Pulling through the coronavirus together: European and international solutions to the pandemic

European governments can only defend their citizens effectively if they cooperate at a European level and reinforce multilateral structures based on openness and information sharing.

European states are going through a period of national responses to the coronavirus crisis. International organisations and the European Union have supported those efforts, but mostly from behind the scenes. National governments have, unsurprisingly, emerged as the locus of effort and the source of political legitimacy for the unprecedented measures necessary to respond to this challenge. But, at the same time, the pandemic makes it abundantly clear that European governments can only recover from this shock and respond effectively to the next such challenge through cooperation.

It is a familiar paradox for EU member states. They have the political authority and legitimacy to respond but, alone, they lack the capacity to do so. If they want to retain their ability to act effectively to protect their citizens, they need outside help. But the public wants them to appear in control and, now more than ever, they want to satisfy that demand.

The virus pulls us apart …

In the throes of crisis, the panicked responses that governments are taking to reassure their citizens that they are in control of the situation are exacerbating long-standing tensions between EU member states. To prevent fragile healthcare systems from cracking under the pressure, governments across the EU are putting in place emergency laws of various types, all with the immediate intention of blunting the impact of the coronavirus. In such extraordinary circumstances, national governments may well be justified in taking these steps. But when emergency powers come at the tail end of the progressively authoritarian measures that have been seen in member states such as Hungary and Poland in recent years, this will inevitably raise questions in Brussels and beyond about whether this is an emergency response or opportunism – and about whether, in the long term, member states can really claim to still have common values. Sunset clauses, under which emergency powers require regular renewal by legislatures, could be one way of mitigating some of these risks.

Border management within the EU is another area in which the coronavirus crisis is making an already tense discussion even more volatile. A commitment to open borders is perhaps the signal achievement of the EU. Now, as one member state after another unilaterally closes its borders while the European Commission stands by powerless, the limits of that commitment are becoming clear. The initial French and German decisions to block, in mid-March, the supply of medical equipment to other countries – including EU member states – seemed to confirm that the ‘nation first’ logic had fully taken hold.

China’s carefully timed offer of urgently-needed medical supplies, including clinical masks, to European countries seemed expressly designed to signal that, in a crisis, they could depend on Chinese generosity more than European solidarity.

… when we need to come together

But this crisis has only just begun. The reflexes that European leaders demonstrate now will shape the world that Europe’s citizens will inhabit tomorrow. The EU and its member states need to show that international cooperation, at both the European and global levels, is not simply a fever dream of liberal elites pining for world government. It is a vital tool that national governments need to weather modern crises. When European states come through the initial storm, and their attention turns to managing the economic recovery, both the EU and the multilateral system will need to demonstrate that they can enhance national governments’ efforts without challenging their political authority.

The EU and its member states need to show that international cooperation, at both the European and global levels, is not simply a fever dream of liberal elites pining for world government

In this national moment, it is worth remembering why it is of existential importance to Europeans that a rules-based order prevails through the turbulent months and years of recovery from the coronavirus crisis. As Anthony Dworkin and Richard Gowan explained in 2019, the EU and its member states depend on multilateral organisations to manage threats to their security and prosperity, in areas ranging from broad challenges such as climate change to peacekeeping in trouble spots on Europe’s periphery.

Health security is no exception. Many governments have made a growing effort to deal with the security aspects of pandemics for some time – as a result of significant outbreaks such as those of SARS in 2003 and of Ebola in 2014-2016 – but the coronavirus means that health will now become the number one security concern for Europeans. European citizens, ECFR’s polling reveals, expect EU institutions to play a role in keeping them safe and secure. In the coming months and years, security will be primarily about handling the coronavirus and preventing its recurrence.

There are international structures designed for this effort – one of the core functions of the World Health Organisation (WHO) is to deal with humanitarian crises relating to health – but they are not working effectively. During the peak of a crisis, national governments want to show the public not only that the situation is under control, but that they are the ones in control. This is a crucial part of their narrative on why they have the authority to claim the sort of emergency powers that they deem necessary to combat the virus. Donald Trump’s decision to ban all arrivals to the United States from the Schengen area in the early weeks of March – when it became apparent that Europe was the new epicentre of the covid-19 outbreak – sent out a clear signal that US citizens should expect decisive leadership from their president, for their country, and not for, or on behalf of, some outdated notion of the West. European governments have reacted similarly.

As Western governments largely fall back on national responses, China has gained the upper hand in narrative-building around the crisis. The Chinese government had a wobbly start in handling the spread of the coronavirus from Wuhan, losing valuable time by downplaying and even denying the seriousness of the situation. But Beijing’s eventual response to the illness is now cited globally as something of a model. Governments may differ on the extent to which they are willing or able to use data surveillance, the military, or the threat of severe penalties to enforce social distancing, isolation, and quarantine. Yet, one by one, all affected European states are accepting that the Chinese approach of a total lockdown – which shocked them at first – is necessary. There is a risk that the apparent effectiveness of China’s response could add weight to the idea that authoritarian leadership, not democratic openness, provides the best foundation for protecting people.

It is not only China’s approach to handling the coronavirus at home that is currently riding high internationally. As underlined by its efforts to share research material, best practice, medical equipment, and supplies directly with hard-hit countries such as Italy, China intends to use its ‘first impacted advantage’ to shape its international image. Many Italians feel that, in their hour of need, Chinese support was more forthcoming than that from their fellow EU citizens.

China’s campaign of bilateral opportunism threatens to erode both the attractiveness of the European project and the prospect of multilateral responses to future pandemics. But, in the long run, European governments can only defend their citizens effectively if they cooperate at a European level and, at the same time, reinforce multilateral structures based on the principles of openness and information sharing.

The European dimension of protection

National responses are necessary, and inevitable, as Europe moves to the peak of the crisis. Europeans, fearful of both the present and the future, need clear guidance on how to change their way of life to reduce the risks to themselves, their friends and family, and their wider communities. National governments have not only the best, most relevant information for each country’s experience, but also the legitimacy to enforce widespread behavioural change.

Even so, anything that European countries can do to support one another would be particularly helpful in restoring a sense of European solidarity. German state Baden-Wuerttemberg’s offer of intensive care beds to patients from the French region of Alsace, one of the hotspots of the virus, is one example of such support. But, once European countries begin to move over the arc of the immediate crisis, national governments will need assistance at the European level if they are to protect to their citizens from the long-term fallout of the coronavirus. EU leaders should seek to adjust EU mechanisms to ensure that they directly meet citizens’ needs in the new environment.

The European Commission should use the coming weeks, in which national governments will inevitably focus on domestic affairs, to develop a post-coronavirus European Action Plan. This plan should be a tool to help national governments navigate the new environment and understand the ways in which their power and vulnerabilities have shifted.

As part of this effort, the Commission should embark on several health security efforts, including:

  • Map global supply chains of medical supplies to identify vulnerabilities or choke points for Europe (and other regions).
  • Develop industrial policy and investment protection rules that classify medical equipment and vaccine research as strategic sectors, in which the essential interests of citizens require a high degree of self-sufficiency.
  • Rapidly build up the RescEU stock of medical equipment – to prepare the EU to offer greater support to member states in the next pandemic – and review the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.
  • Set up a system to coordinate European and international work on developing vaccines and, more importantly, distributing them once they are available.
  • Create a working group to identify the forms of border closure or management that are useful in fighting a pandemic.

The EU must also prove its value in the economic recovery that needs to follow the coronavirus crisis. From airlines to arts and culture, to the hospitality industry, there have already been many economic casualties – and, in the coming weeks, many more businesses small and large will lose out. Once the immediate health threat, and citizens’ fears for their lives and those of their loved ones, abates, EU member states will focus on the economic hardship that many will endure in the aftermath.

To create an effective recovery plan, European countries will need to understand that their economies depend on one another too much to recover alone. Member states will need to work together to put in place economic stimulus measures that benefit them all. EU institutions, including the European Central Bank, will need to avoid the mistakes they made in the wake of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, not least allowing themselves to be portrayed as the bad cop to national governments’ good cop. There is also a high risk of tension between member states on the timing of reopening businesses, especially if the US decides to keep its eventual confinement period short. At this point, if EU states have moved past their initial panic, some may want to follow suit. Overall fairness, and attempts to overcome inequalities across Europe, should be at the centre of the EU’s economic narrative – whether the mechanism for this is the ‘coronabonds’ currently under discussion in the European Council or something else.

The climate challenge and the implementation of the European Green Deal, which totally occupied the minds of policymakers in EU institutions just weeks ago, has not gone away. But a stimulus package can reinforce efforts to combat climate change if Europeans prioritise investment in clean technologies and incentivise companies to support a green recovery.

The need for global health multilateralism

On the international level, Europe can only protect its health security interests by empowering the WHO to be more assertive in warning of potential risks. Europeans should also reflect on their relative vulnerability to Chinese propaganda that is backed up by carefully constructed influence and funding. The process should help them commit greater resources to develop alliances within international institutions – alliances that they can call on when they need support in communicating their version of events in crises such as the current one. This will be costly, but it will also be a long-term investment in the EU’s credibility to act on the issues Europeans are most concerned about.

Part of the solution is simply to learn from experience. Asian states, which were more deeply affected than European countries by SARS, appear to have quickly applied lessons from previous health crises, enhancing their response this time around. The EU should establish a working group to learn lessons on pandemic protection and assess the bloc’s need for a new mechanism to counter dangerous diseases. Meanwhile, member states should take the initiative to improve basic scientific information sharing between one another. This could be important to the development of a covid-19 vaccine, which would have vast commercial potential.

Like the Chinese government, the EU and its member states should also draw on their strengths in building a narrative on the post-coronavirus world. For example, they should take the lead in international development working groups’ attempts to use aid to protect fragile and vulnerable states from pandemics and other major health threats. They should also use the examples of South Korea and Japan to popularise the belief that a knowledgeable public, trust in government, and widespread information sharing can be a more effective than authoritarianism in the fight against disease.

If EU citizens eventually feel that they have avoided the worst-case scenario, the coronavirus crisis may rebuild public faith in expertise, as well as in national governments’ ability to use such expertise responsibly. EU states should use this as an impetus to enhance international cooperation on best practice in building societal resilience against disinformation and fake news. Finally, by learning from ‘crisis- justified’ protectionist measures deployed in recent weeks, they should consider building an alliance of fair traders at an international level. This would help ensure that economic actors outside the EU stuck to trade rules, while sharing data.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Director for Strategy and Transformation
Senior Policy Fellow
Senior Policy Fellow
Research Director
Director, US Programme

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