National impulses led to border closures and export restrictions on medical supplies during the corona crisis. But even in the earliest days of Europe’s exposure to the novel virus, pan-European solidarity was on display.
At the height of the coronavirus crisis, Jacques Delors – aged 94, and thus some way into his retirement – spoke out about the apparent lack of solidarity shown between member states during the pandemic. His warning was explicit: that failure to demonstrate solidarity could put the European Union itself at risk. Former German foreign ministers Sigmar Gabriel and Joschka Fischer accused the EU of “dramatically failing in this biggest test since its creation”.
For weeks, the media coverage across Europe was dominated by articles about unilateral border closures, export bans on medical equipment, and the bitter dispute over “coronabonds”. It is thus unsurprising that many citizens – especially in Italy – were massively disappointed by the crisis management at the European level.
It has become firmly established in much of the public mind that European solidarity in the pandemic has been nothing but an empty phrase. Even the current euphoria about the new unity of Germany and France with their joint proposal for a €500 billion coronavirus recovery package is struggling to dispel this idea. But this narrative is wrong; or, at the very least, it is incomplete.
Examples of solidarity between member states, the EU institutions, and European civil society reveal a more differentiated picture. The European Solidarity Tracker – a project by the European Council on Foreign Relations – provides information on which actors showed solidarity with whom during the coronavirus pandemic. This data study – like the crisis itself – is an evolving process. Final judgments can therefore not yet be made.
However, interim results clearly show that the European level has indeed played a major role in recent months. The European Solidarity Tracker documents a dense network of mutual help and cooperation throughout Europe: every EU member has shown solidarity with other countries. In addition, there are the actions taken by the EU institutions. From the beginning of March until the end of May, this support adds up to well over 300 instances of particular action.
The European Solidarity Tracker documents a dense network of mutual help and cooperation throughout Europe
European solidarity has had many faces in recent months. In the beginning, it took the form of aid deliveries of masks and ventilators, the admission of foreign covid-19 patients, and the dispatch of medical personnel to hard-hit areas. As the acute health crisis subsided, the debate increasingly shifted to economic measures. Some political leaders appeared to believe that European cohesion could only be measured by whether or not EU countries would agree on coronabonds. But mutual assistance in Europe cannot be reduced to individual aspects or actors. The European Solidarity Tracker shows that solidarity is diverse and truly pan-European.
The fact that patients from Italy and France were treated in German hospitals might be well known in those countries. However, only a few people are aware that Luxembourg and Austria have also accepted foreign patients. Or that Poland sent medical personnel to Italy, the Czech Republic donated 200,000 respirators to Slovakia, and Lithuania supplied 35,000 protective gloves to the Croatian police. Portugal has announced that, at the request of the Luxembourg government, it is sending 15 language teachers to support their colleagues and facilitate the orderly reopening of primary schools in Luxembourg. Europe’s citizens themselves also expressed solidarity during the crisis. For example, Josef Prusa, the “father of 3D printing”, developed an open-source design for a face shield with 3D printing. The Czech’s innovation is now being produced throughout Europe to support healthcare professionals.
Was the level of solidarity during the crisis sufficient? Certainly, actors at all levels – in Brussels, national capitals, countries, and regions – could have reacted more quickly and more comprehensively to mitigate the impact of the virus, reduce suffering, and ward off the economic crisis. Moreover, not every measure sold under the label “solidarity” should be considered positive. For example, the Hungarian government supplied up to 710,000 protective masks and other medical supplies to Hungarian minorities in Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, and Slovenia – which Romanian media described as “ethnic discrimination”. As Chinese “mask diplomacy” has already shown, gestures of solidarity can also be instrumentalised for political propaganda purposes
It is clear, though, that European solidarity was an important part of this crisis – demonstrated by decision-makers and virologists, primary school teachers and doctors, and European citizens across the continent. It is time to realise this as well.
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.