By Phuong Pham & Rosa Mª Jorba
COVID-19 constitutes an unprecedented crisis, a new challenge for the European unity and the Euro that has affected every member of the European Union (EU). It has to be distinguished from other emergency situations such as the migrant crisis that, due to geographical proximity, was affecting the Mediterranean countries more. This crisis has compromised the image of European unity and, above all, the cooperation among the European countries has been challenged (Benjamin, 2020). Besides, the economic activity had to forcibly stop for several weeks due to strict lockdowns, which triggered an economic crisis at least twice the size of the 2009 one (Bémassy-Quéré & Weder, 2020). Furthermore, the economic recovery is likely to be slow due to distressed consumption and investment (CEPR Press, 2020).
At the time of writing this article, Europe is among the two regions suffering the most devastating repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic – the other is North America, which has approximately 28 million infected people. There have been more than 27 million infected people, with approximately 628,000 deaths in the continent, and the number of new cases and deaths is still increasing day-by-day, much higher than other regions (Asia with 22 million cases, South Africa with 14 million, Africa with 3 million, and Oceania with around 50,000) (Coronavirus Cases, 2020). This led European governments to impose stringent measures to counter the spread of the virus, including but not limited to lockdown, massive testing, and facilitating the vaccine production (European Council, 2020). However, there has been a fragmented response to the pandemic across Europe. Countries like Germany, Denmark or Iceland have responded well to the virus when taking action against it in a timely manner, while countries like Italy, France and the United Kingdom have dealt with the pandemic less efficiently, evidenced by their high death tolls (Parteidge-Hicks, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has thus had substantial political impacts on the European countries.
COVID-19 Exacerbates the Current Crises in the EU
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the EU was dealing with numerous crises, from debt to the emergence of populist leaders across Member States. Taking the EU by storm, the virus has worsened its situation. For instance, the pandemic has deepened the debt crisis (Augustin, et al. 2020). Deemed as one of the most serious crises since 1991, it exerted a long-lasting impact over the EU’s economy. Indeed, the block’s ability to manage the debt crisis mainly affects large economies such as Germany and The Netherlands. Currently, these economies are wrestling with the pandemic, making them reluctant to assist other member states that are suffering more from the debt crisis such as Italy, Greece or Spain. Hence, the debt crisis is far from being solved. In addition to this, COVID-19 is paving the way for the rise of Euroscepticism among Member States. This phenomenon has existed in the EU since 1999, but it has not yet erupted thanks to the relative effectiveness of the EU (Hix & Noury, 2006). Nonetheless, the pandemic has revealed the EU’s institutional weakness, as the EU reacted too little too late, pushing the continent to its current state – the largest COVID-19 epicenter in the world. This can be a pushing factor for the emergence of right-wing parties in states like Germany, France or Austria, whose adherents believe that the EU is no longer relevant to their development, and that their countries should leave the organization. In this regard, pessimistic analysts may argue that the rising Euroscepticism catalyzed by COVID-19 may push the EU into the verge of collapse in the future.
COVID-19 Divides the EU
The COVID-19 pandemic has sharply divided the EU, and larger Europe in general. First of all, the European countries’ response to the pandemic differ from one another. Countries like Sweden or to some extent, the United Kingdom, follow the “herd immunity” tactic – allowing enough people to get infected by the virus, while other states strongly oppose this method, claiming that it is too risky and would cause the healthcare system to overload (Limam & Carbonaro 2020). This divergence may contribute to the inefficiency of the bloc in containing the spread of the virus.
Moreover, the pandemic is also deepening the existing inequalities within the EU. The Head of International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva, warned: “Without urgent action, we risk deepening the divide – globally – between the rich and poor”. The EU is not outside of that vein. Initially, due to the lockdown measures taken to contain the virus, the income gap has been widened” (World Economic Forum, 2020). Blue-collar workers, given the physical requirements of their jobs, have been hit more seriously by the pandemic compared to white-collar ones whose jobs could be done remotely. As a result, their income, which has already been less than that of white-collar workers, is substantially decreased. On the other hand, not only workers but also students suffer from the effects of COVID-19. The Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities emphasized: “The suspension of classes in schools and pre-school education during the COVID-19 pandemic has regrettably often resulted in the unequal access to education and discrimination of children belonging to national minorities” (Advisory Committee, 2020). To this degree, the education sector is one of the society stratum that best reflects the deepened inequality that the pandemic caused.
We aim to give a policy recommendation on how to tackle the current crisis through cooperation as the EU has encountered problems to act as one to deal with the pandemic. COVID-19 has raised awareness on the need to reshape the EU political priorities and strategies in order to have a unified voice. This crisis has made clear the need for cross-border EU health responsibilities and action. Currently, health issues are primarily in national hands (Schmidt, 2020). In response to COVID-19 the European Union has mobilized approximately 40 billion euros to combat the public health and socio-economic impact of the virus. These funds have been allocated to short-term financing needs for enterprises. Nevertheless, this policy response still leaves decisions on how to respond to COVID-19 into the Member States hands. In fact, Member States have been taking different decisions, relying on different experts and depending on the impact in the region. For instance, they are the ones in charge of decisions regarding border controls or travel restrictions in the EU to protect public health. To avoid fragmentation, the Council is working on an approach to ensure more coordination in this matter (European Council, 2020).
Consequently, we suggest that a Common European health area should be established in order to have a better and coordinated approach towards health matters among Member States and to better protect frontline healthcare professionals. This European Health Area programme should improve the health conditions across all EU countries through better prevention and access. Furthermore, this would help to give a coordinated response to the COVID-19 outbreak by organizing up-to-date data (WHO, 2020). Therefore, it would be beneficial to know how countries are responding to the crisis and analyse which countries are performing better. This shift would give European institutions greater capacity to deal with future health emergencies. This would have a positive influence on being better prepared for the next upcoming health crisis (De Raeve, 2020). Ultimately, giving a common European response would help in mitigating the socio-economic impact in the European Union and also to reinforce our public health sectors.
It is still too early to predict how COVID-19 will change the way Europeans see their own societies. Some European countries’ responses differed from others.While many Member States believed the best way to combat the pandemic was through restrictive measures and lockdowns to contain the spread of the virus, others relied on the notion of herd immunity. However, most of the Member States faced the pandemic inefficiently, which has deepened Euroscepticism as well as high economic vulnerability at large. Thus, we can already see some significant signs on how it has affected European integration. In this sense, it has affected not only economic and social integration but also the education sector. Likewise, COVID-19 has also exacerbated an already existing economic gap due to long term lockdown measures. Given the impact caused by the outbreak, some experts believe that major political changes are more likely to occur in a shorter period of time (Capoccia, 2016). As in the words of Mr Josep Borell, “COVID-19 will reshape the world. We don’t yet know when the crisis will end. But we can be sure that by the time it does, our world will look very different.” Thus, the economic and social consequences of this health crisis are becoming more evident day by day. We strongly believe that an European Health Area Program should be created in order to improve the health conditions across Europe. This program would be very beneficial and lead to a better prepared Europe, able to address future health crises with a unified voice by EU members.
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