Newspaper headlines, social media feeds, private conversations, and professional conference calls have all focused on covid-19 in the past few weeks. The crisis is putting us to the test in an unprecedented manner. With around half the global population under lockdown, there has been a revolution in our way of life – in working, travelling, commuting, and spending (or not spending) time with our friends and families. And this revolution will continue in ways we have yet to understand. The prospect of such change is both exciting and slightly terrifying: we have no control over the situation and can only comply with government recommendations. In any case, such an open-ended crisis will have dire economic consequences, making forecasting, planning, and organising a living hell for decision-makers around the globe.
Our immediate reaction has been to turn in on ourselves, to close borders and limit economic and political cooperation with others. Yet it seems too complex to pursue coordination and cooperation without any human contact. Diplomacy, foreign affairs, and international cooperation have adapted to modern technology, with conference calls already forming part of most organisations’ modus operandi. Digital technology can do a lot – it can bring all continents together – but it cannot replace human interaction and contact, as they constitute the essence of who we are.
Given the strong temptation to withdraw, it is remarkable that the vast majority of European governments seem aware that they need to join forces. As the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, puts it: “only by pulling together and cooperating across borders can we beat the virus and contain its consequences – and the EU has a central role to play.” Europeans are now at the epicentre of the crisis of multilateralism many of us have lamented in the past few years – and the disruptive role the United States only makes the problems they face more acute. But it is precisely for this reason that the EU has an opportunity to prove it is the natural defender of the multilateral order – which forms the basis of its foreign policy, despite internal disagreements on the issue.
Given the strong temptation to withdraw, it is remarkable that the vast majority of European governments seem aware that they need to join forces
Once again, the EU finds itself vulnerable to US opportunism. After initially distancing itself from the crisis, the Trump administration implemented an entry ban on travellers from the EU and allegedly tried to buy a German company that was working on a covid-19 vaccine. The administration insisted that parts of the US could go back to normal sooner than others, before recently extending social distancing measures until 30 April. Washington’s position has long been: America First. Hence, it falls upon the EU to champion the multilateral system. The bloc should become the engine of new initiatives between European countries and those within the G7, the G20, and the World Health Organisation.
The EU’s raison d’être was always prosperity – the belief, formed in the wake of the second world war, that greater economic interdependence would promote peace between European countries. This approach worked within both Europe and the transatlantic relationship. However, economic interdependence has not protected all Europe’s security interests, be they in hard security or, as has become increasingly apparent during the current crisis, human security. At a time when we are limiting human contact and interaction, we need to endorse the counter-intuitive notion that this is a long-term solidarity mechanism: we are protecting not only ourselves but also many unknown people around us. These are simple and yet vital gestures. They embody what the EU stands for and who we are at our core: individuals in a collective.
Now is the time for the EU to harness its transformational power – and to protect citizens without turning in on itself. It needs to define new protection, health, and social security standards for them. And what better way to achieve this than to strengthen European sovereignty on health issues? This is not to suggest that the EU should take over member states’ healthcare competences, but to support them when required. Concretely, this translates into the treatment of French and Italian patients in German hospitals; shipments of medical equipment to Italy; support for EU citizens who are returning home; and even the European Central Bank’s approval of a €750bn debt purchase programme and promise to do “everything necessary” to deal with the crisis.
It took the EU a while to react to the coronavirus in an appropriate manner. It has now started to do so, demonstrating that it can meet citizens’ expectations of a crisis response at the European level. The sovereignty and power of the EU do not clash with that of member states; on the contrary, they supplement and reinforce one another. This is a crisis in which Europeans have a responsibility to demonstrate humanity, solidarity, and efficiency – to defend who we are.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.