In Albert Camus' novel The Plague, the narrator, a doctor, describes the determined, almost surreal air of normality that prevails even as the full force of an epidemic is about to hit the Algerian town of Oran. "Our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves," he says. "How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences".
Something similar might be discerned in political terms in the seemingly heedless approach to that grand, historically unprecedented project called the European Union. Even as Europe became the "epicentre" of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the World Health Organisation, the EU has continued to wrangle over matters big and small.
Last week, for instance, the bloc was arguing over making changes appropriate for the age of coronavirus to the rules of procedure for meetings of the European Council. The Council comprises the heads of government of the 27 member states and the issue was about virtual meetings. Might videoconferencing give the impression the EU is shutting down?
Such apparently frivolous concerns cannot hide the serious ways in which the pandemic is testing European solidarity. It has already led to the closure of national borders within the EU and even within the Schengen area of supposedly free travel.
Although the border closures are meant to apply to people rather than goods, health checks at some crossings are causing massive delays to land-based freight, thereby calling into question the EU’s boast of a seamless market worth 3 trillion euros ($3.3 trillion) of annual trade inside the bloc.
But the pandemic is doing more than cast doubt on the most binding principle of the continent’s post-WWII integration project – freedom of movement. Intra-European solidarity is also being sickened by unilateralism, uncooperativeness and uncoordinated decisions by member states.
Soon after Italy raised the alarm about the surging coronavirus infection within its borders, particularly within the rich northern industrial region of Lombardy, it tried to invoke an EU mechanism to share medical supplies. But no EU member state offered to help and Germany actually went so far as to ban the export of medical masks and other protective gear.
Berlin’s restrictions were later relaxed but it says something about the sour mood of suspicion that Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio has been showering hosannas on China rather than on the European community. Hailing the speedy arrival in Italy of medical equipment and Chinese doctors, Mr Di Maio said: "We are not alone, there are people in the world who want to help Italy”. Add to that the fulminations of Aleksandar Vucic, President of Serbia, a country which has been trying desperately to join the EU. Heaping praise upon China for its support as it battles the coronavirus, Mr Vucic contrasted China’s concrete steps with the “fairy tale” of solidarity from Europe.
And finally, there was last week’s emergency move by the European Central Bank to launch the mass Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) of bond-buying. While this is seen as a timely attempt to avert a deeper financial crisis, it has also brought to the fore old divisions within the 19-member common currency eurozone.
France and Italy want the bloc’s bailout fund to offer credit lines and issue joint “coronabonds”, but Germany and the Netherlands lead the naysayers, who warn against a rush to unprecedented risk-sharing. According to one senior diplomat, the coronavirus crisis has exposed the EU’s basic faultline: the absence of trust.
That is a harsh judgement but long-time observers of the European project point to several similar indicators of brittleness. Heather Conley, director of the Europe Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for European Affairs in the George W Bush administration, says: “there is growing realisation that European solidarity is a rhetorical rather than a material concept”. She points to the EU’s repeated failure to live up to the principle of solidarity. Even though it is enshrined in EU treaties and the EU refers to solidarity as one of its goals, “solidarity seems to mean little at the moment of crisis and national requirements”, says Ms Conley.
This is depressingly true, at least with respect to two significant recent events in the European bloc’s history. During the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, individual EU member states such as Hungary and Austria closed their borders and remained stubbornly leery of attempts to reform the asylum system. Europe has still not managed to share the burden of migrants evenly, in order to prevent the southern states from being overwhelmed.
The long-running Greek debt crisis also came to a head in 2015, with harsh measures imposed on Athens in exchange for a bailout. It would be fair to say it tested the notion of European goodwill, the 'whatever it takes' promise that must necessarily underpin cross-border collaborative ventures.
Accordingly, as the unprecedented coronavirus crisis takes its toll, the pessimists say that the lack of a coordinated European response shows the inherent failings of a project that depends upon fraternal spirit and allegiance to succeed. They have a point. That said, there is also the possibility that the PEPP bond-buying will somehow work to bind wounds after all the hard words and hard feelings of the pandemic period. It could yet happen, if PEPP is used to generate the funds sought by EU member states (including by Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy) on condition that the money is exclusively used for Covid-19.
Cataclysmic events often rejig the course of history, changing the pace of developments that might have happened anyway. The pandemic may be such an event for Europe's future, for good or ill.