The European Union has found it relatively easy to agree on policies which aim to better the social, environmental, and cultural lives of its people. On the other hand, solidarity is a much more complex issue. Countries will always want to further their national interest and protect their own citizens before those of a distant, or even neighbouring, state.
This pandemic has been unprecedented in all senses of the term, hence the EU’s lack of understanding on how to deal with a virus of this magnitude. Already we have seen some of the unthinkable happen, the freedom of movement between EU states we are so accustomed to experiencing has been shut off as borders close and police forces strictly deny passageway to any non-nationals or non-residents. When this virus begins to affect, not only a few member states, an entire continent and the whole world, it is inevitable that states prioritise the wellbeing of their own residents.
It is difficult to send vital equipment and resources, such as face masks or protective gear, to a country in need when your own country could be facing the same problems in a matter of days. When Italy appealed to the EU for help, member states could not help placing their own priorities before anybody else’s, as this is typical state behaviour.
One of the fundamental principles of the European Union is solidarity. It is highly embellished throughout its treaty, as article 222 states:
“The Union and its Member States shall act jointly in a spirit of solidarity if a Member State is… the victim of a natural or man-made disaster. The Union shall mobilise all the instruments at its disposal… to assist a Member State in its territory, at the request of its political authorities, in the event of a natural or man-made disaster”.
The EU has an established unit specifically in charge of Emergencies, the Emergency Response Communication Centre (ERCC), which aims to help both member and non-member states manage crises, in accordance with the solidarity principle. This emergency centre is where Italy directed its requests for help, however, the EU did not offer any guidance or resources to the European country who is currently most affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Mauirzo Massari, the Italian representative to the EU explained that Italy “asked for supplies of medical equipment, and the European Commission forwarded the appeal to the member states… but it didn’t work”.
Countries like Germany and France, two leading EU members, even went as far as to impose bans on the exportation of face masks and protective equipment. This political decision stirred up various debates about the true meaning of solidarity within the European Union and the EU’s Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, had to remind member states that, “Solidarity is key”.
This is not to say that the EU doesn’t ever act in solidarity, as it has countless of times, for example when Sweden faced extensive forest fires, the EU states sent out firefighting assistance immediately.
However, a pandemic like this is something we have never witnessed, since the birth of the membership of the European Union. This coronavirus outbreak has travelled through seas and land, as it knows no borders. It is not a remote issue; it has become a globalised pandemic. In these circumstances, the very meaning of solidarity within the EU is turned onto its head and becomes a much more complex issue.
All member states worry for their own national interest, they question whether it is wise to send protective equipment out to other countries as they could also be in need of this same gear a few weeks later. This pandemic has illuminated the various cracks in the European Union’s solidarity and priorities.