While the Continent grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Union is struggling to step up and provide the leadership one would naturally expect from a supra-national body in a time of crisis. Instead, the supposed advantages of the ‘One Europe’ concept which have been extolled by the EU for well over twenty years have turned out to be little more than a bill of goods. The moment has arrived when EU member-states are looking towards Brussels to take the lead in the fight against COVID-19. To their dismay they’ve found nothing even resembling leadership. As the pandemic’s grip on Europe tightens, the weaknesses of the EU are in the spotlight. Brussels has failed to provide coordination of efforts or to take the initiative in developing, and implementing measures to fight the virus.
Instead, EU member-states are looking internally and developing national solutions. Border control is the issue where this has been seen most. A number of member-states have taken firm control of its national borders and imposed selective closures or other necessary actions, in complete disregard to Schengen, and EU recommendations regarding border control. In the early days of the crisis, as it became apparent how grave the situation could potentially become, some member-states decided to unilaterally hold back from exporting medical equipment to Italy, the EU nation that has suffered most from the pandemic. The message being projected from these actions is not ‘One Europe’ but something more along the lines of ‘When the going gets tough, nation-states will revert to form and look out for itself first.’
EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen has missed the opportunity to get out in front of the crisis. The vacuum that has developed in the absence of EU leadership and ability to organize COVID-19 strategy directly led to the nation-first approaches cropping up around Europe. In the words of a European Parliament member, the reaction of the Commission, and the EU as a whole has been “Too late, too slow, too little.”
As the crisis continues to play out, EU leadership has to be wondering how the fumbles, and missed opportunities of today will affect the political picture in Europe in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Open internal border travel has been a foundation block of the European Union’s desire to create a European Superstate. The Schengen network was regarded as a crown jewel, heralding a new era of openness and unity at a dawn of what many hoped would be a ‘One Europe’ mindset. It braved a migrant crisis, as well as the wave of populist nationalism sweeping across the continent since 2016. However, Schengen may have met its match in the coronavirus pandemic. Europe’s freedom of movement is descending into chaos as a growing number of EU nation-states are opting to close their borders in order to stem the flow of the coronavirus. Many EU nation-states are imposing strict entry measures on their borders, or closing them entirely, defying warnings by Brussels to avoid blanket travel bans.
As the hours roll by, the situation at land borders across Europe continues to evolve. The continent has become new epicenter of the pandemic and this fact is driving the border closure actions in every case. Denmark, Poland, and the Czech Republic will close their respective borders almost entirely in the coming days. The most recent EU member to announce border restrictions is Germany. According to the German government, Germany’s borders with France, Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg, and Switzerland will be partially closed on Monday. Germany’s federal police chief Dieter Romann explained that his country will not be closing its borders, but controlling them. “We are not closing the borders, that is what they do in North Korea,” he told reporters. “We are controlling the border, that is something completely different.”
Romann’s comments came as the number of coronavirus cases in Germany rose by 1,000 from Saturday. There are now 4,838 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the Federal Republic and that number is most likely going to increased more in the coming days.
With more European cases of COVID-19 appearing every day, the subject of potential border closures in the Schengen free travel zone is becoming more prevalent. Earlier this week the European Union stated it has no plans to suspend the Schengen Agreement or recommend border closures as a way to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. That was on Monday, and the situation has arguably worsened since then. Schengen’s rules provide EU member-states with discretion to apply border controls in response to internal security or a threat to public policy although the EU would prefer if they were never used. The last time Schengen was seriously challenged was in 2015 during the European migrant crisis. Border controls were unilaterally put back in effect by certain EU member-states to stem or block the flow of refugees streaming over their borders.
Given the rate at which the coronavirus is spreading around the continent, border restrictions might be coming back into play in the near future. To be honest, it is surprising to see that it has not happened yet. The Italian government refuses to suspend the Schengen Agreement and reimplement controls even as a COVID-19 outbreak is underway in Italy. Government officials appear to be nowhere near the point where border restrictions can be considered a justifiable preventative measure. “Closing down the borders would make no sense, as the circulation of the virus is not just limited to administrative borders,” junior transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari told a French reporter.
Most other EU member-states are thinking along similar lines for the moment. If the uptick in case numbers increase, and spread into previously untouched nations in the coming days this will likely change. Policy matters, and the benefits of open borders cannot be allowed to trump public safety at a time when Europe and the rest of the world may very well stand on the brink of a major pandemic.
How quickly is Europe approaching the breaking point? Concern is increasing across the continent about the refugee crisis currently facing many nations and the EU as a whole. If the flow of migrants into Europe is not scaled back soon, the EU could be faced with a scenario where border-free travel, which is guaranteed under the Schengen agreement, could end. The principle that Schengen is built around has been a foundation of the EU since its founding. The influx of refugees seeking to escape the horrors of the wars currently raging in the Middle East is taxing Europe and has many around the continent questioning the durability of border-free internal travel when the external borders of the EU are not secure. And as Schengen goes, so could the entire EU.
On Monday, EU interior ministers will be meeting in Amsterdam to discuss the possibility of suspending Schengen rules for a period of two years. Reinstating national border controls could help alleviate the burden that the crisis has placed on certain nations. Some European states have temporarily suspended Schengen in order to contend with the crisis better. On Saturday, Austria joined Denmark, Sweden, and Norway in restoring national border control measures. These four nations, along with Germany, are pushing to keep border controls in place for an extended period of time. Germany introduced similar measures on its border with Austria in September, but they are scheduled to expire in May.
A sizeable fraction of the continent’s frustration with the crisis is being aimed at Greece. Many EU politicians blame Greece for not effectively controlling the EU’s external border with Turkey. Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner has even threatened to temporarily suspend Greece’s membership in the Schengen zone if the country does not improve its control of the border. Nearly 37,000 refugees have arrived in Europe since 1 January. The overwhelming majority of these have arrived in Europe by way of the Eastern Mediterranean route and crossing from Turkey into Greece.
The EU’s response to the refugee crisis has not been either effective or unified. Monday in Amsterdam, interior ministers will either begin to take action and address the matter of the internal border issues, or, through inaction will pave the way for the possible unraveling of Schengen, as well as other pillars of the European Union.