Delays in vaccination, bureaucracy and a lack of solidarity between member states are putting new strains on the already fragile Union.
COVID-19 will eventually be defeated. But before it goes down, it could take a collateral victim with it: the European project.
The virus is attacking the European Union in two ways: by exposing the lack of solidarity between its members, on the one hand, and on the other by highlighting its cumbersome, if not inadequate, red tape.
In retrospect, it would have been less expensive for the EU to spend a little more to get the vaccines on time, rather than to take the health, economic and political risk of finding itself, even temporarily, "disarmed" against the virus.
Faced with "the Union's slowness," Denmark and Austria are turning to Israel to produce vaccines together. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary are ordering large quantities of Russian and Chinese vaccines, even though they don't yet have EU authorization. And many other European countries, including Germany, say they are ready to resort to the Russian vaccine, Sputnik V — undoubtedly a victory for Moscow in terms of public image.
Before the pandemic, the EU was said to be threatened by the viruses of terrorism and far-right populism. But with the health crisis, the primary threat facing the Union right now may be its own "blunders."
When it comes to defense and security, the EU could justify its lack of cohesive action based on the fact that the so-called "blood tax" can't be delegated. Each nation alone is solely responsible for deciding whether or not to send its soldiers to fight, and potentially die, on external fronts. Now, though, the world is at war against COVID-19. As such, we're dangerously moving from security in the traditional sense of the word to health security.
The words of Rudyard Kipling come to mind: "He travels the fastest who travels alone." Britain's vaccine rollout would seem to be a case in point, albeit after a catastrophic initial response to the pandemic. Either way, the post-Brexit British are now in a position to emphasize the contrast between their performance and that of the EU countries.
We used to say that the nation state was too small for big problems and too big for small problems. But what if that criticism applied today to the EU itself?
In Kiev, in 2013, headier times in Europe's recent past — Photo: Ivan Bandura
Is the Union not too small to face the challenge of the pandemic, which involves global cooperation between scientists worldwide? Is it not too rigid, bureaucratic and cumbersome in terms of crisis management? It doesn't help that even on an individual level, member state governments are struggling to define and implement policies to control the virus. Could it be that, because of the very nature of the pandemic, EU-style regionalism is the most at risk?
It is a legitimate question, but the answer is far from obvious, because the problem goes far beyond the EU itself.
Faced with the scale of the pandemic, scientists (China's ambiguity and other exceptions aside) have been forced to unite and share information very quickly in an increasingly global and interdependent universe. It was of course not difficult for them, it was in their DNA. But their success is no less exceptional. They worked miracles.
In contrast, politicians have chosen the opposite path, sometimes yielding to the temptation of "vaccine nationalism." Citizens are the ones who are paying the price. In the context of COVID-19, as Yuval Noah Harari writes in the Financial Times, it is as if there was a scientific truth based on reason — that we can only escape together; and a political and emotional truth — that you can only escape on your own, or more precisely, by defining alone the most appropriate response to effectively fight the virus.
This is arguably the most difficult moment since the start of the European project.
We must hope that access to vaccines will no longer be a problem in the coming weeks or months. If not, European citizens — faced with an existential question, literally — will feel abandoned, if not betrayed by the EU.
This is arguably the most difficult moment since the start of the European project, a time when demand for protection in the face of the pandemic is the greatest. Confronted with the virus, citizens looking toward Brussels need embodiment and confidence.
And yet, rather than reassurances, they have the impression (true or false) that the EU's regional leaders, with a few exceptions, are even weaker than most of their individual national leaders. By not systematically choosing "the best" for Europe, so as not to overshadow national leaders, the Union is "unraveling."
On a purely symbolic level, the movement has actually gone in the opposite direction. Former European Central Bank head Mario Draghi, for example, made a show of saying he's "once again Italian" — to serve his country. In doing so, he gave himself greater credibility and legitimacy.
The rift between the Union and its citizens will continue to deepen if Europe is perceived as unable to provide quick, clear and coherent responses to the concerns of its peoples. The Union — no more than its member states — cannot save itself on its own.
It must be repeated again and again: International cooperation is not a sign of altruistic naivety. It is the key to safeguarding national interests. No one will be saved until everyone benefits from the same protection against coronavirus variants that will, by their very nature, keep on mutating.
Europe cannot save itself on its own. But it can, by its own devices, do much to self-destruct — with the help of its member states, of course. And this is exactly what will happen if the EU doesn't go far enough to tackle the two challenges, in terms of identity and efficiency, it is facing.
Will COVID-19 thus deal the final blow to the European Union? The question, alas, is worth asking.