With the rapid spread of the virus, Brussels is fumbling, nations are diverging, populists are salivating and the U.S. is erecting barriers against allies.
The European Parliament was nearly empty during a shortened session in Brussels on Tuesday.Credit…Kenzo Tribouillard/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
March 12, 2020
BRUSSELS — The rapid spread of the new coronavirus presents a severe test for democracies, for the European Union as an institution and for the trans-Atlantic alliance.
And so far, it has been every nation for itself.
While Italy begged for aid, the European Union appeared to delay and fumble, with member states ignoring calls for solidarity. The United States, for its part, chose to try to cut itself off from Europe entirely.
President Trump’s decision to divide the United States from its European allies through a travel ban and blame them for inaction, rather than take a leadership role in cooperation and coordination, struck many analysts as particularly politicized and damaging, especially as European governments say the ban was imposed unilaterally, without consulting them.
But the search for scapegoats — first China, then Europe — is seen as part of the inevitable politicization of a crisis some are comparing to wartime.
The responses of democracies — especially as states take increasingly harsher steps, as in Italy, to control the movement of their own citizens, let alone foreigners — may be a significant boon to Europe’s far-right populists, who favor a strong nation state and oppose immigration and globalization.
[Read: Chaos in Europe, and anger, over U.S. travel ban to curb coronavirus.]
“After 9/11 and the 2008 global financial crisis, this is the third big test of our decency and ability to cooperate, because the virus does not respect borders,’’ said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a German and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “We need to cooperate across the board, in health management and fiscal stimulus.”
ImagePassengers at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris on Thursday.Credit…Thibault Camus/Associated Press
For the European Union and the new team at its executive arm, the European Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen, this pandemic is a challenge to her intention to have a “geopolitical commission,’’ Ms. Stelzenmüller said — ‘‘if the member states let her.”
This is a major test for the European Union, with the virus piled on top of existing crises over migration and rule of law, said Paul Adamson, founder of Encompass, a journal on Europe. “European values, solidarity, sticking together sound like hollow phrases, and we haven’t reached a spike in the virus yet,” he said.
The coronavirus has touched a diverse collection of countries and cultures, but a number of shared experiences have emerged — from grieving the dead to writing songs.
[Bagpipe music] There are moments that seem bizarre, moments of fear … … preparation and moments of emptiness. These are scenes from the world living with coronavirus. It has spread across cultures, languages and even out to sea. And despite these global differences, a number of shared experiences have emerged. There is grief over the dead. In Iran, hospital staff mourn a doctor’s death from the virus. In China, a quarantined building collapses, and a firefighter breaks down after pulling bodies from the rubble. In Italy, a man mourns the death of his sister. To try and save lives, authorities take precautions. They disinfect public areas and screen populations. “This is just crazy. Around the world, people are afraid and on edge. “Unbelievable.” In Northern Ireland, routine construction work at an Apple Store is mistaken for virus-related activity. In Japan, tempers flare when a man sneezes on a train. One Italian takes the fear and adds humor. This is a circle to keep people at a safe distance. In fact, lots of people use humor to cope with the uncertainty or the stigma of being sick. In Australia, a run on toilet paper leads to lessons in self-defense. “He’s going to show you how to deal with people stealing your toilet paper.” There is also defiance, a conviction that life must go on despite the virus. Across rooftops in China, quarantined neighbors socialize. From a rooftop in Italy, a theater group performs poetry for an area where movement is restricted. On a quarantined cruise ship, there’s songwriting to pass the time. In an apartment in China, too. But perhaps some of the most striking moments from the pandemic are those where little happens: the empty streets. “Unbelievable. No traffic.” The quiet airports. The places of worship without worshippers. Stores without goods. This is how it is across the globe as we prepare, grieve and wait for the next chapter of the coronavirus.
The coronavirus has touched a diverse collection of countries and cultures, but a number of shared experiences have emerged — from grieving the dead to writing songs.CreditCredit…Carlos Lemos/EPA, via Shutterstock
Over time, the virus itself may impose its own kind of discipline on feckless political leaders. The virus does not respect rhetoric, inaction, a lack of coordination, or restrictions with gaping loopholes — all of which it is already exposing.
“It’s very evident how little cooperation there has been among member states and how slow governments have been in supporting the economy,” said Rosa Balfour of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.
“The European Union has chosen to wait and see,” she added. ‘‘The virus can be a transformative moment and I’m not sure that the E.U. will rise to that.”
Solidarity has been in short supply. Germany and France restricted the export of medical supplies, in violation of the European single market, and Austria and the Czech Republic have banned travelers from Italy, in violation of the principle of free travel.
Even Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who was praised for speaking in rational terms on Wednesday about how as many as 70 percent of Germans could catch the virus, was criticized for not announcing strong measures proportionate to that diagnosis.
“I’d also like to see the German chancellor say that ‘we’re all in this together,’ and that the Italians will get extra support from us,’’ Ms. Stelzenmüller said.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has been both praised and criticized for her response to the virus.Credit…Michele Tantussi/Reuters
Instead, that was left to the Chinese, who immediately sent Italy medical experts and promised to provide cheaply 2 million face masks, 20,000 protective suits and 1,000 respirators.
“And that just feeds Salvini,’’ said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, referring to Matteo Salvini, the Italian far-right populist who is a sharp critic of immigration, globalization and the European Union itself.
Matters will get worse with the economic impact of the crisis, Mr. Grant said. “The euro crisis could return, because there are too many bad debts in banks,’’ especially in Italy, “and there is still no proper bank resolution regime and no eurozone deposit insurance.’’
The populists, he said, “will make hay with that.’’
If the virus proceeds at pace and governments respond less effectively than in South Korea or Singapore, criticism “will feed into an already troubled political climate, with general frustration and resentment of government,’’ said Simon Tilford, director of the Forum New Economy, a research institution in Berlin.
Those frustrations will only be made worse by the severe economic shock that the virus is likely to deal to a Europe barely growing, he said.
“If governments mishandle the policy response to the economic downturn, the political reaction could be toxic at home and for the European Union,’’ Mr. Tilford said. Italy is particularly explosive, he said.
“There’s already a backlash against globalization and openness there, a strong feeling that the country has been on the losing side of globalization and the euro, that the elite have not defended the national interest, and that Italy has already been badly let down by the E.U. over migration,’’ Mr. Tilford said.
The virus, he said, “is clearly a gift to the populist right in Europe.’’
A far-right rally in 2019 in Chemnitz, Germany, with a banner reading, “We are the people.”Credit…Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters
Yascha Mounk, an expert on democracy and populism at Johns Hopkins University, notes that while the virus may aid populists in opposition, it could also undermine populists who are in power.
“You can have a reality-free administration as long as you don’t face a major crisis,” he said. “But in the face of a global pandemic, braggadocio and denial of reality will display the credibility crisis populists face.”
But if more traditional leaders like Ms. Merkel “have spoken in more honest and serious ways, competent governments are also failing badly in their responses,” Mr. Mounk said.
“Merkel is more forthright about the facts but fails to draw the obvious conclusions,’’ he added, pointing out that German schools were still open, major sports events continued, and people had not been urged to work from home.
“So populists will respond first with a denial of facts and responsibility, of how bad the situation is,” Mr. Mounk said. “Then they’re likely to admit it’s bad but pretend it’s all the fault of everyone else and that they have been fighting a valiant struggle against the virus all along.”
Mr. Trump’s decision to try to isolate the United States is not by itself irrational as an effort to slow the pace of the disease, said François Heisbourg, a French analyst, noting that Israel had taken even tougher action without criticism.
The problem is the way that Mr. Trump had aimed the ban at the European Union, which he has already labeled an economic foe, Mr. Heisbourg said, while allowing flights to continue from countries like Turkey.
That underlines the sense in the Europe Union that it is being opposed by “three predators — Russia, China and the United States, which all seek to destroy it,” he said.
“For Europe this is a very big moment, which requires faster action by states to lock down people, because the longer the delay, the worse the consequences,” Mr. Heisbourg said. “A pandemic carries the same logic as a war, and in war, it’s the results that count. The state is at the center, and it’s not a situation where the normal pace of democratic debate can handle the crisis.”
Rates of infection are following the Italian pattern, and if Brussels and states do not respond more forcefully and faster with strong executive action, Mr. Heisbourg said, they are inviting larger trouble.
“Then you leave the field to the populists and you’re dead, because here the populists are right,” he said. “Even democracies behave more like authoritarians in a war.”