Solidarity between the peoples of Europe is the overarching aim of European integration. Its fundamental treaties refer to it and include it in many of their articles – the preamble to the Treaty on European Union (TEU) makes it an official objective: “… DESIRING to deepen the solidarity between their peoples while respecting their history, their culture and their traditions” (…), and in article 2, solidarity is described as one of the “values common to the Member States”. The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) makes it a legal obligation by establishing a solidarity clause that can be referred to by any Member State1.
Nevertheless, in times of the coronavirus, the first response of some States was to retreat behind their borders using their own rules. At the same time, the European institutions, despite the few competences that have been allocated to them, rallied together in an exceptionally rapid manner. National governments have rapidly endeavoured to find the necessary channels for cooperation.
European solidarity put to the test
In the first stages of the health crisis, governments did not prioritise European solidarity and a worrying trend towards national withdrawal immediately became the norm. It took almost a month for Germany or Austria to receive patients in intensive care from France or Italy, and at first Member States even banned the export of medical equipment.
National withdrawal became particularly evident in the closure of borders. Article 23 of the Schengen Code does indeed authorise States, exceptionally and for a renewable period of 10 days, to close their borders in the event of a serious threat to public order or internal security, subject to notification of the other Member States and the Commission. However, never since the beginnings of European construction was there such an abrupt return to national borders, but it soon became clear that the links forged within the internal market were stronger than national differences and interests argued in favour of concrete cooperation.
The chaos that reigned at the beginning of the crisis illustrates the lack of competence enjoyed by the common institutions in terms of health policy2. Along with anxiety-provoking announcements, this period was marked by sharp verbal exchanges between diplomats and usually more moderate politicians. Public opinion deemed that this was a failure in terms of European integration. Once again, the question “What is Europe doing?” was used and repeated over and over again by those it served best.
Governments felt obliged to adopt a “national” movement initially, as a precautionary measure and one that was necessarily backed by some unusual lockdown decisions. Much like a wave of panic, it was fear that dictated action.
The Covid-19 pandemic also called for economic solidarity among Member States. This is a delicate issue, especially since, according to the Commission’s World Economic Outlook, production in the eurozone is expected to fall by 8.7% in 2020 compared to 2019.
The differences that exist between the Member States affected the bitter discussions between them. However, this did not prevent the finance ministers from adopting ambitious stimulus measures, the German chancellor and the French president from proposing a recovery plan and then the European leaders from reaching an agreement that will allow the Commission to borrow in order to increase its spending for the benefit of countries in difficulty because of an external event.
Extremely real solidarity in practice
The European Commission activated the early warning system on 7th January, the joint civil protection mechanism on 28th January and released funds for research into a vaccine. At the beginning of March, measures were put forward to redirect 80 billion of structural funds towards the fight against the pandemic. On 20 March, a general derogation clause from the rules of the Stability Pact was proposed, as well as protection measures against “predatory” foreign investment, measures to facilitate access to essential medical equipment and the creation of a reserve of such equipment. By 17th April, 500,000 Europeans had been repatriated. On 20th May, a new EU-funded diagnostic test was launched on the market. At the same time, sectoral measures were allocated to various key activities (agriculture, health, and banking) and specific aid was decided for Africa and the Balkans.
Finally, following a bold Franco-German proposal on 27th May, EU leaders agreed on a major recovery plan on 21st July. It totals 750bn and will reinforce the 1,074bn 7-year budget they have also agreed on. These measures consolidate the considerable facilities held by the European Central Bank (more than 1,200 billion) and come on top of any national government-backed programmes. Europe will thus mobilise almost
4,000 billion to boost its economy. The scale of these amounts shows a resolve to learn the lessons of the public debt crisis and a shared determination on the part of the common institutions and the Member States to take strong, swift action.
What progress in and after the crisis?
Europe learned from the debt crisis in 2011 and was able to respond faster to the virus in 2020. Despite the fact that this often requires extensive work and difficult diplomatic discussions, it has also demonstrated its ability to adopt common policies: the 21st July agreement between European leaders can be described as truly historic.
The best anticipation of situations as exceptional as the one we have experienced is, in the national interest, one that is European. Chancellor Angela Merkel herself professed, “We are convinced that the nation states will not be able to cope on their own”. She gave substance to this statement, which is simply a translation of the old French saying that “l’union fait la force” (there is strength in numbers).
It remains for us to apply it in a way that respects the specific nature of European integration: uniting our strengths, while at the same time respecting our identities.