early on. They quickly moved to increase investment in existing research and innovation projects through the Coronavirus Global Response initiative, of which at least €350 million went to vaccine development.

There was also a Union-wide consensus on ensuring every member state would have access to vaccines once they became available. A joint procurement plan was agreed upon in June 2020, under which the Commission would use European funds to negotiate advanced purchasing agreements with vaccine producers to buy enough doses to cover the entire bloc. Although this strategy was more cost effective and prevented some of the less affluent member states from being left without vaccines, the negotiation process when representing 27 member states was admittedly slow in comparison to states acting on their own.

The US and UK signed their first purchasing contracts in May 2020, well before the Commission made its first deal with AstraZeneca at the end of August. As of January 2021, the EU had reached agreements with six different companies, four of which were producing a vaccine approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Despite this, it was a supply shortage that caused the slow initial rollout of vaccinations in the EU. Unlike the US, the EU decided not to impose a ban on the export of vaccines produced within their territory.

One of the main recipients of the exported vaccines was the UK, who had not officially banned exports but was not reciprocating the act, claiming they had negotiated a better contract than the Commission and that UK-produced vaccines would stay in the country until its order was completed. As a result, the EU was left well short of their anticipated supply of vaccines in the first quarter of the year. President von der Leyen then agitated an already fragile situation with her surprise announcement that the EU was considered imposing an export ban that would create a hard border between the EU and the UK across the island of Ireland.

Without the means to increase production or recoup the missing doses, this threat was damaging to the EU’s credibility as it only served to bring unnecessary stress to an area that was already well-known as the main point of contention during the Brexit negotiations. Following an admission of regret for this political mistake, the continued slow pace of vaccination mounted more pressure on the Commission as new waves of infection emerged and tight lockdown measures continued across the continent. 

The shortage of supply and disillusion with the Commission’s handling of the process had member states looking for alternative sources to procure jabs. Russia became that potential source when a study was published by the Lancet, a respected British medical journal, claiming that the Sputnik V vaccine was safe and effective.

Russia is one of the EU’s central ideological rivals, as its reputation as an undemocratic state that does not protect human rights stands in sharp contrast to the values promoted by the EU. Furthermore, the recent events surrounding the poisoning and imprisonment of the Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, made Russia a less probable source to relieve European vaccine shortages. Alongside the US, the EU imposed new sanctions on Russia at the beginning of March 2021 with unanimous support from the Council.

Meanwhile, some member states were speaking individually with Russia about purchasing vaccines. Hungary and Slovakia are the only EU countries to date that have administered the Sputnik V vaccine, doing so before the EMA has completed its review of it, but national governments in Austria and the Czech Republic have also been in communication with Russian officials over a potential deal. Even regional governments in Germany and Spain have attempted to buy Russian vaccines despite not having the authority to do so.

These vaccine negotiations with Russia have caused turmoil within EU member states. Igor Matovič was the Slovakian prime minister in March 2021, but the subsequent political crisis over his deal to purchase Sputnik V ended with his demotion to finance minister. The vaccine has also been the source of political infighting in the Czech Republic where the former health minister was fired over his unwillingness to consider authorization of Sputnik V to ramp up one of the slowest vaccine rollouts in the bloc. The fallout from the new details about Russia’s involvement in a 2014 explosion in the country have since taken any potential deal off the table.

While EU members are quick to denounce Russia’s behavior, when it comes to their own security many had no problem inquiring about purchasing Russian products. Ultimately though, it was the EU’s failure to fulfill its promises on delivering vaccines which led to these episodes of political instability within national governments as they scrambled to find alternative sources.  

Enduring Impact

The EU’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has featured some of the Union’s greatest displays of unity in history, but even these achievements have revealed just how far it is from fully realizing its goals of bringing together the continent’s diverse group of states. When asked about their level of satisfaction regarding solidarity between EU member states in dealing with the pandemic, only 34% of EU citizens were satisfied while 57% felt unsatisfied, including 18% who were “not at all satisfied.” These attitudes had also become less positive between the end of the initial wave of the virus in June 2020 and the beginning of the second wave in September and October 2020. Ultimately, member states still look to take care of themselves first and even when acting to help fellow member states there is likely a calculation made of the net benefit of providing that aid. 

Meanwhile, infringement upon citizens’ rights and the loss of judicial independence in states like Hungary and Poland have continued to go on without accountability at the EU level. Even as new tools were created to ensure that core values would be upheld, internal struggles between the main institutions have prevented them from being employed and states have shown that when European funding is on the line, they are willing to pursue all avenues to resist losing out on the financial benefits provided by EU membership. 

Lastly, the EU has been unable to maintain control over the most important resource in the fight against the virus. The ability to agree upon a plan for joint vaccine procurement and provide sufficient doses to all 27 member states, along with excess doses set aside for donation to lower income countries, has been overshadowed by a slow rollout which has prolonged the need for restrictive measures and frustrated citizens who have watched their British and American counterparts get vaccinated in a fast and efficient manner.

The long-term effects of the EU’s handling of the pandemic remain to be seen, but the prevailing narratives which have accented the ways in which it has failed its citizens and the shortage of genuine solidarity between member states could jeopardize future attempts at integration. The EU’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, and the success of Next Generation EU in particular, will likely be looked back upon as a moment that either reinvigorated the spirit of the European project, or led to the reversal of a decades-long trend towards a unified Europe.

Nicholas Pellett is a Master’s student at the department of Political Science and International Relations of Saint Louis University – Madrid Campus and research assistant at the Observatory on Contemporary Crises (OCC).

To quote this article, please use the following reference: Nicholas Pellett (2021),“Covid-19 highlights EU Imperfections”.

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