Is the European Union COVID-19’s Latest Casualty?
The European Union (EU) professes a vision of perpetual peace, democracy, and economic prosperity, encased in a liberal model of free-market ideology. From the days of World War II to the war on terror, the political and economic covenant has tied European countries together under these ideals. Today’s version of the EU grew from the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, bonding the countries in a political and economic covenant. Tied together through the movement of goods, services, people, and money, the EU became a singular political union. Official European citizenship allowed people to reside in and move freely between countries. However, the past decade has shaken the foundations of this vision of the EU. Rising nationalism in response to the 2015 migrant crisis, alongside the tumultuous outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic have created an unstable situation in Europe. As the EU attempts to weather the storm, nationalism combined with the economic downturn related to the pandemic could play into the union’s downfall and the rise of individual countries.
The surge in nationalist, populist parties over the previous decade has steadily eroded confidence in the EU. In fact, the vote share of Eurosceptic parties has more than doubled from 1992 to 2020, growing from a fringe opinion to a political movement. Euroscepticism began in Poland, with the Law and Justice party, followed by Hungarian Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, the Five Star Movement in Italy, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, and Podemos in Spain. Populist leaders, like France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, have also gained international recognition as representatives of the populist movement. These parties and individuals have cultivated power throughout their respective countries. Today, one in every three Europeans votes for a party with Eurosceptic ties.
But, Euroscepticism has not fueled these movements alone. Rather, the overwhelming support for populist candidates comes from their nationalist agendas. Fueled by the 2015 migrant crisis, nationalist parties began mobilizing to limit the spread of refugees into their countries. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that more than a million migrants arrived by sea and 35,000 arrived by land in 2015, compared to just a fourth of those numbers in 2014. Most of these migrants arrived in Europe as a result of tensions, persecution, and war in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The increase in international migration sparked intense nationalism, especially in countries that faced a disproportionate influx of migrants, like Greece, Italy, and Hungary.
The aftermath of 2015 lingers to this day. Nationalist agendas, especially in Europe, have been given a global platform and continue to erode the power of the EU. If the EU faces a significant loss in power as trust in its capabilities decreases, it could lose the ability to govern over all its member states. The COVID-19 pandemic may be the EU’s final straw.
As an institution, the EU should have been prepared to protect its member states with a unified approach. Early estimates of the pandemic’s impact saw Europe faring relatively well. However, as the months have gone by, the numbers have increased rapidly. The region now averages more than 100,000 new infections per day, accounting for one-third of new cases reported worldwide. New restrictions have followed this rise in cases. French President Emmanuel Macron has begun imposing a curfew in the Paris region and other metropolitan areas in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus. Prague and Liverpool closed clubs and bars. Amsterdam has made face masks mandatory in indoor, public spaces.
These recent restrictions come after months of other disjointed efforts to keep the virus at bay throughout the summer. For an establishment that stresses cohesion, the COVID-19 response has been anything but. French authorities avoided instituting strict guidelines during the summer months, leading citizens to become careless about health precautions and bring about a second wave. President Macron and his government failed to implement effective testing measures, contact tracing, or coherent safety guidelines. In the Paris region, intensive care units could fill to between 70% and 90% with COVID-19 patients by the end of October. Spain, one of the hardest hit regions in Europe, possesses an underfunded and understaffed healthcare system that cannot handle the increase in caseload. In the Spanish region of Catalonia, cases have spiked to rates as high as 40% in the early weeks of November. In the Czech Republic, Prime Minister Andrej Babis ignored key warning signs and did not impose additional restrictions out of fear for the economy. As a result, infections rose, with each new daily case breaking the record of the day prior.
European infrastructure puts in place safeguards for public crisis, indicating that they had guidelines in place for countries to access supplies. For example, Italy requested that the European Commission activate the EU Mechanism of Civil Protection in order to receive basic medical supplies, such as personal protective equipment (PPE). Out of 27 member states, not one responded to Italy’s request. This serves to highlight the divisions that have appeared as a result of the pandemic, fueled by political agendas. One such agenda included Hungary, when it said it would shut itself off from travel from all EU countries apart from its political allies, despite no health related reasoning whatsoever. EU officials called the move a “contravention of the principles of free movement of people and nondiscrimination within the bloc.”
Each member country faced the pandemic more or less on their own. The economic implications of this signaled a disjointed structure, wherein different populations and regions have been affected in disparate ways. Overall, analysis suggested that the GDP will be affected on average by -6.44% throughout the EU region, though each country’s economic outcomes varies based on its response to the pandemic and previous economic factors. Moreover, while the study notes that the shock itself occurred in all regions of the EU, the economic recovery will depend on the structure of each region’s local economy and the degree to which they respond to exogenous factors . Due to a decrease in investment throughout 2020 and shocks to the labor market, predictions indicate that the EU economy will not have made up for the year’s losses by the end of 2021. The interconnectedness of the European economy means that each member state’s rate of recovery will drive the recovery of other states in the region, given the extensive trade and travel between European countries. In other words, the EU economy is only as strong as its weakest link.
Nationalism, seen through the lens of the migrant crisis, may have exposed the cracks within the EU, but the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic outcomes have only widened these divides. Though countries may battle the virus on their own, their joint economic structure means that all member states will have to align their economic goals in order for the EU to completely recover. Undoubtedly, the pandemic is already changing the course of modern history, and the EU is facing these changes head on. The future of the region depends entirely on the longevity of the pandemic and how quickly a vaccine comes onto the horizon.