The advent of coronavirus has set off a battle of narratives about the role of the EU. The winner will define Europe’s future. 

Crises often forge leaders. Severe crises can change the very nature of governance. European political leaders have already realised that they are not only reacting to the coronavirus crisis – but are also participating in shaping the future of Europe. The virus response will have an immediate and possibly drastic effect on the lives of Europeans like few issues in the recent past. Europeans will not quickly forget which leaders excelled and which institutions mattered.

Consider how the Polish and French governments have chosen to react – and to narrate their reactions – to the crisis.

At a press conference on 13 March, Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, promised to “close the door to the pandemic”. The country then moved not only to shut its schools, kindergartens, universities, cinemas, and other institutions – it also decided to suspend international flights and train connections, and to reintroduce controls on cross-border vehicle traffic. Morawiecki presented Poland as being in the vanguard of reacting firmly to the crisis – which he was, judging by the border controls introduced since in many other European countries, from Spain and Portugal to Germany and the Netherlands.

However, Poland went further. Foreign citizens currently cannot enter Poland. Morawiecki made clear he blamed the outside world for the spread of the virus. Most cases of Covid-19 in Poland have been, in his words, “imported, in the strict sense of the word”, either by foreigners or by Poles returning from abroad. The message is that the Polish nation is clean and pure – and it would not experience the current crisis if it were less involved in freedom of movement.

Migrants and open borders may be the first victims of the virus-driven debate about Europe

In contrast, in a televised speech on 12 March Emmanuel Macron warned the French against just this sort of nationalist withdrawal. France did not close its borders, despite having more cases of Covid-19 than Poland. Instead, his government recommended ‘social distancing’ to cope with the coronavirus crisis. It has closed schools and other institutions, and asked people to work from home. But Macron also stressed that “the virus does not need a passport”, and that eventual controls would not necessarily have to follow national borders. The clear message of his 12 March speech was that strong government is not enough in these exceptional circumstances. A cooperative society and a strong sense of European solidarity are also important.

In another address to the nation yesterday, Macron reinforced these measures by announcing a general confinement. For the next two weeks, or longer, the French are not allowed to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary. “We are at war, a health war”, Macron repeated several times, before calling for “solidarity and responsibility” from his compatriots.

Explicitly or not, Europe is at the centre of how these and other governments are narrating their reaction to the coronavirus crisis. It comes at moment when some Europeans were already questioning whether integration had gone too far and whether the national state needed to ‘take back control’.

Over the past couple of weeks, the European Union has been subject to accusations of failing to rise to the challenge. Rome already has reason to doubt European solidarity: Germany blocked exports of medical supplies to Italy, while Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank (ECB), said that ECB was “not here to close spreads” – which was quickly interpreted as a sign that she did not care about keeping Italy in the eurozone. Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Lega, quickly seized the opportunity. “Italy,” he said, “needed help and it has been given a slap in the face”. The message quickly spread throughout the continent. According to the main news on Poland’s public television, “the coronavirus crisis has exposed the weaknesses of the European Union”.

European institutions can surely do more, but they are already playing an important role. Last week the European Commission announced a new emergency fund, amounting to €37 billion, to help the healthcare sector, small and medium-sized businesses, and employees. Poland (and Hungary) are set to become its biggest beneficiaries, a detail that the country’s public television failed to note for its audience. The commission has also launched an accelerated joint procurement procedure for personal protective equipment – an emergency procedure that Poland, incidentally, joined only two weeks ago. With a six-year delay, it is one of the EU’s latecomers to the initiative. And today, with another emergency call among government leaders, the commission will seek to reaffirm itself as a chief coordinator of member states’ efforts to combat the spread of the virus.

Migrants and open borders may be the first victims of the virus-driven debate about Europe. Now that several member states have temporarily reintroduced borders, leaders and voters might, once the crisis is over, conclude that it does not make sense to have them entirely open. On top of this, some political leaders are already linking the spread of the virus to the refugee issue. The epidemic has bolstered the cause of those who have long opposed refugees – most of them the same parties and politicians who advocate strict border controls.

But the final chapter of this saga is not yet written. In a crisis with very short-term and tangible effects, it will largely depend on which leader gets results in tackling the virus. No one yet knows how Poland, France, and other countries will cope with the disease – and whether the EU will be able to prove its usefulness, if not indispensability. No one knows whose government’s vision will prove to be the most powerful.

The EU and its supporters have long made the case that the EU makes European countries stronger and more resilient. Now is the time to demonstrate that capacity. While the EU’s budget is merely 1 percent of the continent’s combined GDP, the EU does have unique assets to bring to bear on Covid-19. It can encourage cooperation and policy coordination among member states. This allows them to achieve better results than they would do separately, as the case of joint public procurement should demonstrate. Most importantly, however, European institutions can forge a much-needed spirit of solidarity across the continent, whether it is through the ECB creating additional space for a fiscal response from governments, or the European Commission providing emergency funding.

Europe’s third major crisis in a decade gives it another, perhaps final, chance to build a sense of common destiny among its citizens. For this to happen, resolution and bold initiatives on the part of the European institutions are just one ingredient. The EU might need to carve out a role for itself despite – rather than thanks to – member states. This is why, crucially, the end result will also depend a great deal on who wins the battle of narratives.

A few months from now, people will conclude that the crisis has laid bare the extent to which there has been too little Europe – or too much. They may crave more Europe to protect them from future pandemics, or they may reject it. Disturbingly, for the time being it looks like this could go either way.

Read more on: Coronavirus, European Power, EU instruments, European Strategy

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.