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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems
Pandemic & EU

29 March 2020

Starting the conversation…

Brendan SimmsDirector of the Centre for Geopolitics

The protagonists of the European Union say that it never lets a good crisis go to waste. Its critics, and even some of its friends, argue that the EU never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. First, Europe failed to respond to the collapse of Yugoslavia by waging a War of European Unification against aggression and ethnic cleansing. Then, so some argue, it missed the chance to do so the same in the ‘War on Terror’. The EU’s dismal response to the 2008 financial crisis is well documented and led to catastrophe in Greece and the common currency to edge of disintegration. Europe also did not seize the opportunity to achieve political union in the face of Russian aggression in Crimea, nor did it do so during the Brexit negotiations, which it conducted as a confederation of nation states, rather than a supernational union.

The EU risks eclipse by the Coronavirus epidemic



Now, critics argue, the EU risks eclipse by the Coronavirus epidemic. At a time when coordinated action and solidarity should have been at a premium, it is fragmenting into its component member-state parts. Spain, for example, has been left to appeal to NATO for help, while Italy turns – ironically – to China. Schengen was quickly suspended and will probably remain so for quite a long time. There is no need to worry about Brexit, one might think, because thanks to the economic shutdown, we have just had a ‘hard Brexit’, and Frexit, and Nexit, and so on. Many fear that the economic fallout may yet capsize the euro. Union-level relief measures and emergency responses have been weak and belated; the member states have made all the running, right down to German beds for Italian and French patients. Does all this suggest that the triumph of the nation state in Europe is now complete?



Professor Chris Hill, University of Cambridge, Author of The Future of British Foreign Policy

The European Union has become everyone’s straw man and aunt Sally. If you assume that it is – or ought to be – a unitary actor then of course its inability to act coherently is often in evidence. The fact that many of its critics don’t actually want it to unify simply adds edge to their schadenfreude.

Still, let us allow that the EU ought to have done a lot better in many of the challenges which it has faced in recent years. In particular the Eurozone has failed to display sufficient solidarity and flexibility, in part due to the imbalance represented by German economic power and in part due to inherent design faults. And the corona virus crisis ought to be the kind of functional, non-ideological, problem which the ‘civilian’ EU is best suited to rise to. So far it has not done so, and the continued power of the nation-state is a major reason why that is so. In desperate times people respond more to their home government, however much disliked, than to an unelected president and Commission. Yet the world over we are seeing nation states also struggling to cope with the onslaught on their systems imposed by the virus, and with the sauve qui peut competition for scarce medical resources.

In this context the demonstrations of both popular solidarity – witness the outpouring of social media support for Italy and Spain – and attempts to achieve practical benefits through common purchasing power, both show that the idea of Europe is hardly dead. True, the EU’s over-optimistic enlargement has created fracture lines, as over the migration crisis. But it seems unlikely that when lessons are learned from the current tragedy most people will be happy to consign multilateralism to history and to fall back on their own nation-state’s resources.


Professor Sven Biscop, Ghent University & Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations (Brussels)

One could lock down one of the German Länder or French départements to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But nobody would think for a minute that a province or a county could manage economic recovery after the crisis all by itself, or even that it could ensure vital medical supplies today. That requires the power of the state. In many ways, however, the member states of the EU are themselves but provinces of the single market, Schengen, and the Euro. But few leaders think that way. In a crisis, the first instinct is national; then comes the insight that the state, though indispensable, is insufficient. Overcoming the crisis will require the EU: to create the legal framework, to take innovative measures (issuing “coronabonds”, for example), and to provide funds itself.

Member states’ initially selfish behaviour (refusing each other medical aid and closing borders without coordination) has done great damage to the idea of Europe. The Italians and others will not soon forget – but they would be wrong to blame the EU as such. The EU could not act decisively on the medical emergency itself, because the member states gave it the power to deal with swine flu, but not with with any human flu.

The EU must now prove itself. Both after the 2008 financial crisis and after the 2016 Brexit referendum, political leaders of all colours suddenly discovered the need for a “social Europe” – and then forgot about it. The EU cannot make that mistake again. Strong Keynesian policies must now create an economically powerful and socially just Union. Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has already proposed both a European Marshall Plan and a European unemployment insurance scheme. If not all national leaders have yet understood, many people actually have. An early April poll showed 79% of the Italian and 85% of the Spanish respondents asking for more European cooperation. Let’s not disappoint them.


Brendan SimmsDirector of the Centre for Geopolitics

I thank Chris Hill and Sven Biscop for their very thoughtful responses. I would like to add another consideration, which has come more and more into the frame in the past few days. This is the fact that while European bonds have frayed across the continent in the face of the crisis, they have stretched to breaking point in Italy where there is now widespread scepticism about the entire integration project and fury at what is perceived as being the  inadequate German response. There is particular anger not only at the early restrictions placed on the export of masks and other vital medical supplies to stricken Italy, but also at the German reluctance to countenance ‘Coronabonds’ which would mutualize the economic fallout from the virus.

We have been here before, of course, with the controversy over ‘Eurobonds’ which so divided ‘north’ and ‘south’ after the 2008 crash and the Euro sovereign debt crisis.  In recent years, this has been somewhat overlain by the ‘east-west’ division that opened over migration from 2015/2016. Now the divide is back, worse than ever. Meanwhile, the PRC has been show-casing its own support for Italy through the provision of medical aid.

The geopolitical questions now are these. Will the PRC and Russia use these fissures to further fragment the continent? Is there an opportunity here for the United Kingdom, whose standing (whatever one’s personal view on the referendum) was badly damaged by Brexit, to re-engage with a Mediterranean periphery which has all but given up on ‘northern’ solidarity? Where does the United States, which has effectively abandoned global leadership under Donald Trump, stand in the region? The answers may suggest that the Mediterranean – long a centre of tension over migration and terror – is once again becoming the focus of great power rivalry.


Your view…

Brigadier-General (Ret.) Jo CoelmontSenior Fellow, Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations & Royal Higher Institute for Defence (Brussels)

The principle of subsidiarity (issues are addressed at the lowest level that can effectively deal with them) is formally enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty (and in previous Treaties). In fact, from day one of the EU it was the stepping stone to an ever closer Union. Subsidiarity thus also implies that some issues have to be dealt with at a higher level. In practice, however, there was always a precondition before the EU could intervene that I would describe as: the political leadership in the member states had each time to evolve through the following 5 levels.

– Level 1: The necessary action cannot be successfully undertaken by the Member States: insufficient.
– Level 2 : Postponing action has already created considerable damage to all Member States: still insufficient.
– Level 3 : The magnitude of the damage done is such that you can’t hide it any longer in diplomatic circles nor from public opinion: not convincing.
– Level 4: The political leadership in all Member States is desperate: still not that convincing.
– Level 5: The political leadership in all Member States sees no alternative to intervention by the EU institutions: agreement.

It usually takes years to collectively evolve from level 1 to level 5. With the outbreak of the coronavirus, in less than 2 months we are at level 4.7. It may take a few days more. Then, as usual, right before a total collapse, we will reach level 5. The coronavirus will indeed have a considerable impact on our Union. However, it will neither infect nor destroy the EU. Quite the contrary: the stages to reach EU intervention will probably be the only “business as usual” that the we will experience in 2020.