Will the Italians forgive the EU?

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Dharmendra Kanani
Dharmendra Kanani

Director of Insights at Friends of Europe

How will Italians feel now – connected or more disconnected than ever?

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, we are witnessing another crisis in the making – that of the European Union and whether it actually matters to anyone. Given the recent actions of Member States –  such as unilaterally closing borders, vying for equipment and supplies, and applying border controls that affect sister countries’ access to medical supplies – valid doubts have been raised. The actions of France and Germany over the past 10 days and the faux pas by Christine Lagarde at the European Central Bank (ECB) are likely to leave an indelible mark on the emotions and memories of Italians.

How does the EU recover from these actions which – on the face of it – leave it as anything but an administrator of a bureaucracy rather than a union of nations underpinned by a set of values?

Leaders seeking to prioritise national interests over collective ones will do far more harm than good

Whilst the college of Commissioners meet every morning in the spirit of taking an EU-wide response, their political masters continue to behave as their predecessors have: discussing an EU-wide approach with their fingers crossed behind their backs. If the most recent talks of the Council are a litmus test of the Union, then we are in for a very bumpy ride where national interests trump a common EU response. 

It is remarkable that national leaders fail to value and see the benefit of EU-wide resources and of pooling capabilities. Citizens could be forgiven for thinking, “Really!?”. Leaders seeking to prioritise national interests over collective ones will do far more harm than good – the virus doesn’t take hostages and doesn’t respect national boundaries. Also, these actions fly in the face of what most national leaders do, or should know: that they are inextricably linked to each other for supply chains, data, scientific know-how, innovation, and, most of all, access to equipment and medical supplies.  

Critically, what they are also losing sight of is how certain nations see the crisis in Europe as a geopolitical opportunity. Can they be so blind despite the crisis they are fighting? Being a rabbit in the headlights when faced with an unprecedented crisis is acceptable in the very short-term. However, Member States cannot be forgiven for neglecting the potential strength of the Union vis-à-vis external actors. That’s simply short-sightedness.

The usual rule book on how things are done won’t make the cut

Thus, it is normal to expect more and better from national governments. Whilst this virus crisis is testing every aspect of their systems, its leaders are not ingénue. They have data and an awareness of how the world works and should be cognisant of lessons from the past. Being able to manage and respond to these kinds of crises is part of the job description. Yet sadly they are all failing to meet the person specification! 

The nature of this crisis is such that action and decisions are required in a shorter timescale and with concerted effort to move with speed. Relying on typical protocols has simply underscored how they are no longer fit for purpose. But by continuing to do so, as evidenced from last week’s Council meeting, it has become clear that there is an inability to grasp the severity of the situation, along with the medium and long-term impact this will have on the Union.

The usual rule book on how things are done won’t make the cut. The situation we face requires the leadership of the European Commission to say it like is, “The emperor has no clothes.” By doing so, it can create a dramatic tension that implores doing things together for the common good, or to be resigned to the failure of the project!

This time, those on the frontline are not soldiers but health workers, supermarket staff, volunteers, those who continue to be part of global supply chains

It is heart-breaking to witness that an idea that was borne out of the principle of ‘never again’ has lost its meaning for those at the helm of the Union. They now need to respond to the 21st century equivalent of a global challenge witnessed less than 80 years ago. The lacklustre reaction makes a mockery of symbolising each year our commemoration of the global tragedy when the simple lessons to be learned from it are so readily disposed of. 

This time, those on the frontline are not soldiers but health workers, supermarket staff, volunteers, those who continue to be part of global supply chains. And, of course, those that are losing jobs, businesses and livelihoods. This is a different kind of war. Whilst the enemy is a virus, whose capabilities we are yet to understand, our political leaders’ reactions appear very familiar to times past. Sadly, the price paid for this is the loss of life and an economic black hole that none of them understands how to get out of.  

It is a moment for transformation and change of a different order – one that requires tearing up the rule book and working together globally in a manner which is more than sending armies and warplanes across borders. It requires developing a global system of governance that enables looking in the eye their interdependencies and their respective and mutually shared interest in order to combine innovation, finances and financial capabilities, on a level hitherto unknown. Any manner of nation-state modelling won’t get them out of this. Going it alone won’t be the answer.

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