The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has shown both the problems and the results of the EU. The Single Market is still operating, and once the crisis is over we can build on this achievement of integration.

The coronavirus pandemic may not have killed the European Union, but it will certainly change the course of the debate about the future of the EU, which was meant to take place in this May following the initiative of the European Commission.

This is an overdue debate, but the priorities appear to have changed significantly in the last couple of months.

Nobody saw it coming

The COVID-19 disease did not seem like an issue for Europe until global interconnectedness and ski resorts brought the virus to the continent a few months ago.

What was really striking, even during the first weeks and days, was the approach that member state governments took. They acted unilaterally and outside of the EU framework.

As long as it seemed possible to contain the spread of the epidemic from Northern Italy, responses were always on the national level: cancellation of flights, reinstating border controls, cutting travel and denying entry for aliens coming from the areas affected by the disease.

The European Union did not step up its activities, and it took significant time for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control to get into full gear and start to address the growing crisis.

What works…

The Commission has struggled to catch up with the pace of events ever since. One welcome area of EU coordination is the case of repatriation of EU citizens stranded in third countries.

Since many smaller member states do not have the means to bring their citizens home, coordination in this matter is essential.

It must be noted, however, that national governments are organising repatriation flights in most of the cases, and seats are only made available to other EU citizens if there are any free seats left.

Once the repatriation flight lands in Europe, citizens of the other member state must return home – usually with the help of their own diplomatic and consular service.

Reimbursement of costs of these flights from the EU budget is, of course, welcome, but if we look at the number of citizens who have been brought home by member states governments and the European Union so far, the numbers might not speak in the EU’s favour.

On March 31 for example, when the numbers became a political issue in Hungary, 101 Hungarian citizens were repatriated under the Civil Protection Mechanism, In contrast, according to data of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the return of 5,713 citizens was organised by the Hungarian government until the same day.

To put the EU-sponsored numbers in perspective, under the “LOT do Domu” repatriation program organised by the Polish Government, 153 Hungarians have returned via Warsaw from all around the world until April 5.

István Újhelyi

At the same time, Hungarian Socialist MEP István Újhelyi highlighted in his Facebook post that around 5,000 EU citizens have returned under the same mechanism while the EEAS estimated that on March 27 over 600,000 EU citizens have signalled their intention to return, and 250,000 did so until that date.

Apart from repatriations, which might be sold as a success story – albeit on a smaller scale – is the activation of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, originally triggered by Italy once the Italian health service got overwhelmed with the number of cases.

Smaller signs of solidarity (Germany taking over initially about a hundred French and Italian patients, other member states sending medical supplies to Italy) were heart-warming albeit minor episodes.

Yet, the mechanism failed to make any difference in the fight against the pandemic, and a fascinating race to the bottom erupted among European countries in China to secure medical supplies and equipment.

Even though this would be an excellent opportunity for cooperation, first it would necessary that we establish some coordination in buying from China on a larger scale for better prices, an unlikely scenario at this time.

… and what does not

The fatal blow to joint European action was once again delivered by the two most influential member states, Germany and France, which opted to introduce their lockdown measures following their own national interests.

Both Chancellor Merkel and President Macron considered only domestic factors, acted nationally and this led to many unintended consequences, like to exodus of Eastern European guest workers from these counties, resulting in labour shortages in agriculture and health care for example.

Now both countries are looking at opportunities how to bring back the internal EU migrants so asparagus would be harvested, and hospitals would be staffed-

Only now we see how critical are the often-despised Eastern EU citizens are to the functioning of Western European economies. For example, according to some estimates about 500.000 seasonal workers will be missing from France and Germany, in the agriculture sector alone.

Once again, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic turned out to be a stress-test to the European decision-making process. And even according to Politico, the Commission and the Member States failed the test.

The Commission was only running after the events, while national capitals were dictating the pace. This, ironically, underscored the importance of subsidiarity in this case.

Looking ahead: be realistic

When we consider the future of the EU, this experience, similar to the Greek and migration crises, should raise some fundamental questions about the role and purpose of the EU.

Once again the lesson is when times are really tough and urgent action is needed, even the most pro-European, most progressive politicians who otherwise preach the supremacy of the EU vis-á-vis the national interest were caught acting on the national level and disregarding EU principles like advance notification, coordination and keeping borders open.

But this makes sense from these politicians’ point of view as their personal and political futures depend on their own electorate, and not on European voters. Political responsibility is still at the national level and this seems very unlikely to change.

This brings us back to the legitimacy issue: in this matter, the national level is still the most powerful.

Leaving the political realm, the EU’s Single Market has shown its quality both from a positive and a negative side.

For the first time after the post-2004 enlargement rounds, it became obvious for everyone how vital the role of cheap Central and Eastern European labour is in the economies of the Western member states.

Polish plumbers, Hungarian nurses and Romanian strawberry-pickers have gone missing from one day to another paralysing entire sectors of Western European economies like agriculture.

This should change the narrative of ‘free-riding’ new member states for the future as it underlines what Central and Eastern European countries bring to the common table.

On the positive side it worth noting that despite the border closures and extreme restrictions on the free movement of people, goods and (digital) services continue to flow across borders. Trucks carrying goods around Europe are still passing border stations and we are still able to buy Spanish strawberries, Italian broccoli and Polish sausages all around the EU.

Business moves on, and one area where the Commission spoke forcefully was to allow truckers’ free movement to keep the European economy alive.

The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has shown both the problems and the results of the EU. The Single Market is still operating, and if we consider enhanced economic cooperation as a major achievement of integration, then this is good news. Once the crisis is over, we can build on this result.

On the other hand, political coordination failed miserably again, and when we will arrive to the reconstruction of European economies, a bitter fight will ensue along the usual North-South divide regarding the austerity-spending axis, further straining solidarity among the member states.

Looking at these prospects we shall contemplate whether more political integration on the European level is really what serves our interests best.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.

Márton Ugrósdy is the Director of the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade in Budapest, Hungary. His research interests cover transatlantic issues, energy security, and US foreign policy in Central and Eastern Europe.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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