DANIEL VAUGHAN: COVID-19 places the European Union at the brink – again

COVID-19 is the first genuinely global challenge the world has faced in a long time, and as such, it’s laying bare many of the assumptions undergirding our institutions.

Our ability to survive the pandemic depends on a certain level of trust between citizens and institutions. Private markets were the first of these institutions to be impacted heavily, and they had to choose to adapt or close in the face of the virus.

Governments are next.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte warned European leaders this week that Europe faces “the biggest test since the Second World War.” Mr. Conte would know; his country has faced the full brunt of the coronavirus, with the entire Italian health care industry threatening to break under pressure.

The task before countries on the European continent, beyond mere survival at this point, is rebuilding in the aftermath of the outbreak. Italy is proposing a solution. As the BBC reports:

[Conte] was speaking as Italy and some other EU countries try to push more frugal members of the bloc to issue so-called “corona bonds” — sharing debt that all EU nations would help to pay off. The Netherlands in particular has opposed the idea, leading to a clash between finance ministers of the eurozone.

Conte told those leaders that they faced an “appointment with history that they could not miss.” Indeed. It’s a challenge for the European Union that threatens to rend the project apart. The grand idea of a United States of Europe cannot work if each of the countries isn’t willing to pick up the slack during an economic calamity — like a pandemic.

And so we return to the subject of trust. It’s not the first time Europeans have faced such a dilemma. They nearly brought the EU to an end during the Great Recession of 2007–2008. It was then that newer members of the EU felt like the older coalition did little to help, and they had a point. A 2015 study of the Great Recession’s effects on the EU found:

[T]he countries that have had a worst performance during the Great Recession have been the new member states of the Eurozone, that is those that join the euro after its creation in 1999.

Other economists and observers noted that the austerity measures put in place by Germany and other countries during the Great Recession damaged all of Europe. As Business Insider reported: “Trend growth in the U.S. was double that of Europe following the financial crisis, the [Institute of International Finance] says, whereas prior to 2008 they had been the same.”

And that’s only the economic angle. COVID-19 presents both financial challenges and cultural ones — and the European Union hasn’t handled cultural clashes well, either.

The Obama administration set a red-line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria. He stepped up to the brink of war with Syria, and then, just as quickly, backed off. Many observers and journalists at the time considered that backdown a success. But those first toasts to success fell away to the horrors of the European Migrant Crisis.

Millions of people fled Syria and the surrounding countries as a result of Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his people. The U.N. estimates that by the end of 2016, 5.2 million migrants had fled from the Middle East to Europe. The result of this mass migration of people was an explosion of populist sentiment across the Eurozone.

Indeed, the European Union had opened up all borders with the Schengen Zone, allowing anyone to go to any country just like someone in the United States travels across state lines. The rise of right-wing populism soon took shape across the continent, toppling more centrist left and right-wing parties. The United Kingdom ultimately left the European Union via the “Brexit” vote, and the United States saw the election of Donald Trump.

Now we stand in front of another crisis that challenges both the economy and culture. COVID-19 is forcing countries within the European Union inward. Everyone has to rely on their governments to survive.

Italy, a country that experienced a significant surge of migrants, has gotten hit hard by the virus, and they need support. In the United States, this is simple; the federal government sends states and cities as much support and supplies as it can spare.

But Italy is already hitting backlash from other countries. If the European Union can’t come together during a time of crisis, what good is it at any time?

That’s a question many other countries could start asking if populist reactions come at the end of this, as they did at the end of the migrant crisis. The EU will have to take a harsher stance toward China, which unleashed this plague on them. If the people living in these countries don’t get the answers they need while uninterested European leaders sit in Brussels, that’s the perfect mixture for a populist backlash.

If the EU is only good during peacetime, then it’s of no use at all.

Some crisis is expected every few years — it’s a natural part of life. But right now, the EU hasn’t answered the call to a single disaster.

That could change. But if it doesn’t, Brexit will only be an opening salvo against the legitimacy of the European Union.