A virus tearing EU apart – or not

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On March 16 the European Union restricted all nonessential travel into the region for at least 30 days. It was an official measure after days of unofficial limits to border crossings, and de facto suspended the seminal Schengen agreement of the union, which had abolished internal frontiers for citizens in large swathes of the continent.

In a videoconference the same day, eurozone finance ministers tasked the bloc’s bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), worth €410bn and set up after the 2008-09 financial crisis, with considering ways of tackling the economic fallout from the outbreak.

The pronouncement was grand-sounding: «We will do whatever it takes and more to restore confidence and support a recovery», said the president of the Eurogroup, Mario Centeno, echoing former ECB (European Central Bank) chairman Mario Draghi, who with his «whatever it takes» speech in July 2012 stemmed the tide of speculation against the euro.

This time, however, the crisis is different, and so appears to be the EU commitment. In fact, ministers have, for now, stayed clear of specifically calling for the ESM to have a role in dealing with the crisis, and unlike the ECB, which can make decisions on its own, the Eurogroup is a consultative body.

Four weeks after the spark of the virus crisis in Italy, the EU has so far failed to come together. The Italian government has accused the EU and its member states of being slow in coming to the country’s aid over the coronavirus epidemic. Various countries have at the moment taken individual approaches often at odds with one another.

Moreover, Germany and France are among the EU countries to have imposed limits on the export of protective medical equipment, while China has offered to sell Italy 1,000 lung ventilators, 2 million masks, 20,000 protective suits, and 50,000 swabs for coronavirus tests.

Italy cut asunder and the Pope

Differences are not only arising in the EU. Italy, presently the country with the worst health crisis after China, is mired in constant bickering. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has often been on TV calling for responsibility and mutual support. Yet the governors of Lombardy and Veneto, the northern regions worst hit by the epidemics, complained of Rome being slow and ineffective, and decided to take initiatives on their own.

There are also different political interests. In Italy, Conte represents a party, the M5s, which in parliament has about 33% of the seats, the relative majority, but pollsters say now would get around 10% of the vote. Conversely Lombardy and Veneto are ruled by the right-wing Lega, with some 17% of the parliament, but more than 30% support in opinion polls. These two contrasting pulls are cutting deeper into Italy’s old but never mended north-south divide.

In this moment of utter confusion, with a host of contradictory voices, Italy was transfixed by images of the Pope, who on Sunday, March 15, paid solitary homage to the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, famed because its Holy Mary stopped the 17th century epidemic.

The Pope’s ability to lead Italy with a gesture is very important, but also risky. The Pontiff State was born in the 6th century out of the crumbling authority of the Roman emperor. The concern for the Pontiff States shackled the Pope to the destiny of the Italianpeninsula and of western Europe for centuries.

If the political order in Italy and Europe were to weaken and the Church were to step in, this would undercut the present effort of the Holy See to be universal and detached from any particular political interests. Yet, if Italy were to descend into a situation of growing chaos, this would undermine the local peaceful political environment necessary for the Church to take care of itself and of universal affairs.

Europeans tired of Italy and the US

The same, on a larger scale, is true in the EU. Many European countries are tired and no longer have any patience with Italy’s constant infighting and political amateurism. Yet this common European sentiment about Italy doesn’t lead to further cohesion. Each country is driven by its own internal priorities, as domestic elections, not pan-European ones, determine the fate of each politician.

In sum, Europe is falling apart, and Italy is breaking up.

The creation of the European Union was not a European product; it was an American brainchild. At the end of World War II, the US wanted to prevent future destructive wars like the two that had ravaged the old continent, and tried to halt the USSR advance to the west. In the early 1990s, the EU set up a united currency, the euro, against American wishes, and later enlarged to the east, to countries of the former Soviet bloc, this time following American desires. The enlargement helped to prevent the burgeoning divide between east and west Europe, which was kindling all sorts of mutual resentments. This would dilute the political unity of the EU but could help hem in Russia, which although weaker was still regarded with apprehension.

This was also possible because at the end of the Cold War, a massive war busted Yugoslavia open. European countries had different agendas and goals in Yugoslavia, were bitterly at odds with one another, and could not find a common cause or a common will to intervene there.

They all called for military intervention by the US to recover their unity as union. America was reluctant to send troops but eventually did so to help mend fences between major EU members.

That is, the EU not only has never been totally “independent,” but in crucial moments of its history, the US rescued it from destructive centrifugal forces while also not strongly favoring political unity of the old continent.

All about China?

Here the political and economic disunity in coping with the virus and its economic fallout hits on a less urgent but deeper subject, the growing political distrust of China.

The outbreak of the epidemic in China in late January filled Western papers with the idea that the disease was Beijing’s “Chernobyl moment”, referring to the 1986 massive and mishandled incident at the Soviet nuclear power plant Chernobyl, which triggered a deep crisis in the USSR. However, two months after the official onset of the pandemic in Wuhan, things appear to have reversed. China’s way of handling the crisis presently (we don’t know in the future) looks better than the Western one[1] as Western countries fumble, change their minds, and fail to reach a coordinated approach.

In fact, after some initial hesitation and following the swell of the disease in Italy,[2] all countries are converting to the Chinese way of handling the problem – strict quarantine for the population. And yet reciprocal concerns, West-China, are enhanced because of this. As the West saw an ideological opportunity at the onset of the crisis, now China is counter-punching, arguing that the virus was some kind of American machination.

«The mutual distrust and misperceptions are emblematic of a classic security dilemma, in which actions taken by one state to improve its security lead to reactions from others, which make the original state less secure. Worse, biodefense programs are so opaque, and provoke such moral antipathy, that they encourage “looking-glass presumptions”: when one state is perceived to be pursuing biological weapons, its rivals will likely seek to acquire them as well», writesYanzhong Huang.[3]

This Chinese “propaganda victory” has different sides. Definitely it helps the Chinese leadership in a very difficult moment domestically. On the other hand, it irks other countries in a moment of dire need and when they are still very confused about what to do. Controversy is mounting. US president Donald Trump called the epidemic a «Chinese virus», which felt like an insult for the Chinese who reacted promising retaliations:

«Globally speaking, if we can steer economic activities back to gear in the first quarter, then China would be about two months ahead of the rest of the world in terms of economic recovery. While spillover effects from global market and global supply chain disruptions may be inevitable, China’s domestic market and consumption recovery will still be enough to attract foreign investment and maintain the nation’s role in supply chains amid the global turmoil. And that’s exactly what China should do to cope with pressure from Washington. Focusing on our own work and pulling the Chinese economy back is the best option. As long as our economy stabilizes, China will have enough strength to resist US pressure and hit back at the right moment». [4]

After that Beijing announced the expulsion of American journalists from the five most important US media organizations. And an escalation of tits for tats may have just begun.

Centripetal forces set by China

Actually, the fight over this disease and its economic consequences is going to be a long process and present Western issues are not tantamount to a total rout of the West, and neither are the different approaches to and concerns over China between the US, Europe, and Asian countries evidence of a China’s final win. America’s present aversion to presenting a “united front” vis-à-vis Beijing[5] should not delude Beijing into thinking that the worst is over. Also, the ongoing pandemic and the ensuing economic disruption means there are and there will be fewer resources, and therefore more competition as everybody will scramble for them.

The West has no “anti-China united front” because presently the US prefers to handle China by itself with only ad hoc support from allies. So far it has not sought their comprehensive and integrated support, because the US has not yet developed a wide-ranging plan/strategy to deal with Beijing. That is, the US has not produced a new version of George Kennan’s “long telegram,” which shaped the US approach to the USSR in the 1940s, and it has not set up or redirected against China the wide range of international bodies, like NATO, born to contain the Soviets.

But what will happen to the US now that China is boasting of its success in the face of Western difficulties and of what appeared at first an easy “Chernobyl moment”? Will it push America to give up on its disputes with Beijing or will it steel its resolve? The spiral of mutual retaliations will drive America into it? This could set in motion centripetal forces that could push the EU and the US back together.

The reality is that plagues change worlds.[6] Never in human history there has been such a global epidemic riding on the tails of a massive recession and of festering international rows. The three elements feed on each other in a vicious circle.


[1] See for instance https://www.ft.com/content/20ab52d8-676a-11ea-800d-da70cff6e4d3, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/16/how-china-is-planning-use-coronavirus-crisis-its-advantage/ and https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-03-17/coronavirus-is-making-china-s-model-look-better-and-better?utm_content=view&cmpid=socialflow-facebook-view&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=socialflow-organic&utm_source=url_link&fbclid=IwAR362hZGeKXvTOOkJTXvPa4QLscJ94OjmcsA2jpGEoHci3PhZagnx6vT6jo

[2] See http://www.settimananews.it/informazione-internazionale/false-beliefs-of-the-inevitable-chinese-rise/

[3]https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-03-05/us-chinese-distrust-inviting-dangerous-coronavirus-conspiracy

[4]The Global Times https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1182927.shtml

[5] See https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2020-03-12/how-lose-friends-and-strain-alliances

[6] See http://www.settimananews.it/informazione-internazionale/doom-or-renaissance-china-after-plague/

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