EU Has Handled the COVID-19 Pandemic Well, Like Any Other Crisis It Wasn’t Built For

EU Has Handled the COVID-19 Pandemic Well, Like Any Other Crisis It Wasn’t Built For

Bashers, haters, and doomsayers for the EU seem to be among the most constant, resilient, and determined actors in the universe. They aren’t without their successes, the most notable of which has been the bringing about of Brexit.

Luckily, the European Union itself has so far proven to be no less resilient, and, contrary to what EU doomsayers would try to have everybody believe, it has repeatedly performed unexpected well in various kinds of crises that it certainly hadn’t been built for.

The EU’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is yet another case in point. While it hasn’t performed in a miraculously outstanding manner (and who has?) in the coping with COVID-19 menace, the European Union has fared decently as a whole.

Once again, the Union has found itself in yet another major international crisis for the past 15-20 years that it was not built or meant to withstand, or even to try to tackle.

It feels like ages ago since, for example, this news article I authored in February 2020, “EU Sees 33 Coronavirus Cases So Far, European Crisis Center at Full Capacity”.

A year ago, nobody could still imagine the round-the-globe plague that COVID-19 would prove to be, not to mention the amplifying effect that the omnipotent and out-of-control (anti-)social media would have on panic, misinformation, and disinformation in that regard.

For people in Europe, the novel coronavirus still seemed like one of the main “exotic” or tropical diseases whose outbreak would play out in distant regions of the global South, as had been the case with SARS or Ebola.

Cases in Europe were still thought to be isolated cases of Chinese tourists or European travelers who had come back from the Orient, and everybody failed to assess the volatility of the situation, including in political terms.

Those who remember correctly know how the spring and early summer of 2020, and then again the fall and early winter seemed quite apocalyptic public health- and economy-wise.

One of the biggest questions throughout 2020 was when the vaccines would be developed. And now that they have been, the even more thorny and politically-loaded issues of production, distribution, and application have popped up.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused the European Union in terms of both its central institutions and the nation states of the member states to face unprecedented challenges in an unprecedented environment with its highly complex but still supranational mechanism. A mechanism which was not built for the crises of the past 15 years but has nonetheless taught itself how to react and evolve for the wider benefit of public good.

When thinking of big-time international crises each one of which could have finished off the EU, there is probably no need to go as far back as the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, or the 2003 Iraq War and the massive trans-Atlantic rift and the internal political division in Europe that it had caused.

But if one goes back to at least 2008, there was the global financial crisis. The European Union hadn’t been built for withstanding that.

Then in 2010-2011, as a consequence from the above, came the euro debt crisis. The European Union hadn’t been built for withstanding that one, either.

Fast forward to 2015, and there were was the migrant crisis supposed resulting from the civil and international war in Syria (and in reality more so from the Arab Spring in general and the wider mess and shortage of development prospects in the Wider Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa). The European Union hadn’t not been meant to withstand that as well.

Then there was Brexit – from the 2016 Brexit referendum to all the haggling well into 2019 and then even 2020. That also hasn’t caused the European Union to dissolve through a ripple domino effect.

Since 2020, there has been the coronavirus pandemic and the economic crisis and crisis in political leadership and legitimacy and personal rights ensuing from it. In the first year of the COVID-19 crisis, the EU did not collapse, either. And it probably will not in the months and years to come.

What the handling by the EU of major international crises (the global financial crisis, the euro debt crisis, the migrant crisis, the Brexit crisis, and now the coronavirus crisis) shows is a sort of a pattern following some kind of a U-shaped curve.

First, a crisis hits, and usually it is one that the EU has not been intended to tackle, and oftentimes lacks even the basic institutional and political mechanisms to do so.

Second, there is widespread panic and despair and all hell breaks loose on the embattled head of the poor supranational organization.

Third, even though it has been “wired” for that, through a combination of factors and a mix of developments, the EU weathers the crisis, proves to be more resilient than everybody had thought (or at least than what the doomsayers would try to have us believe).

Fourth, at least the well-intentioned and enlightened folks get to appreciate that it is much that the EU has been in place vis-à-vis the alternative.

Fifth, as a result of the respective crisis, the EU acquires new mechanisms, powers, and experience so as to be better prepared for the next big international blow of the respective kind.

It seems weird to have to remind to everybody that tackling pandemics and public health crises is not the primary job of the European Union, a supranational organization. Even in federations which are actual countries health and health policies are not centralized, and are in the domain of the state / regional / local authorities. That is all the more so for the member states of the EU which are sovereign nation states. Nonetheless, the EU has done a tremendous amount of work since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to support, empower, and coordinate the efforts of the EU member states in that regard.

Throughout 2020, the EU leaders, leadership, and institutions had one main weakness in the handling of the coronavirus pandemic: the failure in communication, and in providing unequivocal, indisputable information to the public on a daily basis about the virus and the course of the pandemic. A failure to provide proper information by overshadowing all the other useless and harmful voice, mostly coming from “social” media. The fact of that matter about that failure on part of the EU leadership, however, is that every single government out that has been guilty of the same thing. Not to mention the horrendous behavior of the World Health Organization, a UN body tasked with “world health”. The difference is that national governments all over the world seem to be a less convenient scapegoat for haters and propagandists than the EU is.

At the beginning of 2021, many are agitated by what is perceived as the EU’s failure to procure, distribute, and apply coronavirus vaccines as quickly as the USA and the UK, not to mention Israel.

There has been hue and cry from last week’s move on part of the European Commission, more specifically, the office of EC President Ursula von der Leyen, proposing a vaccine export control mechanism.

The decision seems to have been made hastily, and the EC has backtracked on it as it would have required border controls on the land border between the EU and the UK, that is, between Ireland and Norther Ireland as per the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is part of the Brexit deal.

Somehow this is touted as a huge drama on part of the seemingly ill-intentioned critics of the EU.

Ursula von der Leyen’s team may or may not have committed a blunder in that regard under pressure from constant criticism about the supposed delay in vaccination

That, however, does not negate the fact the EU’s approach towards the procurement of vaccines as a whole has been the right one, to the benefit of the EU public, and without succumbing to profiteering pressure on part of the multinational corporations providing the vaccines.

Sure, the EU might be a bit slower by the US or the UK but that has been true of literally every new product out there rolled out by multinational corporations. The arguments that the citizens of the large EU member states – Germany, France, Italy, and Spain – are the losers from the united EU approach and solidarity towards the procurement of vaccines – seem strikingly designed to saw division and distrust. There is virtually no way to prove how much those countries would have benefited from going it alone, not to mention the cost at which that would have come. Also, it is senseless to compare Israel with the EU – Israel should probably be compared with Switzerland for obvious reasons.

The EU institutions are taking a strong approach towards the multinational companies distributing the vaccines, and that is probably the best way to handle that. Luckily, the EU institutions seem to not be as plagued by corporate lobbyism as is the case in the US and UK.

Some years ago I was telling this well-meaning person from outside the EU about corruption and oligarchy problems in Bulgaria. His reaction was, “Well, where is the EU?” It took me some extra time to explain to him that law enforcement and corruption crackdowns in the individual member states was not the primary purpose of the EU and not the reason the EU had been created – even if it has started to offer various types of help in that regard as well.

The same goes for the coronavirus crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic – it is a crisis the EU is handling relatively decently with the setup and tools at hand, and against the backdrop of its very complex structure and mechanisms.

At some point in the coming months, there will be plenty of vaccines produced and distributed by a number of international producers, and that is when the scales will be tipped in favor of proper tackling of the pandemic not just in the EU but in the US and the UK as well. The US and the UK might come ahead in numbers for a few weeks but that would be mainly due more due to different factors such as them being countries with highly lucrative large markets and regulatory procedures that are suspiciously more friendly to big business in general and big pharma in particular.

Getting through the pandemic is truly hard for the people of the European Union because of the complex nature of their supranational union and the fact that they live in a free and open society where every death is accounted for, and institutions are open to criticism, well-meaning or otherwise. On the other hand, there are so many countries ruled by evil satraps and autocracies that hide the scope of their public health disasters and then try to ridicule the parts of the free world such as the European Union. That is, of course, regrettable for the people of their countries, and it should not delude Europeans about the actual course of the pandemic.

If the past several major crisis of the last 15 years are a true indication, and they probably are, right now, the EU is somewhere in the lower parts of the U-shaped curve in the handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Things would presumably go up from here, and subsequently there will be people looking at how the EU proved to be as resilient as it did considering its preexisting powers and competences, and how it has evolved and developed new capacities.

As with the past crisis, the EU institutions, which have plenty of flaws, would deserve only part of the credit for that. The rest would go to member states, and the realization that it is better to stick together, and work on improving the supranational mechanism at hand that is the European Union.


Photo: European Center for Disease Prevention and Control

Ivan Dikov is a Bulgarian journalist and author. He studied political science / international relations and history at Dartmouth College and later in Sofia, in the Eastern Balkans. He’s served for five years as the editor-in-chief of Bulgaria’s largest English-language media – As a freelancer, he has collaborated with media from the US, the UK, Germany, and Australia.

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